By Henri Brocklebank
Director of Conservation
The First Minister for Wales has cancelled the M4 bypass around Newport – an outbreak of good sense that we hope will spread to South East England.
The Newport bypass would have caused incredible damage to the Gwent Levels Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), one of the most important wetlands in Europe. It was decided that it was not in the public interest to wreck one of the country's top wildlife assets against the dubious benefits of a bypass.
Significantly, the Minister was heavily influenced by the recent IPCC climate report, and the declaration of climate emergency in Wales and the UK, stressing the urgency of reducing our greenhouse gases to net zero. Transport is one of the greatest, and growing, emitters of greenhouse gases and the need to address this is now urgent. New roads add capacity, increasing traffic, increasing congestion and increasing greenhouse gas emissions – not the direction we should be going in today.
He was also mindful of the IPBES global biodiversity report showing that the threat to biodiversity and our life support systems is even more urgent than the threat of climate change. Wrecking a SSSI, again, is going in the wrong direction.
We can only hope that similar good sense is shown in Sussex. The environmental damage caused by road building is plain for all to see – loss of ancient woodland, grassland, wetland, etc, as well as pollution increase and ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The oft-quoted benefits of new roads, however, are illusory or counter-productive. Over and over again it is shown that new roads create extra traffic and more congestion followed by demands for yet more roads.
Back in the 1990s, SACTRA - the government’s Standing Advisory Committee for Trunk Road Assessment (perhaps the largest study, but only one of many) showed that even the roads that were supposed to be relieved, received traffic increases of between 10 and 20% after a new road is built. Imagine that level of increase in the towns and villages in Sussex once the plethora of proposed new roads is built!
Road building is not a transport strategy – it is the process of hopefully pouring tarmac in the vague belief that something might turn out ok. There is, however, a transport hierarchy that all policymakers are supposed to follow. The first priority is to reduce the need to travel. Smart planning decisions, modern communications techniques and local access to goods and services for instance. The second priority is cycling and walking, third is public transport and fourth (only fourth) is improving the infrastructure (improving, not expanding). Road building is the failed default position showing a lack of contemporary thinking, creativity and innovation from our decision makers.