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On the road to efficiency

Smart motorways are helping to increase the capacity of our roads without the need to acquire more land

 If commerce is the lifeblood of the nation, then our roads are the UK’s veins and arteries. Unlike any other form of transport infrastructure, the road network is extraordinarily pervasive. Roads link the centres of our greatest cities to the fringes of our smallest villages.

Rightly, the government is focused upon positive outcomes for those who rely on the nation’s road network. This requires a strategy that meets 21st-century needs in terms of reducing congestion and improving journey reliability, while guarding the safety and quality of the road network.

Positive steps are being taken at a national level to improve our major highways. Last year the government committed to spending £15.1bn on the UK’s strategic roads by 2021. This investment will fund improvements to increase capacity on the UK’s busiest motorways and allow the completion of 52 national road projects.

There is a similar tonic in store for smaller roads. Importantly, last year’s government funding also included £6bn for local authorities to maintain and improve the condition of existing local infrastructure.

Improving the road network doesn’t necessarily require new highways across the green belt. Today, the combination of new capabilities and human ingenuity offers exciting alternatives that minimise the impact on the natural environment.

One example of strategic thinking, pragmatism and the application of clever technology is the Highways Agency’s Smart Motorways initiative. Rather than undertaking the costly and disruptive task of widening roads, the Smart Motorways programme employs the hard shoulder as an extra lane, together with variable speed limits to manage the flow of traffic at the busiest sections. This approach minimises the need to acquire land for road expansion, while the increased capacity and reduced congestion bring environmental benefits.

Similar technology is now also being applied to the Mersey Gateway Bridge Project, one of the UK’s largest planned infrastructure projects. Mersey Gateway will be a major new transport route linking the Liverpool city region, north Cheshire and the north-west to the rest of the country.

The regional economic strategy identifies Mersey Gateway as a catalyst that will effectively connect communities and lead regeneration and investment throughout the north-west.

Mersey Gateway has been made possible by unlocking private investment, aided by strong support via government commitments and in close collaboration with regional authorities. It provides a fantastic example of how the use of innovative techniques and better collaboration between the public and private sector on road infrastructure can deliver real value for money for taxpayers.

Further afield in Sweden, we can find other innovations in design and technology that hold great promise for improving the UK’s road network. Stockholm Bypass is a new motorway link that connects the north and south of the Swedish capital, relieving city centre traffic. Most of the route will be underground, contained within the most extensive road tunnels in the world, with a total length exceeding 50km. The new bypass will comprise two parallel road tunnels, carrying traffic in opposite directions. Both tunnels will be large enough to carry three lanes, increasing to four at the six interchanges along the route.

Whether or not the UK follows the example of Stockholm, there are still positive signs of long-term commitment and substantial investment from the government. The funding announced last year will give the impetus needed to revitalise a road network nearly at maximum capacity. Now, it is up to the private sector to help government fulfil its ambition to build a more resilient national roads infrastructure that can meet future capacity demands. Success will require a mix of innovative approaches and technologies that deliver quick wins in the short term, combined with the stronger public and private collaboration that will deliver value for money in the longer term.

 Paul Bracegirdle is the UK director for roads at URS

Photo: Getty
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Why gay men love this photo of Prince George looking fabulous

It's not about sexuality, but resisting repressive ideas about what masculinity should be.

Last week’s royal tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge provided the most intimate view of the young family to date. Throughout the five-day visit to Poland and Germany, it was the couple’s adorable children who stole the spotlight.

As George and Charlotte become better acquainted with a world in which everyone recognises them, this level of public scrutiny is something that will no doubt have to be carefully managed by the family.

But there is one particular image from the trip that has both captured people’s hearts and prompted debate. On the eve of his fourth birthday, Prince George was invited behind the driver’s seat of a helicopter in Germany. Immaculately dressed in a purple gingham shirt neatly tucked in to navy shorts, the future King is pictured staring out of the helicopter in awe.

As a man who was visibly gay from a young age, the distinctly feminine image of George smiling as he delicately places his hands on his face instantly struck a chord with me. In fact, an almost identical photograph of five-year-old me happily playing in the garden is hung on my parents' kitchen wall. Since the photos appeared online, thousands of other gay men have remarked that the innocence of this image reminds them of childhood. In one viral tweet, the picture is accompanied by the caption: “When mom said I could finally quit the soccer team.” Another user remarks: “Me walking past the Barbies at Toys ‘R’ Us as a child.”

Gay men connecting this photograph of Prince George with their childhood memories has been met with a predictable level of scorn. “Insinuating that Prince George is gay is just the kind of homophobia you’d be outraged by if it was you," tweets one user. “Gay men should know better than that. He is a CHILD," says another.

Growing up gay, I know how irritating it can be when everyone needs to “know” your sexual orientation before you do. There are few things more unhelpful than a straight person you barely know telling you, as they love to do, that they “always knew you were gay” years after you came out. This minimises the struggle it took to come to terms with your sexuality and makes you feel like everyone was laughing at you behind your back as you failed to fit in.

I also understand that speculating about a child's future sexual orientation, especially from one photograph, has potential to cause them distress. But to assume that gay men tweeting this photograph are labelling Prince George is a misunderstanding of what we take from the image.

The reaction to this photo isn’t really about sexuality; it’s about the innocence of childhood. When I look at the carefree image of George, it reminds me of those precious years in early childhood when I didn’t know I was supposed to be manly. The time before boys are told they should like “boy things”, before femininity becomes associated with weakness or frivolity. Thanks to a supportive environment created by my parents, I felt that I could play with whichever toys I wanted for those short years before the outside world pressured me to conform.

Effeminate gay men like me have very specific experiences that relate to growing up in a heteronormative world. It is incredibly rare to see anything that remotely represents my childhood reflected in popular culture. This image has prompted us to discuss our childhoods because we see something in it that we recognise. In a community where mental illness and internalised homophobia are rife, sharing memories that many of us have suppressed for years can only be a good thing.

People expressing outrage at any comparisons between this image and growing up gay should remember that projecting heterosexuality on to a child is also sexualising them. People have no problem assuming that boys are straight from a young age, and this can be equally damaging to those who don’t fit the mould. I remember feeling uncomfortable when asked if my female friends were my girlfriends while I was still in primary school. The way young boys are taught to behave based on prescribed heterosexuality causes countless problems. From alarmingly high suicide rates to violent behaviour, the expectation for men to be tough and manly hurts us all.

If you are outraged at the possibility that the future king could perhaps be gay, but you are happy to assume your son or nephew is heterosexual, you should probably examine why that is. This not only sends out the message that being gay is wrong, but also that it is somehow an embarrassment if we have a gay King one day. Prince William appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine last year to discuss LGBT bullying, so we can only hope he will be supportive of his son regardless of his future sexuality.

Whether Prince George grows up to be heterosexual or not is completely irrelevant to why this image resonates with people like me. It is in no way homophobic to joke about this photograph if you don't see a boy being feminine as the lesser, and the vast majority of posts that I’ve seen come from a place of warmth, nostalgia and solidarity. 

What really matters is that Prince George feels supported when tackling the many obstacles that his unique life in the spotlight will present. In the meantime, we should all focus on creating a world where every person is accepted regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, because clearly we’ve got some way to go.