The road fix

Why do we keep building more roads? Because when it comes to planning, the deck is cynically stacked

Britain's environmentalists have won every argument against expanding the roads network - but still the government keeps pouring billions of pounds into new highways.

Studies show that new roads do not solve congestion - they just generate more traffic. They add to pollution and, of course, they raise Britain's greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport already generates 142m tonnes of CO2 a year - about 25 per cent of Britain's total. As the European emissions trading scheme puts an ever-higher price on carbon, those emissions could cost the taxpayer increasingly dearly.

The Treasury and Department for Transport know this, so why do their economists give their blessing to Labour's £13bn roads programme?

The answer lies far away from public scrutiny in the arcane and biased rules under which proposed roads are assessed. These New Approach to Appraisal (Nata) rules were introduced by La bour in 1998 under the integrated transport policy designed by John Prescott, then overseeing environment and transport. Most of Prescott's plans were chucked out by Blair and Brown as being far too green, but the Department for Transport (DfT) loved Nata and now the reasons are becoming clear.

Under Nata, road builders such as the Highways Agency and local authorities must submit detailed assessments of proposed transport projects to the government. These are meant to be balance sheets showing the costs, benefits and environmental impacts. In theory this is a good thing, but in reality the rules are designed to make road schemes look better than any greener alternative, every time.

Take section 3.5.1[1] of the Nata rules. This awards extra points to schemes that generate more traffic because more cars and lorries on the road mean more fuel sales - and hence more tax revenue for the government. By contrast, public transport schemes, which take motor vehicles off the road and so reduce fuel sales and tax revenue, have points deducted.

Then there's the rule on journey times, where planners can claim that a road will bring economic benefits if they can show it will cut the average journey time of each user. Every minute saved for a car driver is valued at 44p - which can be offset against the cost of building the road.

Forty-four pence may not sound much, but multiply it by the number of minutes saved per trip, then again by the millions of drivers using the road each year - and then yet again by 60 years, the notional lifetime of most road schemes. The result, invariably, is a huge positive value for every proposed road.

How does this work in practice? Look, for example, at the scheme to widen a 56km stretch of the M1 between junctions 30 and 42. The cost to the taxpayer is £1.5bn, which sounds like a lot, but the Highways Agency has used the Nata system to claim that, over the next 60 years, the widening is worth no less than £4.5bn because of the time it will save travellers. Since this supposed "benefit" to the economy far exceeds the cost, the scheme has been approved.

Just how biased this system can be is set out in the Nata rules that assign lower values to other types of traveller. A minute saved on a cyclist's travel time, for example, isn't worth 44p but just 28p. A bus-user's time is valued at 33p a minute. The implicit assumption is that cyclists and bus-users make less contribution to the economy than car drivers.

Roads can be made to look even better. Manipulating the accident figures is a typical device. If a proposed road can be predicted to reduce accidents, then each life saved and injury prevented can be given a notional value. The Highways Agency predicts that another £2.5bn M1 widening scheme (junctions 21-30) would prevent 2,081 accidents over 60 years, of which four would be fatal. This, it claims, adds £105m to the value of the scheme. (It would also, it calculates, generate another £41.3m in taxes from the extra fuel sold.) Critics point out that such calculations, based on accidents that have not yet happened on a road that is not even built, are dubious in the extreme.

Nata assessments have also always avoided costing the most damaging aspects of new roads, such as the impact on landscapes, noise and pollution and, of course, carbon emissions. This means that, even though a road might be an environmental disaster, there are no estimated cash costs to be set against the claimed economic benefits. Instead the planners give a qualitative assessment, using terms such as "moderate", "severe" or, worst of all, "very large adverse".

These qualitative judgements have in the past been enough to frustrate the road builders. Alistair Darling rejected "improvements" to the A303 that would have carved a new road through the Blackdown Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty on the Devon-Somerset borders, after seeing in the Nata assessment that it would have a "seriously adverse" impact. He apparently did not want to be the minister who overruled such a negative assessment.

It should be no surprise that ever since that decision was taken, Treasury and DfT officials have been working to get rid of such "emotional" analyses by designing a system to assign monetary values to landscapes, tranquillity and biodiversity. The ostensible aim is to make the system more "objective" and number-based - but the crucial issue is what values are assigned to qualities that are inherently priceless. How much might the last dormouse in Wiltshire be worth? Soon Labour's minions may be able to tell you.

Appearance of objectivity

A hint of what lies in store came in the Eddington report, published last December. Sir Rod Ed dington, former chief executive of British Airways, was commissioned by the Treasury and DfT to examine the long-term links between transport and the UK's economic productivity and he found that building lots more roads would bring huge benefits to the economy for a relatively low environmental cost. "Even after accounting for environmental effects, there appears to be a good case for adding strategic road infrastructure over and above the schemes in the current roads programme," said his report, suggesting that Britain's trunk roads and motorways needed 3,350km of new lanes by 2025, at a cost of up to £33bn.

But how did Eddington account for environmental costs? His report does not explain, but a footnote directs the reader to an obscure research annexe, "Transport Demand to 2025 and the Economic Case for Road Pricing and Investment", written by Treasury officials. This document doesn't explain how Eddington priced the environment either, but it refers the reader to yet another set of reports commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2002, for a purpose entirely different from road-building.

Based on these outdated reports, the Eddington study assigned a one-off value to the damage done by roads to the landscape of between £900,000 and £1.25m for each kilometre of new lane that is built - a remarkably small sum compared to both the claimed economic benefits and the £40m cost of building the average kilometre of trunk road.

(If this approach seems to lack rigour then the Treasury report's forecasts for fuel costs are even less rooted in reality. "Fuel costs are forecast to fall by 26 per cent up to 2025," they said. "This comprises a 3 per cent increase in fuel prices and a 28 per cent increase in fuel efficiency. An oil price of $35 a barrel is assumed in 2025." Oil prices, of course, had already hit $50 a barrel when this report was published last year. They have stayed that way ever since and analysts predict the long-term trend is upwards, meaning roads will become ever less economical.)

What Eddington and the Treasury have done is to give the road builders a way of putting an apparent monetary value on landscape and tranquillity, so creating the appearance of objectivity when assessing the costs and benefits of any new road. In reality, however, the values assigned to landscape and tranquillity are so low that they will always be far outweighed by the apparent economic benefits.

"The upshot of all these assessment systems is that, however bad a road might look to the people living near its route, and however damaging it is likely to be to the environment, the economic 'benefits' will, on paper, always look much greater," says Rebecca Lush of Transport 2000, who has analysed the reports.

The great factor that is missing from these calculations is the cost of carbon emissions. In their appraisals, the road builders have to say how much extra CO2 their scheme will generate. The M1 widening scheme above, for example, will generate more than 186,000 tonnes a year extra CO2. But no financial cost was assigned to these emissions when this scheme was approved.

It wasn't until January this year that the DfT told road builders to begin adding a cost of £70 for each tonne of carbon emitted in project calculations. This is still too low to shift the equations away from favouring road building - and it will apply only to new projects. Moreover, £70 is an arbitrary sum because no one can agree how to price the the cost of future carbon emissions. Some experts have said the real value should be around £1,000 a tonne. Once again, therefore, factors that should count against new road projects are undervalued while those that support them are overvalued.

The £13bn-worth of new roads approved under the Nata system makes Labour's roads programme even larger than the one they inherited from the Conservatives in 1997. Back then, the new Labour government cancelled that programme with promises of an integrated transport system.

Among schemes that have recently been approved is the widening of the M25, which will turn most of London's orbital motorway into an eight-lane highway under a private finance initiative that will cost taxpayers more than £5bn. Around Leeds, the M62 motorway is approved for a £336m widening. This year the government will decide whether to approve a £3bn project to widen the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester.

Undermining rail

The Highways Agency is also seeking approval for the Mottram-Tintwistle bypass, a short-cut for lorries through the Peak District National Park. The main economic justification is the notional value, under Nata criteria, of the time the road would save for drivers - put at £159m over 60 years. Opponents of the scheme say the national park is worth a lot more than that.

Also on the table are some highly controversial local road schemes such as the Dorset County Council's Weymouth relief road, which would slice through the Dorset Downs area of outstanding natural beauty, a site of special scientific interest, as well as ancient woodlands. Again, the main economic justification is the notional time saved for drivers, put at £275m over 30 years.

A secondary effect of the Nata rules is to undermine the economic case for investing in public transport. The light rail schemes variously proposed for Liverpool, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Leeds and other cities were all turned down for funding under the Nata formula, as the government declared they were "poor value for money" and recommended bus schemes instead. Another bias in the system is that the government requires light rail planners to contribute 25 per cent of the funding, whereas road builders have to contribute only 10 per cent.

There is strong evidence that assessment systems such as Nata offer no real guide to a road's future performance. Last year the former Countryside Agency and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England published an investigation into three completed road projects, comparing the predictions made before they were built with what happened afterwards.

It looked at the A34 Newbury bypass, the A27 Polegate bypass and the M65 Blackburn southern bypass, and in each case found that the preliminary assessments had underestimated the scale of traffic growth and the impact on the landscape. They had also made little allowance for the way new roads increase development pressure, often leading to a rash of buildings along their length.

The report concluded: "Issues of induced traffic growth, landscape impact and development pressures are rarely addressed adequately in the evaluations. It is easy to gain the impression that evaluations are carried out in consultancy back offices for the interests of Highways Agency officers only."

Recently the DfT said it planned to "refresh" the Nata rules to take account of the Stern review on the economics of climate change, the Eddington report and other developments. What this is likely to mean, say insiders, is the disappearance of "emotive" descriptions of a new road's impact on the landscape and wildlife and their replacement with indices - numbers - that will have far less obvious meaning. The low price placed on carbon emissions of £70 per tonne is unlikely to change.

This will open the way for Eddington's vision to prevail. Carbon emissions, damaged landscapes, lost tranquillity and vanishing biodiversity will all be given such tiny numerical values that they will inevitably be wiped out by the economic "benefits". The economists will be satisfied, the politicians will be absolved - and the road builders will be delighted.

Jonathan Leake is the Sunday Times science and environment editor

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix