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Chapter 15. Changing the technical priorities over pollution and noise nuisance

Volume 1 Part 5
Brief résumé of Chapter 15:
Changing the technical priorities over pollution and noise nuisance

Robert C. D. Baldwin BA, MLitt, MRIN, FLS
Consultant historian
Honorary Secretary Motorway Archive Trust


Among the more significant, and latterly measurable, penalties of using fossil fuels extensively have been the pollution consequences attached to all of the major means of transport used during the twentieth century. These penalties took two main forms, as harmful and wasteful dissipation of noise energy and as the many associated forms of waterborne, gaseous and particulate pollution. Each pollutant will have had its local as well as its global consequences to human life, vegetation and fauna. Historically many of these arose from extractive industries, tanning and agriculture. Newer sources of pollution arising from widespread use of petroleum spirit and diesel oil reflect the use of natural resources almost unexploited before the twentieth century.

A century of coal and petroleum based politics

At the turn of the nineteenth century the British economy was heavily dependent on Britain’s sulphur-rich and abundant coal stocks not only for domestic and industrial energy supply but also for steel manufacture, and among public utilities supplying gas, coke and lighting. Many were proud of "King Coal" but this dependence had unfortunate consequences for carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide production which often impinged as nasty smelling and toxic smogs especially around Thamesside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. However, the twentieth century would see the politics surrounding both the provision of refined hydro-carbons as fuel for motoring and the consequent problems of improving fuel quality and curbing pollution. As this happened, particularly in the latter part of the twentieth century, coal production contracted rapidly. That contraction would bring huge social costs, especially for the former coal mining regions which had to rely on the motorways, rather than on the railway’s slower mineral lines, for their communications with the rest of the economy and for attracting inward investment. Many railways serving coalfields in the North East, South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and South Wales, as well as those along main lines like the Great Central, were to be closed mostly in the 1960s. As this happened a significant part of capital investment in British energy production was turned first to non-carbon based fuel cycles like nuclear and hydro-electric power and then to the North Sea’s oil and gas fields. The construction of pipelines and the use of large rail tankers for bulk movements meant that little was moved by road from the refineries to the major oil distribution depots. Only there did road tankers take over.

Distribution was haphazard before road tanker movements were used to supply filling stations with petrol. Petrol accounted for 50% of oil demand by 1939. In the 1930s a distinctive architecture emerged as oil companies developed their own styles taking account of regulations on the operation of such sites.

In February 2001 the UNEP suggested that adequate change to protect the global environment from a damaging acceleration in climate change could be effected at the cost of about £65 per year per taxpayer in the industrialised world. Widespread fear of flooding may sustain the impetus to have such changed priorities adopted by government. However, small as that change in spending priorities might seem, international and national politics and the state of the world economy are just as critical to the outcome of events, because of the close relationship of economic growth with oil prices and with the levels of associated exploration for oil and gas, and the damaging implications of Asia’s coal based sulphur dioxide emissions. While low levels of sulphur and nitrogen deposition will have broadly the same effect as fertiliser, at higher levels they will negatively affect plant growth and human health.

Some of the most important decisions will concern fuel use and land use, across a range of circumstances from sustainable agricultural practices to the changing form of urban lifestyles. These issues will be especially important in the USA (which contributes 25 % of the most damaging Greenhouse gases) and in China where effective attempts to curb the coal burn and related sulphur dioxide emissions could potentially have bigger effects than changes in fuel taxation policy by the governments of OECD countries. The temptation will be to increase their energy burn for the sake of desirable life style changes, but a wiser exploitation of transport technologies and fuels could help curb the most damaging of societal aspirations.

Thus given the negotiating difficulties encountered at the Hague Conference in 2000, the scientific formulation of an adequately informed approach remains critical to the deliberations and progress of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change in the wake of the Bush Administration's challenge to the understanding implicit in the Rio and Kyoto Protocols may be crucial. However, no progress at all will be possible unless significant progress towards the reduction of known environmental pollutants is made by many businesses on a more localised basis."

A British perspective on the planning options for the future.

Despite the attractive alternative of carefully considered land use planning designed to help curtail the amount of journeying done in the course of industrial production and urban living, this crucial process seems to lie uncomfortably outside the narrow remit considered appropriate to the Transport White Paper, Transport 2010. It may now come to the fore in the re-constituted Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions through the report of the Integrated Transport Commission on congestion pricing. However in London, and well in advance of its introduction there, urban motorways such as the A102M and A40M have been turned into trunk roads with obvious penalties in safety and perhaps pollution from concentrating thereon extra, but much slower and therefore disruptive traffic.

The White Paper suggests that charging for road use should cover a wide spectrum of local cases, notably urban congestion charges on the local polluters. In suggesting such tolls it is far from presenting an effective case for generic motorway tolls. The likelihood is that its authors may well be overstating the benefits because again much traffic would probably be diverted to less safe, untolled roads where journeys would take longer and more fuel would be badly burned in the course of more frequent deceleration and stops. By contrast, if all motoring costs were kept constant in real terms, and the most economical fuel use were favoured, the motorways would be more heavily used. Further, the potential benefit in emissions of effective traffic management might curtail CO2 emissions by a further 1MtC, although a much larger effect would be a consequential rise in rail originated CO2 emissions of 0.2 MtC by 2010. The Background Analysis of Transport 2010 shows how all these assumptions would apply in the UK. The progress to date is summarised below.

UK Greenhouse Gas emissions based on vehicle emissions per Km.





Carbon dioxide








Nitrous oxide












Sulphur Hexafluoride




Basket total




Change since 1990




Source: Fleet News 2002, February 21, 2002, p.20 based in turn on and DLTR data.


Delivery of a significant further reduction in pollutants originating within transport after 2010 may prove a difficult, unpopular target among those seeking political office, as events in the UK and the USA in late 2000 and 2001 have suggested. Some progress can be expected from the international car manufacturers agreement to design for better vehicles and for the ultimate disposal costs of those vehicles - agreements under regulations which will both take effect within the EU from 2004.

The likelihood is that following the judgement of the European Court of Justice against the UK in the "Opinion of the Advocate General Alber - Case C-359/97" on 27th January 2000, the introduction of VAT on estuarial crossing tolls and congestion charges will curb demand and pollution in towns and near the estuarial crossings leading between urban contexts like the motorways linking both the Mersey and the Tyne Tunnels, but will have negligible impact on pollution around the Skye and Humber Crossings.

Under the Planning and Land Compensation Act, 1991, all local planning authorities must have a current development plan comprising policies and indicative maps showing the course of change envisaged in their areas. The 1990 Countryside Survey carried out by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology showed the potential of satellite based photographic technology as a nation-wide record of land use was compiled. Twenty seven per cent of land was managed grassland, twenty six per cent was heath, marsh or moor, twenty one per cent was tilled land and just seven per cent bore recognisably urban or suburban features, four per cent were estuarial mudflats, five per cent was broad leaf woodland, three per cent was coniferous woodland, and six per cent was used for industry, extractive enterprise and all transportation systems.

To look within this last figure for Britain’s motorways, which in length account for less than 1% of all Britain's roads, is to realise that they were so soundly conceived at the design stage, partly because of the time taken over their design and public acceptability, that they have not been plagued by extensive flooding, even in such vulnerable locations as Sedgemoor or where the M1 crosses the Trent Valley. This is due to the careful application of scientific method to matters of design such as the evaluation of drainage and the associated meteorological experience revealed in Volume 2. The floods of 2000 and 2001 brought to a wider audience the quality of those motorway facilities and their design features, as well as highlighting some problematic elements on the M25, where, near Leatherhead, concern to mitigate visual intrusion had accentuated the problem of storm water drainage.

Here it is sufficient to conclude that the scientific habit of mind of the best motorway designers evident since the 1950s is as much needed to tackle the implications of pollution for health and climate change in the twenty first century as is a practical contribution by properly informed politicians to the same common cause. There is an obvious safety case demanding an informed and practical address to such questions, but there is no demonstrable health or accident saving to be gained by declassifying the M32's route into Bristol. Equally the Greater London Authority's decision to allow cyclists and mopeds onto de-classified urban motorways in east and west London during 2001 flies in the face of the known health consequences for their hearts and lungs if traffic is slow, and markedly increases the risk of accidents should the other motorised traffic thereon flow faster or brake more quickly than they can.

The introduction by the Highways Agency from 2000 of route management plans for distinct parts its motorway and trunk road network has seen some further decisions on changes of priority for expenditure go out to public consultation. The framework for response is already firmly set with a strict hierarchy of five broad issues, namely: 1, Safety; 2, Environment; 3, Economy; 4, Accessibility; 5, Integration.

Innovations set to feature prominently among the major instigators of change over the first decade of the twenty first century are intelligent solar powered road studs, variable centrally set speed limits, and measures to counter driver fatigue and noise. While the impact of tarmac surfacing on former concrete roads and growing competence in assembling bio-diversity plans can be assumed from other policy statements, the introduction of quiet natural areas at motorway service areas may be in conflict with attempts to use them also to sustain timetabled interchanges for long distance coach services, so as to improve that system’s coverage. The economic consequences of seeking direct interchanges with the railway as proposed for instance at Dunton Green and Tiverton Parkway will need local authority planning permission although the ideas should contribute effectively to better inter-modal integration.

Safety and environmental protection from the increasing use of cars will be dominant features informing future Highways Agency priorities. Details of how a balance might be achieved emerge in this form within the published timetable of proposed works and priorities for the M5 between Junctions 21 and 31. In future much will depend on the intelligent appraisal of responses received by W.S. Atkins to the invitation to consult on measures to discourage car travel. However, the reason why safety also features so prominently in the works proposed over the next few years to improve junction capacity along this route will be apparent from the next chapter.