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Chapter 23. Official policy towards motorways - the climate of opinion in the second twenty years

Volume 1 Part 8
Brief résumé of Chapter 23:
Official policy towards motorways - the second twenty years

Sir Peter Baldwin KCB, MA, FKC, FCIT, Hon.FIHT, CIMgt, FRSA
formerly Permanent Secretary, Department of Transport
subsequently Vice Chairman, AA
Chairman, Motorway Archive Trust

This second essay by Sir Peter Baldwin, picking up earlier themes traces up to Transport 2010, published in 2000, the expressed intentions of successive Administrations towards Britain's motorway system, generally with reducing ambitions but more outlay on maintenance as traffic increases, and other inferences about intentions which future Administrations may form concerning conditions to be attached to the use of motorways in order to derive maximum benefit from the system as the asset which it will constitute if it is duly maintained, if the methods of using it are developed beneficially by new applications of environmental knowledge and technology especially if new technology results in the elimination of noxious exhausts.

A Perspective for the Future.

"Although the Government's six references to motorways in their Transport 2010 - The 10 Year Plan are not such as to attract much attention, half a century of advocacy that motorways be provided, followed by the next half century building them with public opinion enthusiastic for the first 1000 miles but divided between economic and environmental considerations for the second, have produced for the country an asset which its people, not unnaturally, now take for granted when they are not moved to criticise it for congestion or pollution.

The life of the early motorways proved to be only around 20 years before capital maintenance or reconstruction became necessary, because the rate and extent of growth of heavy traffic proved to be greater than consensus predicted. Later motorways, built in the light of much of this experience, can reasonably be expected to resist wear and tear for longer provided that maintenance is planned and conducted with the best informed understanding of current and future conditions; and if the financial and other resources thus found to be required are duly made available and efficiently applied in a continuing programme, mirroring the continuous past pattern over time of the construction of the motorway system.

Creation and observance of such a programme is complicated both by the contemporary need to maintain and improve the network of all-purpose trunk roads and by the policy of shifting responsibility for a substantial part of that network to be maintained from the resources which local authorities will find that they have at their disposal for this, among other, purposes. Moreover, there are not the same clear sequences of design and of age in the ancestry of all-purpose trunk roads as there are across the motorway system. There have been backlogs of maintenance on these roads as there have been on motorways. They have to be overtaken and must not be allowed to recur. At the same time there will be the problem, also to be overtaken, of the rate and scale of increased demand for space on the system, as more people acquire and retain for more years use of vehicles during the next twenty years.

Pursuit of "integration" as a recently emphasised element of governmental policy must not be allowed to leave indistinct each of the separate objectives to be achieved. Nor should it be allowed to be pursued without regard to numerate proportionality: For example, there are transfers to be made of freight from the roads to railway, and of passengers on land from cars to rail, bus, tram, and bicycle, if not to footpaths. But the resulting distribution of traffic between modes must still serve the destinations of trade and travel among 60 million people of the United Kingdom. It should not be expected that such transfers will be able to achieve so much towards obviating, in the time available, the deleterious consequences of movement by the present distribution of modes, within the prospective space and on the prospective scale, as to exonerate failure to maintain and operate the road network effectively, efficiently and safely for an increasing volume of traffic. It would be even more culpable if such failure were to affect the capacity and use of the motorway system, where disciplined mechanised movement by road is at its most fluid and at its safest. In local conditions the balances of public advantage may prove to be different; and it is right that responsibility for taking decisions the weight of which will be felt locally rather than further afield should be placed as near as possible to those who bear responsibility locally. But responsibility for the national continuity of communications cannot sensibly be removed from those who bear responsibility nationally, not least for ensuring that parts of the country are not condemned to economic isolation and relative depression.

"National" in relation to the United Kingdom has, however, acquired two levels of meaning in relation to the responsibilities of Ministers and of Parliament. Where those responsibilities extend without geographical limitation to the whole United Kingdom, the "nation" is the United Kingdom. Perhaps it may be convenient to refer to the United Kingdom as "the State" rather than the "nation". But in the case of overland transport and its infrastructure there is no Minister with specific responsibility for those functions relating to the State. On the other hand, the Westminster Parliament has both the right and the responsibility to concern itself with any material implications of that fact.

Where the responsibilities relate to geographical areas delimited by the boundaries dividing Scotland and Wales from England, and by the sea dividing Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the "nation" is each of those parts of the United Kingdom respectively; and each has its own Minister responsible to its own form of national assembly for functions which include overland transport and its infrastructure. In England that assembly is the two Houses of Parliament, including its Members from constituencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In each case responsibility for overland transport and its infrastructure includes responsibility for the parts of Britain's motorway system which lie in the respective nations' territories and for their proper use and utility. Ministers will bear responsibility for the direction to that end which they give to their respective executive structures, which in turn operate in relation with their respective forms of local government organisation and, in England, also of regional planning. Since, with the curious exception of 6 miles between the northern end of the M6 in England and the southern end of the M74 in Scotland, the motorway system extends throughout Great Britain as a system of unified specification and design - repeated across the sea in Northern Ireland - serving the whole of the economy and society of the United Kingdom, working relations between the four executive structures will need in future, as in the past with a different Ministerial and legislative structure, to ensure future co-ordination and co-operation in the manner in which the system is maintained, used and perhaps, with new technologies, developed. Those working relations will presumably need to be non-hierarchical as between the nations. Nevertheless, the Westminster Parliament will be entitled to question their performance and efficacy.

One tool traditionally beloved of the Westminster Parliament when engineering solutions are involved and which has traditionally been effective is the Hybrid Bill. Hybrid Bills are, however , difficult and expensive for private promoters to secure. One of those Bills covers the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and was itself the subject of EU interest in November 1989 when they recognised the importance both of improved rail links and the provision of combined transport links. Ove Arup followed with a detailed routing proposal in March 1990, but the consultation required and the passage of an appropriate Bill took until 1994 to secure.

After more organised local protest and objection about the route of the CTRL than was evident before the construction of the M2 started in 1961, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link's promoters embodied ideas submitted during its public consultations within the Hybrid Bill which Parliament approved in 1994 comprising both the CTRL, the railway bridge and associated widening of the motorway crossing and its motorway approaches between Junctions 1 and 3. The purpose in undertaking both these tasks at once was that residents should not suffer two rounds of construction works. The consortium engaged by Union Railways for these works was Eurolink and Dart Miller Lehre. The unusually demanding combined finances for this huge project were resolved through the intervention of John Prescott as Secretary of State and the participation of a subsidiary company of Railtrack PLC. In 2001 Railtrack's contractors Amec started laying track and erecting catenary and signalling while the Highways Agency were improving the A2 interchange at Bean.

"All these issues converge upon public finance, whether costs relating to provision of motorways are to be met directly from public funds (which may be United Kingdom funds or European Union funds) or from private funds remunerated from tolls charged to the public under legal authority, or under some contract with public authority entailing, for example, shadow tolls paid from public funds.

As regards England, the Minister's executive structure is now the Highways Agency. That Agency will carry responsibility for organising the effort and using the finance by which their Minister's direction is translated into effect by their own staff, by firms of consulting engineers and by the contractors' specialised industry. The other three national executive structures each have the like roles. Public opinion will be the auditor of performance of all of them, expressing itself (as it is free to do so) through private and public institutions, both to the State or to its constituent entities.

Common-sense suggests that citizens, possessing votes and most of them also possessing cars and depending on lorries (whatever form they may take in future), will want technology that provides mobility efficiently and quietly from clean fuel, and at a level of cost consistent with reasonable choices of living conditions. They will feel entitled to have the motorways maintained; and the more that maintenance occupies space the more there will grow the feeling of entitlement to reversal of any reduction of space. In short, selective widening at least will probably have to remain on the motorway agenda. So will technological instruments to ensure their use with communal discipline and maximised efficiency and safety.

Those who through the decades have resisted provision for the car and the lorry, or who look askance at the present and prospective volumes of motor traffic, have done so largely because of the harm done by noxious exhaust fumes and particulates and by stressful levels of traffic noise.. But experimental vehicles powered by engines using hydrogen instead of oil fuel have begun to appear; and once the vehicle fleet is replaced in that or some equivalent form pollution by exhaust will have been eliminated at source. Similarly, technology is already showing how the noise generated between vehicle and road surface can be reduced. With these changes accomplished the logic of judgement would reverse itself: Instead of invoking pollution by exhaust as ground for condemning both road traffic and provision for it, the case would concentrate on avoidance of costly congestion with noxious exhaust already eliminated; and for that change of objective provision and maintenance of suitable roads would be seen as a necessary contribution. Only roads in their safest form would be suitable. The RAC Foundation in Motoring Towards 2050, shared that view. Within their study Chapters 3, 4, 5,12 and Fig. 12.4 are most relevant to policy while Chapter 14 crucially considers "public acceptability". History too presents commanding parallels: Beneficial changes made feasible by new techology, such as aircraft, can take over whole markets very quickly; intrinsically dangerous practices in the production and presentation of food could not continue unchanged when hygienic practice was understood. It would be perverse to ignore such experience in evaluating the future of the motorway system and its usership. Science and technology have been essential contributors to creation of the Britain's motorway system as, relatively to the rest of the roads network, an outstandingly efficient and safe facility. It has proved to be wise to infuse policy with the results of scientific research in this field as in most other realms of government.

But while research may be suggested it has to be designed in constructive sequences and in detail, and to be commissioned and carried through to report in time to be practically relevant. In transport Britain has had the prestigious advantage of the existence of the scientific Laboratory, known successively as the Roads Research Laboratory, the Transport and Road Research Laboratory and the Transport Research Laboratory. This institution has been placed within government at different times under different Ministerial regimes: originally as part of the National Physical Laboratory, and later under the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research when motorways began to be constructed in Britain, and later again in whatever Department was responsible at the time for transport, whether as a distinct Ministerial organisation or as part of a wider Department, named differently at different times. Throughout those regimes the Laboratory's staff and skills - developed through career planning and by national and international official and academic contacts - have built up a large body of scientific insight recorded in its library of original research papers which are recognised internationally as of the highest quality. It is now constituted as a non-profit-making trust outside government. But, given the imminence of increasing reliance upon new technology to secure the maximum utility, efficiency and safety from the heritage of Britain's motorways, it would be a public disservice to discontinue commissioning this uniquely broadly experienced but specialised scientific Laboratory to illuminate the base for policy. "

"Alongside this vast repository of expertise there have developed separately considerable skills, notably in landscaping and in using knowledge of the potential of specific planting schemes to mitigate or even overcome a range of environmental problems. To some extent this is also a matter of aesthetics as well, especially in urban contexts where en even heavier emphasis is placed on the quality of structures and their lighting. In a few locations the quality of the built environment can be enhanced by floodlighting. "

"The price of systematic care and attention to the geo-technical research on the rocky route of the M6 through Westmoreland in 1967was demonstrated when the chosen route was subjected to close meteorological analysis to find problem areas for snow drifts and drainage before work started. Over 30 years this road has won many plaudits for its route through the Lune Valley and up to its English summit.

The following pages also demonstrate the quality of thought and much artistry has been devoted by the CTRL consortium to the route adopted through the most rural parts of Kent. Some of those illustrations make bear comparison with the earlier work on the M2 commissioned in the course of planning the original M2 in the early 1960s.

Paragraph 6.26 of Transport 2010 -A Ten Year Plan declares that -

"The Highways Agency's entire network will be managed in line with biodiversity action plans by 2005 and with landscape action plans by 2010."

As regards both biodiversity and landscape, the coming ten years will see the maturing of the planting of trees and other vegetation alongside the motorways, themselves progressively shaped to sensitive landscapes, over the past forty years with professional botanical and zoological guidance from the discontinued Landscape Advisory Committee for Motorways and Trunk Roads described in part of Chapter 18 The following illustrations provide some insight into the most modern instances of that stiff challenge

Through the coming twenty years, the people inhabiting these Islands off-shore within the European Union, whatever their constitutional regime or regimes may prove to be, will only flourish by means of their commerce and industry infused by their mastery and application of science and technology, and by their qualities of intellect and heart; and by sharing the resulting benefit with each other in mutually supportive union without exclusion. Such union will not be feasible without the physically unifying condition of their own co-extensive system of long-distance communications matching their economic geography and operating sensitively and continuously in good order.

Where those assets are looked after with care and sensitivity they will remain efficient and attractive. The Highways Agency's own ten year strategic plan of 2001put the current replacement value of their network of motorways and trunk roads at around £65 billion, while stating "heir first priority is to ensure we retain the value of that investment and to retain it in optimum condition."

Where those assets are looked after with care and sensitivity they will remain efficient and attractive. That condition will not exist without continuous attention, foresight and systematic provision. Nor, while those twenty years are passing, will it exist without the motorways as the prime element in the State's landward system of physical communications. It will also need at least as much ingenuity as was seen in the previous twenty years to fit in the necessary capacity in urban locations like London.

The provision and value of such important infrastructural improvements as motorways have to be seen not against a ten year plan or even the next twenty years, but against an even longer continuum. This was a lesson learnt with the provision of railways, of sewerage, of electricity supply, and of telecommunications. Writing about the part which Locke and Stephenson played in delivering such improvement on a route akin to that followed 135 years later for the M6 by Cox, Drake and Jepson and the consulting engineers of that era, Arthur Freeling adjudged:

"Men who propose and carry through, without regard to evil or good report, such works as the Grand Junction Railway - who have over-come, not only the opposition which the stupendous operations of nature present, but the more stubborn and unbending resistance of haughty and interested minds - are far more worthy of the laurel crown than the victor of a hundred fights."