Road building is seldom off the agenda at Herefordshire Council meetings, and last month (January) the controversial subject of ‘The Bypass’ got a really thorough airing. On one side we had the Council (or perhaps, rather the Cabinet) who want a sort of M25 for Hereford. On the other was a determined group of activists and opponents who object to the proposed Western Relief Road because – it’s too expensive and not needed; it disfigures a beautiful, peaceful un-spoilt part of the County; it threatens closure of the Hereford Community Farm; or it should be on the eastern side of the city.
Roads deliver economic growth – or do they?
Why does the Cabinet want this road so badly? While they make soothing noises about alleviating traffic congestion, improving air quality, getting people out of their cars to improve their health, their answers to the dozens of recent public questions mention ‘growth’ again and again.
For example at Cabinet on 18 January, the meeting was told emphatically that ‘businesses are desperate for a bypass.’ (So emphatically it almost felt like reactive denial.) But that was as far as it went – no details about which businesses, how much they would increase their profits or how many jobs were to be created. You might think that if businesses are going to benefit from a road scheme costing at least £175m (budgetary estimates for the Western Relief Road plus the Southern Link Road), they should be paying the lion’s share of the price.
As I wrote in the Hereford Times (published 1st Feb), the ‘growth’ justification is tenuous at best. It’s extremely hard to find solid evidence that major new roads bring investment, jobs and time saving to the extent that their developers claim.
In 2016, The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth reviewed 2,300 evaluations of the local economic impact of transport projects, and found only 17 robust evaluations looking at the local economic impact of roads – and the findings on impacts are rather mixed. They concluded, “there is little robust evaluation evidence on the impact they [roads] have on local economic development.”
Then in March 2017, CPRE tested the evidence itself, using government data known as POPE, which records the effects of each major road built. In their report, ‘The End of the Road’, CPRE found that the great majority of road schemes delivered far less economic benefit than claimed. But, Herefordshire Council stubbornly dismissed the report’s findings, and ploughed ahead with the options study for the Western Relief Road presented to Cabinet this month.
When we’re being asked to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on these schemes shouldn’t there be ’robust’ data to substantiate the claimed benefits? Preferably before public money is committed to the design stage, which itself is hardly low-cost.
What I’ve observed in Hereford, and from talking to road campaigners in other areas, is that the economic justification develops a life of its own. Prior studies are cited as though they are evidence – when in reality they are just a previous consultant’s forecast of what might happen. Consultancy and council staff costs mount up as study after study is produced, until it becomes nearly impossible for a decision maker to shut down a project which has by then cost several millions and has delivered nothing to the communities it is meant to benefit. Meanwhile the option to improve travel for residents by other proven means is sidelined.
It’s also puzzling that a definitive business case is not developed as the first stage in the process, instead of at the end. It’s worked up as the project evolves. Rather oddly, the Department for Transport offers to refine the developing business case so it stands a better chance of being approved – by the Department for Transport.
We are talking about huge sums of public money here. At the time of writing, we have another NHS winter crisis, possibly the most serious one yet. Violent crime is at record levels, as police numbers are constrained. Teachers and nurses are leaving their professions in droves. Herefordshire Council has had to raise council tax rates to protect adult social care services. Public services have been squeezed by austerity for nearly ten years, but a new £175m road to bypass Hereford can apparently be developed without a clear idea of what benefits it will bring.
A stab in the dark
The budgeted costs are virtually certain to rise by the time Hereford’s various relief and link roads are built. Some recent major road schemes have gone seriously over-budget:
Norwich Distributor Road – original estimate £148m, forecast £205m
Bexhill to Hastings Link Road – original estimate £24m, forecast £116m
The A3 Hindhead Improvement – original estimate £107m, forecast £371m
The A14 Ellington to Fen Ditton scheme – original estimate £490m forecast £639m
Which means that the ‘value for money’ assessment on which the projects were justified turned out in practice to be highly optimistic. One case I looked had a Benefit Cost Ratio of 16:1 when the scheme was approved, but 5 years after opening, the BCR was assessed as only 4.7:1
The consultation report on the Hereford Transport Plan (primarily dealing with the Western Relief Road/Bypass), adopted by Council this month, found unsurprisingly that Hereford residents wanted something done about traffic congestion in the city.
That’s not the same as support for a bypass / relief road. Many other measures are already available to ease congestion and reduce journey times. Most obviously to get people to use their cars less: the Destination Hereford project between 2011 and 2015 proved that car use can be reduced by encouraging people to switch to alternatives, without laying down more tarmac. Easily delivered active travel measures reduce traffic congestion, and with quickly achieved health benefits, almost immediately reduce pressure on the NHS.
Then there is smarter technology to control junctions and give warnings to driver through sat-nav systems of congested points and alternative routes. It’s interesting to note that traffic on Hereford’s Greyfriars Bridge (A49) has only just returned to the same level it was in 2008, measured by average daily vehicle movements. Yet congestion and journey times are considered to be worse. The most likely explanation is that we have more junctions and that they are not being optimally controlled. Not that there are too many vehicles and not enough road.
But has Hereford really got such a serious congestion problem that spending another £175m of public money is valid? Perhaps there is an element of group-think here. People talking up the problem, people getting disgruntled about roadworks and teething problems with other new roads? Dept. for Transport data for 2016 showed that Hereford is by no means an extreme case: “And while Herefordshire drivers may get furious about traffic jams, they are actually delayed less than the majority of England.”
And, because over 80% of car journeys in Hereford are less than 3 miles, the bypass will affect a very small proportion of those journeys.
It’s an open secret that new roads don’t always reduce congestion; in many cases they increase it by inducing traffic. The CPRE ‘End of the Road’ report analysed 13 road schemes in detail for traffic impact and concluded that the new roads generated more traffic. On average, traffic grew 47% more than background levels, with one scheme more than doubling traffic within 20 years. None of the four schemes assessed in the longer-term showed the promised reduction in congestion; all put pressure on adjoining roads.
Have we reached ‘Peak-Car”?
The Hereford bypass is not going to be opened for many years. It would seem prudent to try to understand the likely changes in travel patterns and transport choices over say the next two decades. For example, across the country, car use is not increasing, people are ‘connecting’ instead of travelling.
A huge part of the congestion problem is that so many cars are used for short journeys and have only one occupant. Ideally some people can be persuaded toswitch to non-vehicle modes of transport, but we have to be realistic when it comes to trips of more than a few miles on the county’s narrow and poorly surfaced rural roads. What is also needed is a way to reduce the number of vehicles on the road but allow as many, possibly more, people to travel by vehicle. That is where demand-responsive transport services come in. Instead of bus services with fixed routes and timetables, where the passenger goes to the bus, the reverse happens – the shared vehicle comes to the passenger at the time required. Like a taxi but shared and much cheaper.
Some councils have already started to breathe life into their public transport this way. Essex runs a Demand Responsive Transport service in rural areas. Somerset has ‘Slinky’, Fife has ‘Ring & Ride’, Stirling’s offering is described as a rural taxi service.
Longer term, transport professionals are talking about Mobility as a Service, where among other things, it’s envisaged that travellers who don’t own a car or who don’t want to use it for short journeys will be able to hail a ride using their smartphone, and pick up an autonomous vehicle, ideally one shared with other passengers.
Hereford needs more housing, but what we need to do is ensure that as much as possible is built on brownfield sites and that where new greenfield sites have to be used, the housing schemes are designed from the outset – and controlled by planning conditions – to reduce car-dependency.
All roads schemes have harmful effects on the environment. Frequently they are categorised as ‘severe adverse’. Council’s consultants have already advised that the Hereford Western Relief Road will have severe impacts.
Developers carry out mitigation works, like landscaping and tree planting to soften the blow. CPRE’s report, referred to above, concluded that in the majority of cases, the environmental degradation caused by major road schemes is often worse than forecast, and the mitigation works are less effective than forecast.
For example, the Dept for Transport’s 5 year review of the A1 Peterborough to Blyth Grade Separated Junctions scheme, known as Post Opening Project Evaluation (POPE) reported:
- “Impacts on landscape are worse than expected due to problems with plant growth. Despite replacement planting having being undertaken, the current levels of plant growth and establishment indicate that the visual screening, landscape integration, and visual amenity functions of the plant stock at all junctions is generally considered unlikely to be developing as well as would expected at this stage.
- Biodiversity impact is worse than expected in the short term due to the ecological impact of the slow establishment of the new tree and shrub planting.
I’ve set out the main reasons why the Hereford Western Relief Road is a bad idea. When the local economy is struggling to fund essential public services, when congestion is not really as severe as the loudest voices are saying, when smarter travel solutions are emerging, it is absolutely essential that the economic justification for the bypass is prepared thoroughly and openly, and is subject to detailed scrutiny. It is not enough to base the case for the road on vague expectations of economic growth.
The project will take another decade to deliver. In that time, travel in and around Hereford could be improved significantly using other tried and tested solutions. We should not be made to wait.
HEREFORD TIMES TALKING POINT 1 Feb 2018
“The latest consultants report on the ‘Hereford Bypass’ shows just how damaging the road will be. Houses will be demolished, large areas of farmland lost, the setting of historic listed buildings like Belmont Abbey and Belmont Lodge destroyed, and a beautiful landscape ruined.
What is still not clear is exactly how this road will benefit Herefordshire. There are no specific forecasts of how much traffic congestion and air pollution in Hereford will be reduced. No details of the extra traffic that will be encouraged to use the A49 as a relief for the M5/M6, or to travel between north and south Wales. No hard information on the economic benefits or jobs to be created.
It is often claimed that new roads are essential to reduce congestion and to boost the local economy. With so much road building in Britain, there must be clear proof that they work? Actually no – a recent independent report found that of 25 road schemes justified on the basis that they would benefit the local economy, only five had any evidence of positive economic effects.
Vague justifications like, “businesses are desperate to have a bypass” are not good enough. A new £150m road paid for by someone else – who would object to that?
Aren’t more roads needed because the number of car journeys is always increasing? Wrong again – government’s National Travel Survey shows that car travel per person in the UK has fallen markedly since 2002, and the average annual mileage of a household car was 7,800 miles in 2016 down from 9,200 in 2002.
The same survey shows young people are increasingly less interested in owning a car and getting a licence.
The smart thinking about future travel envisages ‘movement as a service’, ride-hailing, and demand-responsive shared transport. Large-scale road building has had its day. Herefordshire Council should re-assess its plans in the light of real evidence and emerging technologies, and stop spending vast sums on infrastructure that isn’t guaranteed to work, and may be outmoded by the time it is delivered.”