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Viewpoint: Northern Strategic Road Studies

Dr. Anne Robinson of Friends of the Peak District has condemned the Northern Strategic Road Studies as 'flawed' in a Viewpoint article she has had published in Local Transport Today.

Reprinted from Local Transport Today 718, 17th March - 30th March 2017.

Highways England and the Department for Transport’s three northern strategic road studies – covering the Northern Trans-Pennine routes (A66 & A69); the Manchester North-West Quadrant; and a Trans-Pennine Tunnel between Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire – are flawed and raise questions that should be of concern to everyone.

These studies aim to transform road connectivity and maximise economic growth through the agglomeration of markets, improved access to skilled labour, and stimulating business investment. Their results are intended to inform the Government’s second Road Investment Strategy and Transport for the North (TfN)’s emerging strategic transport plan. It is therefore crucial that they support spatial planning and sustainable travel, and reduce transport’s burden on carbon dioxide emissions.

To date there is little sign of this. The studies all pre-empt (and even lead) development of spatial planning for the North as only one metropolitan area – Greater Manchester – is advanced in mapping its spatial and transport aspirations. The controversial proposed development in its draft spatial framework – much of it ribbon development along key arterial routes – relies on the major road-building included in both the Trans-Pennine Tunnel and the Manchester North West Quadrant studies. This outdated model of road-led development, using motorway junctions and the link road to them as development corridors, leads to all the negative consequences of traffic congestion and a concentration of employment in locations inaccessible by public transport, walking and cycling.

The studies have also taken as read the link between economic growth and transport connectivity, despite the 1996 report by SACTRA (the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment) showing it to be inconclusive. The Trans-Pennine Study promotes increasing the catchment area across the Pennines of major shopping centres such as Meadowhall and Trafford Park, of Manchester Airport, and of Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire’s labour markets generally. The counter-balancing argument – seeking economic benefits whilst reducing transport distances and carbon – must be tested. Recent studies of the cities in the Randstad (Netherlands) and Rhine-Ruhr (Germany) complexes have shown that their successful economic activity has been achieved by concentrating activity within the cities, rather than between them, making both areas more productive than their respective national economies.

By adopting a presumption for new road capacity , the road studies prejudge the solution and treat symptoms rather than cause. The result will be more traffic, as predicted by SACTRA’s 1994 report, which concluded ‘An average road improvement, for which traffic growth due to all other factors is forecast correctly, will see an additional [i.e. induced] 10% of base traffic in the short term and 20% in the long term.’

By contrast, the long-awaited upgrade of the trans-Pennine rail routes for container traffic would reduce HGV coast-to-coast journeys in the north. Coupled with short-sea coastal shipping and use of the northern ports, this could provide nationwide benefits by reducing pressures at Southampton and Felixstowe, and thereby congestion on the M25.

The robustness of the studies’ option appraisal work is also questionable. The ‘stakeholders’ invited to events were simply offered conclusions preferred by the consultants, without background data or evidence to substantiate them. What is clear is that the statutory requirements to tackle carbon emissions and air pollution have been sidelined in scheme evaluation.

This is also true of TfN’s spring 2016 report on the Northern Transport Strategy and Highways England’s Road to Growth proposals. Indeed, TfN’s recent Independent International Connectivity Commission report is bullish about increasing northern aviation demand – and therefore carbon emissions – by more than the DfT is forecasting, even though those national forecasts are themselves breaching the emissions limit set for aviation within the UK’s carbon budget. As the Committee for Climate Change anticipate that projected emissions reductions from transport fall short of the trajectory needed to meet the 2027-2031carbon budget, there is an urgent need to decarbonise the sector. Air pollution blights both Manchester and Sheffield and the Longdendale Valley that runs between them, and the Manchester North-West Quadrant and the Trans-Pennine Tunnel proposals would worsen it.

It is getting late in the day to address these flaws. The transport secretary has already indicated he favours dualling the A66, and pursuing major road-building in north-west Manchester, despite the fact that the new regional traffic and land-use models to test wider strategic impacts are only now becoming available. Until the studies test a suite of transport and non-transport interventions and are set within a low carbon framework, wider questions remain and will challenge TfN’s emerging transport plan.

For example, when will benefits be felt by the travelling public? The Trans-Pennine Tunnel, if pursued, will not be operational for 20 years. Meanwhile, connectivity would remain the same and carbon emissions, air pollution and congestion will continue unabated. How much more effective to invest in quick wins such as improvements to existing rail services and buses.

And how will cities, towns and rural areas distant from Manchester and Sheffield benefit from a £7bn-£11bn investment on a 30-mile road corridor miles away? It must be a requirement of all three studies to show how both road and rail infrastructure investments will benefit all the urban centres within the Northern Powerhouse and their hinterlands, and not just two of them or even only one. Finally, if this “eye-watering investment” (in the words of the consultants) is made, what would be left for investment elsewhere in the North in, say, new rapid transit, active travel and low emission zones? Shouldn’t the studies be influencing travel towards a low carbon future rather than feeding the demand for high carbon mobility?

Anne Robinson

Transport Campaigner Friends of the Peak District & CPRE South Yorkshire

Transport Activists Roundtable North West, Last Updated July 2018