The government cannot afford to repair the existing road network (or pay public sector workers a decent wage) but prime minister David Cameron will today announce a new road building programme that will be the "biggest, boldest and most far reaching in four decades." According to the plans – which are largely a rehash of already-announced plans – motorways are to be expanded, and new trunk roads are to be built. Even "zombie roads", that have been stalled for decades thanks to fears over their environmental despoilation, will be resurrected, promises the prime minister.
"This will be nothing less than a roads revolution," the prime minister will tell business leaders at the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference in London today. Despite the very well understood concept of "induced demand" – which shows that more roads equals more traffic – the prime minister promises the latest roads building plan "will lead to quicker journey times."
Such "predict and provide" promises are illusory but "building our way out of congestion" is always popular with the majority of Britain’s 32 million motorists. Many of the road expansion schemes are in marginal constituencies and Cameron hopes the plans will show that the Tories are "investing in national infrastructure."
Cameron says his plans will form the basis for the "first ever long-term Roads Investment Strategy" – if the Tories win the next election this plan will fund 100 projects on the Strategic Road Network by the end of the decade, and result in hundreds of extra lane miles on the nation’s motorways and trunk roads.
"By improving the condition of our roads, increasing the capacity of existing roads and taking forward major new strategic road schemes, the UK’s first ever long-term Roads Investment Strategy will be designed to improve the lives of hardworking commuters, back business and enterprise all across the country, and help secure a better future for Britain," the prime minister will say.
Today’s announcement is a trailer for the official unveiling of the roads plans in the government’s Autumn Statement, due out in early December. The plans could be copied by the Labour party – politicians know that road building is popular with the motorised majority.
Indeed, the Labour party response hasn’t been to trash the plans but to say the plans don’t go far enough.
Michael Dugher, Labour’s newly-appointed shadow transport secretary, said:
“This is another pre-election con trick from David Cameron. This desperate so-called announcement of promised road improvements includes no additional money and people simply won’t fall for it.
"When it comes to road investment, the truth is Cameron leaves us like a frustrated motorist trying to get through the rush hour – we’re stuck going nowhere fast.
"Cameron should be judged on his record, not on a speech, and his record on road investment has been nothing but a chaotic series of u-turns. Cutting investment, then promising to restore it after 2015. Cancelling road schemes, like the A14, then reinstating them. And constantly failing to meet deadlines for the completion of improvements."
The prime minister said the Autumn Statement will include "the green light given to major projects that have been stalled for years. Action to improve some of the most important arteries in our country – like the A303 and the A1 – which for too long have held parts of our country back. And all underpinned by over £15bn worth of investment."
The building of new roads is said to have "high" benefit to cost ratios (BCRs) but Treasury rules state that the government has to fund the transport schemes with the "highest" BCRs. Last week the Department for Transport revealed that cycling and walking schemes offered BCRs that were off-the-scale compared to road building schemes.
Investing in cycling brings huge economic, social and health benefits, with some cycling schemes having a benefit-to-cost ratio (BCR) of up to 35 to 1. The newly-funded cycling schemes have BCRs of 5.5:1 – the Department for Transport said this means that "for every £1 of public money spent, the funded schemes provide £5.50 worth of social benefit."
The DfT’s "Value for Money" guidance says a project will generally be regarded as "medium" if the BCR is between 1.5 and 2; and "high" if it is above 2. In transport terms, 35 to 1 is most definitely "off the scale".
To put this into perspective, the Eddington transport study of 2006 said the BCR for trunk roads was 4.66, amd for local roads 4.23.