For the most part, the Liberal Democrats have excellent transport policies,
based on the latest expert thinking.
But were they applied to Newbury and its controversial bypass?
Do the Liberal Democrats follow their own policy guidelines, and do they listen to expert advice?
Or are they simply defending entrenched positions?
Here are some of the claims made by the party politicians about the Newbury bypass, compared to their own policies and what the experts say.
The Liberal Democrats have made much of the so-called 'democratic procedures' used to select the Newbury bypass. Mr Rendel did not attend the 1988 public inquiry, but considers that; "Sixteen years of investigation including two public inquiries and a recent independent review have convincingly proved that the Newbury Western bypass will cause less environmental damage than any alternative"; 1.
Consultation on the Newbury bypass in 1982 made it clear that the plan was to select "a continuous, high standard route between Southampton and Birmingham" 2. The Western bypass route was chosen in 1984 as the preferred route, at a time when environmental concerns were much lower than now. Draft orders were published for this route (and no other) in 1986. By the time of the 1988 public inquiry the decision was essentially a foregone conclusion, even though the need for the bypass had never been debated. The second public inquiry, in 1992, looked at side-road orders and did not consider objections to the bypass.
The so-called "independent" review was carried out in secret by the Highways Agency. 3. The Liberal Democrats lobbied against the review - causing it to be cut short - contradicting their commitment to "a comprehensive review of the trunk road programme" 4.
The official 'procedures' undergone at Newbury were limited to choosing the route for the A34. The needs of Newbury, or the possibilities for using other methods to deal with the traffic problems were not considered. The DoT has explained that at public inquiries, "representatives are not obliged to answer questions about the merits of Government policy or about the methods, design standards, economic assumptions and forecasts of traffic growth adopted by the Government" 5. This limits the public inquiry to being little more than a rubber stamp of a decision already made.
Lib Dem Policy:
The Liberal Democrats themselves recognise the flaws of the public inquiry system. They agree that "the appraisal system, by which proposed road and public transport schemes are evaluated, is currently weighted towards road building" 6. In a letter of June 1994 to Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP, the Highways Agency conceded that "in the last five years, five schemes have not been recommended by public inquiry inspectors out of a total of 146 schemes which have been to public inquiry."
At Newbury, there has been no forum for examining alternative transport strategies, even though the Liberal Democrats are calling for "A new approach to road building, ensuring that no major motorway or major trunk road investment should go ahead unless it can be demonstrated that alternative transport provision cannot meet the need at lower economic and environmental cost" 7.
Mr Ashdown suggested his party has "never been opposed to smaller scale bypasses that help individual communities" 8. But this does not fit the description of the Newbury bypass, a major dual-carriageway trunk road which Mr Rendel conceded "is being built primarily to speed the traffic from Southampton to Birmingham and back again rather than to solve Newbury's traffic problems" 9.
Traffic management was already rejected by the 1982 public consultation, which stated that the traffic problems "cannot be adequately resolved by traffic management schemes or minor highway improvements alone". The completed questionnaires and any other comments received during this consultation were to be "taken into account before the Secretary of State decides which route [emphasis added] he considers should be adopted for further study" 12.
The needs of Newbury were secondary considerations at the public inquiry. The Inspector did not consider other transport initiatives, making it clear that it was not within the terms of reference to make supplementary recommendations" 13. The route selected had to cater for projected increases in traffic - which one would expect the Liberal Democrats to strongly oppose, given their commitment to traffic reduction. Their 1994 election paper on public transport asked whether we should "pander to the fact that traffic is set to double by 2025 or should we say enough is enough and act to stop this increase in traffic".
The same year the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) recommended that the Department of Transport should "investigate whether some towns or villages could obtain most of the benefits of a bypass, more cost-effectively and with less environmental damage, through traffic management measures"14. The RCEP report confirmed that where there was doubt about a bypass, "traffic management could be adopted much more quickly as an interim solution". The Liberal Democrats warmly welcomed the RCEP report, claiming that it was "full of practical, sensible suggestions... logical and intelligible, and could be easily implemented"15., but kept very quiet about it at Newbury16.
Virtually nothing has been tried in Newbury. Stuart White, Chairman of Berkshire County Council transport committee (the authority in overall charge of Newbury's transport strategy) found this statement "very difficult to believe... Both Berkshire county council and the Government have systematically neglected Newbury's traffic problems18.
A report from Berkshire County Council in 1991 identified the "need to develop a clear and comprehensive area wide traffic management plan for the whole town centre... [including] an integrated strategy which maximised the use of public transport, and other measures such as cycling, walking, flexible working hours, car sharing and others" 19. Alan Jones, Chief Planner for Newbury District Council, commenting on these suggestions, admitted that "we've been talking about the same principles in Newbury for the last 10 years", but conceded that "we're right at the beginning"20.
It is difficult to see how everything could already have been tried already, as even basic transport information for Newbury seems to be lacking. In February 1995, the Area Highway Section for Newbury stated that "Recent concerns about the general increase of traffic and environmental problems in Newbury town centre have lead to requests from local Members for a local traffic study".
Mr Rendel frequently claims that until the bypass is built, "there is just no space on local roads to implement these ideas"21. But Keith Buchan, who was commissioned by Friends of the Earth (FOE) to investigate an alternative transport study for Newbury, has specifically addressed this point in a report on Newbury's transport systems: 'End of the Road. Managing Newbury's Traffic without a Western Bypass'.Mr Buchan has worked on dozens of traffic management projects, as well as schemes like the London Bus Priority Network. Most of the ideas put forward, such as parking restrictions and putting heavy lorries onto the railways, would free up road space. Mr Rendel's response to the report was to accuse Friends of the Earth of wanting "to sacrifice Newbury to their own political end" 22.
Quite the opposite. Bypass opponents agree that there are good opportunities for reducing traffic on the A34. The 'End of the Road' report found that low-cost traffic management and public transport options could be implemented in Newbury in a similar timescale to the Western bypass 24.
The Liberal Democrats have been strangely quiet about rail freight, despite their stated priority of "rail before road" and the belief that the "development of the railway infrastructure should be a matter of national policy"25. The potential of the Southampton to Midlands line to take freight out of Newbury was one of the most important findings of the 'End of the Road' study on alternatives to the bypass. According to Transport 2000, this could "substantially cut long-distance heavy lorry traffic through Newbury for less than half the cost of the bypass"26. There would be additional environmental benefits all along the rail corridor.
Mr Rendel claims that, based on Government figures, "there will be a 38% reduction in the traffic in central Newbury as compared to what the traffic levels would be if there were no bypass" 27. But this figure does not take into account 'induced traffic', which could considerably reduce the 'benefit' of the bypass. The SACTRA report of 1994 found that building roads generates new traffic, as does relieving congestion on existing roads (through the release of 'suppressed demand').
Mr Rendel has said a number of times that he believes the Newbury bypass will not generate new traffic. He says, for example, "there is all the difference in the world between, on the one hand, creating entirely new roads and thus encouraging entirely new journeys to be undertaken by car, and on the other hand, removing already existing roads from the centre of some of Britain's loveliest old towns and villages" 28. (conveniently forgetting that the through traffic in Newbury travels mostly on the dual-carriageway ring road, not through the centre of town). Or "when you push cars and lorries onto a different road but on the same route, it [the SACTRA report] doesn't show that that increases traffic".
These arguments are unrecognisable in the context of the SACTRA report. The report identifies situations where roads induce traffic, including "roads in and around urban areas" 29. Nowhere in the SACTRA report does it say that induced traffic is confined to new 'routes'. Mr Rendel has also neglected the extra traffic on the existing A34 in Newbury. A recent study of this traffic generation effect showed that: "the roads which bypasses had been intended to relieve showed traffic levels 25% higher than forecast 30. The Highways Agency has already admitted that "the more effective the bypass in terms of traffic flows the greater the likelihood of induced traffic "31.
Mr Rendel's dismissal of traffic generation is at odds with the SACTRA description that this constitutes "the most radical change in traffic and economic appraisal of trunk roads... since the early 1970's".
Yet Mr Rendel thinks that "The Government has cut back its roads programme and lots of initiatives have been taken to make sure that the rate of increase does not happen" 33.
It is difficult to predict road traffic increases accurately. But if Mr Rendel is correct, and traffic levels do not rise as much as currently forecast, then this would considerably undermine the case for the bypass. The road scheme was specifically planned to take the large traffic increases predicted over the next 30 years. According to Keith Buchan, (an advisor to the Government on traffic forecasts), if traffic level rises are significantly slower than forecast, the Newbury bypass would have a negative economic assessment, even under current cost-benefit rules which are heavily biased in favour of road schemes34.
The Highways Agency concedes that for local traffic the urban area around the A34 is congested, and will remain so on completion of the bypass 38. Berkshire County Council admit that despite the bypass, "current congestion problems are likely to get substantially worse", and that flows through the three key junctions on the A34 within the Newbury area are forecast to be higher than those currently observed within a short time after the opening of the bypass 39.
Berkshire County Council's 'Newbury Transport Strategy', published in May 1996, admitted that even if its "challenging" demand management target for the town is achieved, "traffic conditions on the existing A34 in 2006 would return to the current position". This means that the �100 million of taxpayer's money being spent on the bypass would bring just eight years traffic relief for the A34 40. The Berkshire transport strategy proposed pedestrianisation of other roads in Newbury town centre, where there is little problem with through traffic, but the A34 is to remain a trunk road 41.
Mr Rendel claims that the bypass is needed because "Local businesses, not to mention the emergency services, find that it can take an hour or more to travel just a mile or two across Newbury".42.
But according to the Highways Agency, the average time saving for a trip on the existing A34 in Newbury after the bypass opens is 1 minute for off-peak and 8 minutes for peak hour journeys43. The report further admits that very few trips will benefit from the time savings quoted for the relieved route, for which the time savings are quoted between the bypass
end-points". The time saving for most traffic using the bypass itself is just 2 minutes! These figures are based on the most recent traffic assessments.
Although occasional traffic will gain greater time savings, the
Highways Agency say those numbers are "very small".
Since the ELRC was first promoted there has been a growing recognition that we can no longer deal with our traffic problems by providing more roads.
We call on the Department of Transport to look again at the ELRC project, and to look at the new evidence provided... that wasn't available at the time of the public inquiries..
These are the words of Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP, in 1993 44. Yet the ELRC went through its 'democratic procedures' at about the same time as the Newbury bypass 45. Simon Hughes' remarks pre-dated the RCEP report, the SACTRA report, and the 'National Transport Debate'. There have also been three nationally important historic and wildlife areas designated on the route of the Newbury bypass, since the public inquiry. The 'changes' in circumstance could hardly have been greater.
At Newbury, however, the Liberal Democrats took a very different line. They would not debate changes in transport policy, claiming that "however much we encourage other forms of transport, that day is still a very long way off". 46.
This is disappointing in view of the Liberal Democrats call for "Above all, ... an end to the �19bn roads programme, and a progressive switch from cars to rail, bus, tube, tram, bicycle and foot." 47. Indeed, their own policy document on transport - Vehicles for Change - notes that "even limited projects such as ... bypasses often run into vociferous public objections. ...Road improvements such as these serve to encourage the expansion of car use, and ultimately congestion problems on a larger scale. By contrast, action to reduce congestion will bring benefits".
"Like many other people, I have always accepted that a by-pass running through the countryside west of Newbury will do considerable environmental damage - Mr Rendel 1995" .49.
The Government's Landscape Advisory Committee was in no doubt when it reported in 1986 that, "the western route is, in landscape terms, unacceptable. It is massively destructive of a largely intimate countryside, unable to absorb the impact of a major highway" 50..
The Liberal Democrats also claim that "English Nature, which maintained its opposition to Twyford Down to the bitter end, has always accepted that the design and route of the Newbury bypass are the best possible". 51.
FOE does not accept this statement, which had no reference. English Nature did "object to the proposed construction of an embankment across the Kennet valley, recommending instead the use of a stilted flyover" 52. English Nature has also agreed that the Newbury bypass has never had a proper environmental impact assessment (EIA). 53.
Mr Rendel believes that "the whole point about this road is that it's for the benefit of the environment"54. He claims that environmental groups "grossly exaggerate the damage that will be done" 55., and that "People who took the opportunity recently to view the model of the bypass almost all agreed that the anti-bypass campaigners had destroyed their own case by their wild exaggeration of the amount of damage which the bypass will cause" 56.
According to English Nature, the effects of roads go well beyond the immediate destruction from construction. The "most significant effects arise from air pollution", but roads also"disrupt water tables, fragment wildlife areas, cause animal deaths and impact on other areas
through mining of aggregates" 57.
Such effects would be impossible to deduce from observing a model.
The Liberal Democrats appear to believe that they have greater
environmental qualifications than all of the major conservation
organisations put together; (WWF, RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have all
condemned the road on environmental grounds). But in the absence of a full EIA, it is difficult to see how they can be so certain. A wide range of
wildlife has been found recently on the route of the bypass, including bats,
badgers, Dormice and the rare snail, Vertigo moulinsiana, (protected under European law). These species were not known about until clearance work
started, and there was no assessment of the impacts of the bypass on them.
Even Sir John Banham, chairman of Tarmac, which constructed the M3 extension through Twyford Down, has spoken out against the environmental effects of the road. He stated that Tarmac, if chosen, "would insist on a panel putting forward its own detailed proposals for managing the environmental challenges posed by the chosen route".
But such call-ins are deceptive. Bob Worcester, Chair of MORI, said in response to Mr Rendel's claim, "It is highly misleading to suggest that telephone call-in lines can be used to represent the views of people in an area as a whole. They do no more than indicate the view of those who respond to them, and this should be made clear when quoting from them". 60.
Survey Research Associates (part of the NOP group) carried out a survey throughout the country between 8-9 March 1996. The results showed that more people wanted the government to stop work and implement alternatives to Newbury's traffic problems than wanted work on the bypass to continue. The finding was still statistically significant for the Meridian TV region - which includes Newbury. The pollsters interviewed 1539 people face to face, selected as a representative sample. Mr Rendel's accused FOE of being "grossly misleading" when these findings were presented on a radio debate.
Despite the Liberal Democrat claims of business support for the bypass, FOE is aware of no representative polls. But Mr Rendel has admitted that "if I did say that 100 per cent of business was in favour, then I fully accept that was an exaggeration. It was a figure of speech rather than an arithmetically correct estimate. 61 " This did not stop Mr Rendel attacking the local 'Businesses against the Bypass'; "to say that I am misleading the public about the level of support from business is just lying"62
Local MP, David Rendel claims to wants to discuss the bypass issues "rationally and sensibly" 64. However, in January 1996 he claimed that: "Friends of the Earth is actually putting out ecoterrorist information" 65.- an allegation which he later admitted is untrue and "regrets" 66. One week later he was accusing anti-bypass protestors of telling "packs of lies" 67.
He even claimed that: "FOE's own credibility is going to be severely damaged by their opposition to this road" because FOE allegedly: "refuses to accept that there are environmental benefits..." 68. from the construction of the Bypass. This is surprising as Mr Rendel had earlier "welcomed the Friends of the Earth admission that there would be benefits to Newbury from the building of the bypass" 69. Friends of the Earth has always argued that there would be 'benefits' from the bypass, but they would be small for the �100 million cost; they would last only a few years, and that there are other ways solving Newbury's traffic problems without the environmental destruction of road-building.
Mr Ashdown has similarly tried to discredit Friends of the Earth in the claim that FOE "only turned up when the bulldozers and the television cameras arrived" 70. Not true. FOE first gave evidence against the Newbury bypass in 1982 71. and spent thousands of pounds researching workable alternatives to the bypass long before the press arrived.
The Liberal Democrat leaflet 'Newbury bypass - Why we need on Now' has been widely distributed by the party. Yet it has not a single reference, not a single direct quotation, no mention of the RCEP and SACTRA reports, and not a single line of Liberal Democrat party policy in it. This is wholly inadequate, given the Liberal Democrat committment to making "tough choices" to protect the environment 72.
The environmental consequences of road-building are enormous, not to mention the huge financial costs. Now is the time to debate alternative transport strategies, and to find places where these can be best implemented.
The Liberal Democrats accuse the Government of making "bad decisions, missed opportunities, avoidable errors" 73. in its transport policies. The Liberal Party, as the second party of local government, must put its own policies into practice, and ensure that they do not repeat these mistakes.
Published by Newbury Friends of the Earth
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Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland
26-28 Underwood Street, London, N1 7JQ
Telephone (020 7490 1555), Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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