Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Road building – Its yesterday once more!

Nostalgia is not, as they say, as good as it used to be.  The current push for new roads seems to harp back to an imagined golden age when, it was thought, all you had to do was invest in infrastructure and everything would then be fine. 

Indeed, if I remember correctly, around the mid 1990’s there was a proud boast of the biggest road building programme since the Romans left.  So, as there seems to be some attempt to live in the past again, perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of the level of environmental damage that would have resulted from this previous rush for roads.

Going from east to west the list of devastation seems almost unimaginable today:

First at Rye there were proposals for a major road changing the character of the old town and extending across Rye Harbour.  This would probably have impacted on a Special Area for Conservation - an internationally important wildlife site appreciated by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. 

Then a road was proposed to run the length of the beautifully tranquil Brede valley, devastating the wetlands there before sweeping through the ancient woods north of Hastings and carving across the Combe Haven Site of Special Scientific Interest. 

Then there was a proposal for a dual carriageway running across Pevensey Levels and through our own nature reserve.  Again Pevensey is an internationally recognised wildlife site and one of the most important wetlands in the whole of Britain, to say nothing of its historical interest and landscape quality.

Further west there were proposals to run a length of dual carriageway from Eastbourne to Lewes through what is now the National Park. 

Then we got to Worthing and proposals for a dual carriageway cutting through the Downs and passing under Cissbury Ring – a fantastic Iron Age Hill fort and also a nationally important wildlife site.  The quiet setting here would have been destroyed in a futile effort to push traffic away from Worthing itself.

A little further west and of course there was a cluster of proposals to run a dual carriageway through the largest ancient woodland on the coastal plain in order to build an Arundel bypass.

It didn’t stop with the south coast trunk road either.  A recognition that this would drive congestion elsewhere meant that proposals for new roads throughout Sussex came thick and fast.

“Improvements” to the A24, A23, A22 and A21 going north–south, some of which have now happened some have not.  But a dual carriageway was gong to be run through Ashdown Forest, the biggest heathland in the south east, appreciate by thousands and again internationally important for wildlife. 

An A272 upgrade was proposed, that would have impacted at several places, including our own nature reserve at The Mens near Wisborough Green and driving up traffic through several villages. 

There were even suggestions for an “outer” M25 running roughly through the middle of the Weald of Sussex to relieve the pressure on the current M25.

I suspect that half the people reading this today might say that it couldn’t be that bad these days.  The other half might feel that a road building programme like this is a good thing.  We need roads, so wildlife, once again, will have to be compromised.  But look again at the ever expanding list and, even ignoring the destruction of rural Sussex, you don’t see a solution, you see a treadmill.   What starts as just a little bypass here and there ends up as a treadmill with travel increasing and congestion getting worse.  Road building is not a solution – it is a politically expedient waste of public money.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

There’s never been a traffic jam on the M25!!

One of the most worrying features of the current rush for road building is the severe lack of strategic thinking in the proponents. 

The solutions put forward are surrounded by the appropriate jargon – “route-based strategies”, “transport infrastructure”, “strategic road network” and so on – but they are all basically knee-jerk reactions.  Traffic jams are predicted and a new road is pushed as the answer.  Predict and provide in its simplest form. 

A bypass here, a dual carriageway there, then it all needs expanding again.  Some wish to see the whole south coast with dual carriageways of motorway proportions along its length.  Bigger, then bigger again until we have something like the M25 running through Sussex – and after all, as well all know, there has never been a traffic jam on the M25!

Simplistic road building strategies fall apart when you start to consider what then happens.  Build a road in one place and the jam just moves to somewhere else – and demands increase for a new road there as well.  Traffic then increases elsewhere and again road developments are demanded.  Environmental damage is bad in one place, but magnified up by all the increasing demands for new roads and it becomes much worse.

This would be bad enough with a constant level of traffic, but new roads generate new traffic.  Even if one location is eased, people will then perceive the slight ease in congestion so will travel more often, so increasing traffic.  Those who believe that new roads will reduce congestion are fooling themselves.  A few favoured locations may be relieved, but overall the level of traffic throughout Sussex will increase.

Bear in mind also that many are proposing these roads specifically to drive an increase in traffic.  Road building is wanted in order to “unlock areas for development” – to enable more of the countryside to be built on.  Tarmac over part of Sussex so you can concrete over other parts.  Development may be needed, but this has to be carefully designed sustainable development, not just a rush to build roads and houses.

So what are the answers?

First we have to question a few “truths” we are told.  Road traffic is not shooting upwards, indeed some think that road traffic has peaked across the developed world.  People are finding other ways of gaining access to their needs and a focus back on roads risks bucking an otherwise good trend.  Also I’m old enough to remember nearly 20 years ago we were told that if we didn’t get bypasses round Arundel and Worthing then the economy would collapse.  20 years later we have been through a period of strong economic growth.  Sussex did not become destitute.  We were told cycling would never increase – it did.  People wouldn’t use buses – they do.  There would never be more people working from home – there are.  Teleconferencing is impractical – it isn’t.  And so on.

The truth is, as we’ve learned many times before, you can’t build your way out of the problem.  Answers have to be sophisticated not simplistic.  They may include some minor on-line improvements to roads, but to ease flow not to add capacity.  Improvements to public transport will be part of the mix and, as most journeys are short, cycling and walking are perhaps where some large gains could be made.  But the key long term solution is to reduce the need to travel – modern technology, developments in communication, management systems improvements integrated planning and so on all aiming to reduce travel.

We live in a small over crowded part of the country, imagining that there is always unlimited space to expand roads into is a dream world.  Building roads to add to the congestion is no solution.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Fracking and River Management

One of the concerns about hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is the potential impact it might have on the water environment.  Large amounts of water are needed as the injection fluid in the process and the waste water flowing back then has to be disposed of.  This clearly has implications in terms of the available water resources and then there are concerns in relation to how large quantities of polluted water are treated.  In turn this could have impacts on the ecology of rivers, water bodies and the way they are managed.

An excellent article written by Simon Dixon on “The River Management Blog” reviews the current state of knowledge regarding this aspect of fracking.  I strongly recommend those with an interest in the subject to take a look at this blog (and, bearing in mind the possible threat to the Sussex countryside “those with an interest” should include the entire population of Sussex!).

Friday, 25 July 2014

Using Less, Living Better

With economic development seemingly drifting back into a 1960’s model of unrestrained expansion, ignoring the environmental consequences, it is refreshing to realise that there is a large movement now towards a far more strategic approach to development. 

In my last blog I criticised an approach to road building that is based on the assumption that continued expansion will cure our problems.  This is a symptom of a bygone approach – prosperity can only be provided by continual physical expansion.  We live in an overcrowded county, in a highly populated country, in a world that is living far beyond its ecological limits.  Damage to wildlife is a symptom. 

The old-school approach is to carry on regardless and hope we can wrestle just a bit more GDP growth out of a reluctant natural world.  To read much in the press one could be forgiven for thinking that this is the only development model on offer.  However, as David Attenborough said, continued expansion in a finite world is only believed possible by madmen – and economists!

This old fashioned approach, however, is not the only game in town.  Solutions are being found by people with a much more strategic view about the future and this is exemplified by West Sussex’s “Environment and Climate Change Board” – an independent board established by the County Council a few years ago. 

The approach taken by the Board is summed up in the mission statement “Using Less, Living Better” – a simple but fundamental statement and, when you think about it, if we meet this aim then the world does have a future!  The Board is chaired by Russell Strutt who has now written an excellent blog investigating some of these concepts.  I would very much encourage people to read this, and maybe look at some of the sources he quotes.

Our battle against the environment looks like something we are in danger of winning!  Read Russell’s article for an alternative view.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Roads to nowhere

They say that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it – and so it goes with road building. 

Blowing a thick layer of dust off plans that have already failed several times, an A27 Action group has now formed to promote major road expansion across Sussex.  This seems supported by a s so-called evidence gathering exercise is now being rushed through by Department for Transport.  This will effectively tell us where the traffic jams are (I thought we already knew that!); this skewed exercise – only investigating traffic and only asking about road constraints - is designed to come up with the answer of more roads.

We’ve been here before – many times.

That proposed roads will damage the environment is unarguable.  Likely outcomes include devastation of ancient woodland, construction of dual carriageways through the National Park and the ignoring of climate change implications.  At a time when we should be enhancing our natural environment, rebuilding our natural prosperity and achieving major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, these proposals simply take us in the wrong direction.

Other lessons forgotten from history include the point that roads like this do not even achieve the narrow objectives set by their proposers.  The “predict and provide” approach of yesteryear has re-emerged on the na├»ve basis that if you predict where the traffic jams are going to be, expand the roads at those points then all the problems will magically disappear. 

The opposite tends to be the case. New roads generate new traffic.  Even in the unlikely event that the current traffic hot-spots might be eased, the effect of this will be to draw more traffic into the area generally.  More traffic through the lanes and villages of the National Park, more traffic and congestion in the cities, towns and villages along the A27 corridor.  Another turn of the treadmill with the following demands for yet more road building.

The reason for this is obvious.  If any one of us thinks that traffic jams are a little less likely then we will simply use our cars a little more often.  This phenomenon of generated traffic is well-known, although seems to be forgotten in current plans.

The pity here is that there are some in the economic sector that seem unable to think at a strategic level.  We live in a small, heavily populated county.  Transport will always be constrained.  Building an economy on the principle of moving more goods and people over longer distances will always be a vulnerable economy.  Instead we should be looking to the already good work being done to massively improve energy and resource efficiency, far greater use of IT and digital technology and far better integration of transport with planning. 

Approaches like this, and many others, should aim to deliver environmental prosperity and economic growth in ways that reduce the need to travel.  Setting us off in the wrong direction yet again is just a distraction from the sort of progress we should be looking for.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Lies, damn lies and (housing) statistics.

I had the privilege of attending a packed meeting last Friday, organised by LAMBS, in opposition to the new town that a developer is proposing in the countryside outside Henfield.  Around 500 people crammed into a large hall in Burgess Hill to express their concerns.

The panel of speakers included Arundel and Downs MP, Nick Herbert; Mid Sussex MP, Nicholas Soames; Mid Sussex District Councillor, Norman Webster; Hosham District Councillor, Brian O’Connell; Founder of LAMBS, Anthony Watts WilliamsDr Roger Smith, Sussex CPRE, Kenneth MacIntosh from Hands Off Henfield and I was there too.

It was an excellent meeting, giving a very clear message to these predatory developers and I recommend that you read Jane Simmons piece about the meeting on the LAMBS website.

There was, however, one thing we did not have time to delve into.  We did not really question the propaganda that is constantly promoted by developers.

We all know the story.  We need houses, the environment is a block on development, and all these protesters are just being NIMBYs by preventing people getting homes!  The constant line we are fed is that there is a lack of capacity – not enough homes, we must build more and governments are judged on how many houses they build.

But simple answers to complex problems are always wrong.

Let’s have a look at a few statistics.

If this lack of capacity was true then we would expect to be seeing increasing numbers of people being crammed into ever smaller houses.  The truth, however, is the opposite.

About 10 years ago there was an average of 2.4 people per house.  Today there is an average of 2.3.  The drive for more house building is largely a result of fewer people living in each house.  Broadly, what seems to be happening is we are spreading the same number of people into a larger number of houses. 

To take this to a ridiculous extreme you can project this continuous decline of the number of people per house into the future.  If you do this you get to a point in 230 years time where there is nobody living in any houses no matter how many you build!

A mindset based on predict and provide has obvious shortcomings.

We seem to accept, unquestioningly, that we need more houses so that young families, in particular, will have somewhere to live in the future.  Yet building more houses alone does not solve the problem.  We just end up with fewer people per house and those young families can still not find a home. 

There are far more complex issues at work here requiring social, economic and political answers – why are people needing homes not able to get them whilst others are able to spread into more houses?  Gritty problems way outside the remit of a Wildlife Trust, but problems our politicians should be addressing.  We are being deflected in a “homes versus the environment” argument as an alternative to finding more complex solutions.  This deflection benefits no one except the development industry.

We have become obsessed with housing numbers because of the “frame” of the argument, set by developers to their own advantage.  If we spend all our time arguing about who can build most houses and where we are going to put them, then developers do very nicely out of it!

In practice, as ever, the environment is used as a scape-goat.  Instead of addressing socio-economic problems driving a lack of homes we vaguely hope that destroying a bit more environment in order to build a new town will somehow be the solution.  It won’t be but in the mean time the developer will have moved on to his next lucrative project.

Monday, 16 June 2014

A New Town near Henfield - public meeting

Henfield, Woodmancote, Shermanbury, Partridge Green, Twineham, Wineham, Sayers Common, Albourne, Hickstead, Hurstpierpoint and more – all at risk from a developers plan for a town that could be larger than Burgess Hill.

The proposal undermines the local planning process, is opposed by locals, MPs, Councillors and many others, and is set to devastate 1,200 acres of beautiful rural Sussex along with its treasured wildlife. It seems to have nothing in its favour other than the clamour to produce more houses whatever the environmental cost.  Nevertheless “Mayfield Market Towns”, the developer, is set to press ahead with the formal planning application process.

Unsurprisingly there is strong local opposition to the plan.  Locals Against Mayfield Building Sprawl (LAMBS) are therefore holding a public meeting to fight the proposal.  This is on Friday 20th June at 7.30 and will be held at St Paul’s Catholic College, Jane Murray Way, Burgess Hill, RH15 8GA.  Key speakers will be MPs Nicholas Soames and Nick Herbert, and Anthony Watts from LAMBS.

The Sussex countryside is under threat and guardians of our countryside, like LAMBS, deserve our support.