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Roads to Ruin.

Tim Bragg speaks out

England is seeing seemingly unstoppable urbanisation and increases in traffic. TP. Bragg argues that it’s time to decide what kind of country we want to live in.

Everywhere in England, it seems, roads are being built, widened, “improved” and yet the volume of traffic increases. Visiting Devon recently I was astonished to find myself in a “jam”. Astonished to see dirty verges and untidy roadsides. Visiting the Midlands I was astounded by the amount of traffic, traffic lights and newly built roads.

New roads and motorways are dissecting areas of our countryside both physically and psychologically. Old communities are fragmented. Town squares are clogged or no-go to traffic whilst out-of-town shopping relies on the motorcar. No amount of underpasses or bridges can counter this psychological feeling that an authentic, linked area is being segmented into isolated parts. Cars have and still are changing the nature of our communities.

The following might seem unsubtle, vulgar and simplistic, but I do connect population growth with car ownership and therefore increased road building and subsequent pollution from traffic. It appears our population is going to continue to rise (and some very peculiar “logic” has been put forward in its favour) so that we must deal with an ever-increasing amount of traffic. An ever-increasing amount of stress. And whether or not there is a reduction in world population growth around 2050, England is not going to escape critical pressures on its remaining green areas. Roads not only eat up land with their tarmac or concrete but of course also bring “necessary” amenities such as petrol stations and roadside “chefs”. (And given a choice between “jobs” or “countryside” it appears that “jobs” win every time.) Despite Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – if the government decrees, then a road will go through.

So to accommodate this projected population increase (or even simple car ownership) we can build more roads, we can regulate more traffic (traffic lights and roundabouts etc) and we can control the nature of the increased traffic volume (through speed cameras; road humps; road narrowing; CCTV – congestion charging etc). There have been technological improvements in cars and stricter MOT tests and some, but seemingly little, attempts at a better and cheaper public transport system and an integrated transport system. But the tendency for more cars continues unabated.

For the freedom to drive our own private car we are accepting more and more control. There is an insidious “tyranny” being subjected upon the private car owner and driver. A draconian government (these have existed and still do) might limit car ownership; increase car tax; increase car prices and control car movements. With new technology each and every car can have smart devices fitted that register where it travels, with charges imposed concomitantly. I am sure it is possible to prevent cars from actually entering certain areas. Parts of England might become excluded from the average (i.e. not rich) car owner. Well if we don’t want motorways stacked on top of each other, with extended underground diversions – if we don’t want England carved up and choking on petrol and diesel fumes – couldn’t draconian governmental methods be good?

One might argue that if cutting car ownership and their use meant better and cheap railways, trams, busses and taxis then the answer to the above is – possibly. But what would probably result is both a heavily regimented road system and a two-tier level of transport – cars for those who could afford it -public transport for the rest. Some would argue that people living so far from their work and general urban sprawl – not demography – increases car use. Yes. But those factors are simply a part of, and a response to, population increase. Why can’t the link be made?

Communities developed organically in England – a river crossing, a fertile valley, a hill fort, a port. Villages and towns spread out into habitable areas and were connected organically by tracks and roads. Only when towns grew uncontrollably did roads become blocked. Only with car use did roads that had existed for a thousand years become inadequate. By-passes were needed. Motorways drove “roman” like between towns. Still more cars were produced and sold. People left inner-cities and towns and needed – or preferred – car travel to public transport. Nothing we have done so far has curbed this trend. No amount of legislation and traffic lights and fuel pricing has put us off driving independently.

What can be done? Apart from chasing technological improvements so that cars are “cleaner” and more efficient – I think it is time to look at England’s population. Let’s take away some of the pressure. Let’s reduce migration to this island – England especially – let’s take a moral stand on illegal immigrants (not least improving race relations in the process). Let’s accept the fact that we cannot simply continue to grow either in terms of capital and consumer goods – or cars and population. Let’s start addressing what will make us a happier people living in a less-polluted island. Let’s start looking at causes rather than symptoms. Our response to car ownership and traffic has continually been to address the symptoms not the cause.

This has become – and will become – a bigger debate. A debate about population – demographics; about pensions, work, freedom, the nature, perhaps, of what constitutes happiness. It is a deliberate opening of a debate that we need to discuss in Steadfast. If we care about England we must care about how she is managed. We must address the nature of her population.

There might be glaring “holes” in this article but – I presume – there are many among us who can put forward stronger and more coherent arguments. Let’s get going. Steadfast is a Green organisation. It has to be. But whereas Green politics fail to link population and migration (inwards and outwards) to real environmental and human problems we must be bolder. We have to start looking at an England we want. (Later that will include the demographic make-up of England and how we view Englishness).

I hand over the specific debate on cars and transport to our readership and open the way for some more general and far-reaching discussion. England hasn’t happened by chance. It has happened by choices made through time. We are part of its unfolding narrative – we cannot absolve ourselves of this responsibility – no – least of all members of Steadfast.

Articles on “green” issues affecting England and her people especially welcome.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 of Steadfast Magazine – Spring 2003


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