The proposed new dual carriageway between Lewes and Polegate reveals the flaws in the government’s £27bn road building plan

View of the A27 from Mount Caburn

As the COP 26 event in Glasgow approaches, greater scrutiny than usual is rightly being paid to the government’s environmental promises and, more pertinently, their actions.

The pledges and targets have won plaudits, yet they have also served to highlight the widening chasm between rhetoric and reality. Mind the gap.

Nowhere is this more stark than with the juxtaposition of their positive decarbonisation strategy on the one hand, and their hideous £27bn road building programme on the other. Is this really a good look for Britain ahead of Glasgow?

No doubt when Philip Hammond as chancellor announced in 2016 this massive splurge of new roads, he would have regarded this both as a good investment for the country, and a vote winner. Actually, it is neither.

Mind you, Philip always was very pro-car. In his first week as transport secretary back in 2010, he astonished officials, and amused me, by asking why cars had to give way to trains at level crossings. Why couldn’t trains give way to cars instead?

The current transport secretary Grant Shapps has put all his chips on new technology saving the day, and asserts that this will allow us to carry on as normal, travelling where and when we want, building new roads, and all with no downside

The current transport secretary Grant Shapps has put all his chips on new technology saving the day, and asserts that this will allow us to carry on as normal, travelling where and when we want, building new roads, and all with no downside. This is disingenuous at best. Leaving aside the fact that a switch to electric does nothing to reduce congestion, an entire zero emission road fleet is decades away, and in any case will still generate pollution through the manufacturing process, and through harmful run-off from tyres and deposits from brake dust, a hitherto neglected but not insubstantial problem. Ask any water company.

It seems the Conservatives have learnt nothing over the years. The seminal 1994 report by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) proved beyond any doubt that increasing capacity on an existing corridor merely serves to attract extra vehicle traffic that previously did not exist, perhaps diverting it from rail or bus.

You need only look at the Birmingham area which over decades has had more road construction than almost any other part of the country, and where today’s traffic jams are as bad or indeed worse than almost anywhere else.

Or consider Newbury, given a hugely controversial bypass in the 1990s to relieve the town centre, except that it was not long before traffic levels in the town centre were soon back to where they had been, plus of course a whole lot more on the bypass.

Or look at the ever-widening M25 and its ever more frequent occurrences of traffic at a standstill.

That all aside, there is another huge downside to road building, and one which is irreversible and cannot be offset by technology. This is the damage to the natural environment.

But rather than talk in the abstract, I want to throw the spotlight on one proposal in detail, not because it is uniquely bad, but because the sorts of issues it throws up can be found in many of the schemes currently under consideration by Highways England, or whatever they are called this week, on behalf of the government.

I refer to the proposed new dual carriageway between Lewes and Polegate on the A27 in East Sussex. It is a stretch of countryside I know well as it falls in the constituency of Lewes which I represented for 18 years.

The highway engineers have come up with three possible routes for a new dual carriageway between the towns, all of which go through beautiful South Downs, including even a section of the supposedly ultra-protected National Park.

A new offline road here would involve slapping down 163 acres of concrete, and that’s not counting the 14 or so new accommodation bridges or underpasses for farmers, plus new roundabouts and slip roads. Moreover, precedence suggests land taken “temporarily” for construction works may in practice also be lost for ever. The section used in about 1986 to base works for an earlier straightening scheme east of Lewes remains covered in tarmac to this day.

This road would also bring new constant noise pollution to what is, along much of the proposed stretch, still an oasis of calm and tranquility. If you don’t believe me, check out this video from local pressure group SCATE: It would also have a highly damaging effect on local flora and fauna.

Pristine countryside lost to concrete cannot be recovered. It is lost for ever

Pristine countryside lost to concrete cannot be recovered. It is lost for ever. Do we really want to see this special section of the South Downs sacrificed to the motor car?

A new road brings an even more permanently damaging prospect – as sure as night follows day, new roads bring new housing. Developers would relish the prospect of a new road between Polegate and Lewes which they could build up to.

Perhaps those Conservative councillors who have been so bullish about a new road might begin to think twice about the wisdom of this, faced with the loosening of planning controls that their government is pursuing, and the huge unpopularity of this in electoral terms, as witnessed by the recent sensational loss of the hitherto very safe parliamentary seat of Chesham and Amersham to the Lib Dems.

But can the damage to the natural environment be outweighed by other gains?

I recall a visit I made as transport minister to a Midlands town to meet various councillors and businessmen (and they were all men). When are we getting our new road, they demanded. We have been campaigning for it since 1938! I had to explain that it was not a matter of Buggins’s Turn, and the reason countless governments of different colours had refused to fund the road was that it made no sense to do so, economically, environmentally or socially.

This same knee-jerk petulant protest can be found amongst many in Eastbourne who want a new motorway-style dual carriageway cut through the Sussex countryside, a proposal already rejected a number of times.

The alleged benefits in their eyes, insofar as these can be discerned at all, would appear to be twofold. One is that such a road would help the economy of their town. The second is that it would reduce accidents. Both arguments are flawed.

Evidence from across the country shows that when you build a road with more capacity into a town, there is as much likelihood of it pulling business out than attracting it, particularly if that town’s economy is less than vibrant. When the M4 was built to Wales, a lot of businesses felt they could relocate to the Reading area from where Wales could now easily be served. Similarly, when the A23 was dualled down to Brighton, businesses like Royal Mail felt they could operationally relocate to Gatwick.

In terms of safety, the last time I checked the road with the worst accident rate in East Sussex was the A259 from Polegate to Hastings. Yet those same siren voices in Eastbourne never seem to mention this, nor the serious accidents that occur on the dual carriageway stretch of the A27 between Lewes and Brighton.

In fact, during my time as the local MP, I secured a good many safety improvements to the existing Lewes-Polegate road that significantly reduced the accident rate, such as islands at junctions and reduced speed limits.

I don’t really believe these alleged safety concerns are what is driving the call for a new dual carriageway. But then that is more respectable than the real reason which is simply that these petrolheads want to put their foot down and knock a few minutes off this journey time rather than be stuck behind a car travelling at 45mph.

Nor does it bother those clamouring for a new motorway-style dual carriageway that this road would cost taxpayers a billion pounds. A thousand million pounds!

As the local MP, I persuaded Southern to cut by a third their season ticket prices on the parallel railway between Eastbourne and Lewes. The result? A big upturn in those who switched from car to train, so many in fact that Southern actually made a small profit from the move. Meanwhile, the A27 had a little less traffic. Cost to the taxpayer? Zero. Cost to Southern? Zero.

To bolster this further, I had two bespoke signs erected along the A27 bearing the logo “Eastbourne to Lewes 20 minutes by train”. Here was helpful advice for motorists whose car journey between the two points would often take much longer than this, (and still would do if their desired new road were built). The one at the Eastbourne end was vandalised. Some people don’t like the facts. It was, of course, quickly reinstated.

In any case, is this really the time to be ploughing ahead with such projects? The pandemic has fundamentally changed travel patterns, with much more home-working now established and unlikely to be fully reversed. Just how reliable now are the traffic forecasts that Highways England has used to justify their controversial plans?

Climate change requires a handbrake turn now, not an answer in 2050

And climate change requires a handbrake turn now, not an answer in 2050. There is an immediate gain to be had by promoting modal shift from road to rail, as the Welsh government has begun doing.

Along the A27 corridor, there is considerable spare capacity, both in existing rolling stock and in terms of train paths on the parallel railway. Why not cut fares drastically and get people to switch to rail? Of course there is a cost to that, but it is a tiny fraction of the one billion pounds a new dual carriageway stretch between the two towns would cost. And it would leave the pristine South Downs intact for future generations to enjoy.

If the government wants environmental credibility, it needs to ditch the bulk of its £27bn road building programme now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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