The Bulldozer of State

The decision to build a road takes place before the public inquiry begins

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian

On Saturday an almost comically diverse crowd will be gathering in Newbury. Old gentlemen with tweed hats and tufts of hair on their cheekbones will be queueing up to sign pledges beside young women with dreadlocks and pierced eyebrows. There is nothing risible about their aims, however. They are united not only by their opposition to the construction of the Newbury bypass, but also by their growing sense of alienation from the political process. The battle of Newbury will represent, better perhaps than any other conflict, the struggle for accountable government in Britain.

In December, after the original decision to start building the road threatened to precipitate a minor revolution, Brian Mawhinney, then Transport Secretary, promised both to give the scheme a year’s further consideration and to initiatiate a “great transport debate.” Seven months later, and thirty minutes before leaving office, he brought both processes to a sudden end. His hurried decision to build the road caused outrage but no great surprise. For it is at the Department of Transport that the notion of democratic participation, so lightly considered throughout government, is perhaps most comprehensively mocked.

The department’s public consultation process begins with something resembling a well-financed circus. The DoT rolls into the towns and villages close to the proposed road with half a dozen performers and a travelling exhibition. There are scale models adorned with toy cars and miniature trees and hundreds of beautifully printed brochures.

Both the display and the printed material are masterpieces of partial reporting and sugared mendacity. The brochures speak of the urgent need for the new road, the paralysis and disintegration that will set in without it, and the massive environmental improvements it will bring when it is built. The maps and scale models suggest, miraculously, that it will enhance rather than blemish the view.

The DoT’s spin doctors are on hand to offer reassurance. A major new road, they tell the locals, is the best, indeed the only, practicable option. It is only as the public inquiry approaches that the awful truth begins to dawn: the decision to build the road is made before the period of public consultation begins. All that is left to decide is which route the road should take.

The terms of the inquiry are set in advance by the department. Astonishingly, they exclude any consideration of the scheme’s objectives and the department’s policies. The objectors’ key arguments, in other words, are struck out before discussion begins.

Yet the DoT’s policies are now so widely discredited – even by its own advisory committee – that only its employees take them seriously. The cost benefit analysis it uses is one of Britain’s most celebrated economic absurdities. It relies on the notion that new roads relieve traffic growth rather than generating it – a misconception first laid to rest in 1938. It prices the value of every minute it presumes drivers will save, yet fails to account for the costs to the health and well-being of the people living nearby, to the environment and the wider infrastructure.

Its environmental assessment is notorious. Assessment takes place after the decision to build has been made, and is aimed, therefore, at mitigating the damage the road will inflict, rather than averting it. As the cost-benefit analysis is paramount, bad environmental decisions are inbuilt: it will always be cheaper to cross the rough pastures of a Site of Special Scientific Interest than the intensively farmed desert next door.

Yet all these subjects are out of bounds. No discussion is permitted about whether investment in public transport, traffic management or demand reduction might be more appropriate responses to the problem. Moreover, the road can only be described at inquiries as the DoT wishes to describe it. If the department says it’s a bypass, the inquiry has to discuss it as such. It’s a tactic the department uses repeatedly: building a major strategic road piecemeal while claiming that it is merely providing local relief for villages. At no stage of any of the inquiries can the impact of the whole road corridor be assessed.

None of this averts the possibility that objectors might be so incautious as to try to embarrass the department by raising these issues. So, just in case, public inquiries are held during the day, when most of those who would wish to attend are at work. While the DoT can throw hundreds of thousands of pounds at the inquiry, objectors must support their case out of their own pockets. The costs can be prohibitive, not least because the DoT charges for access to its documents. In case this obstacle is insufficient, the department’s QCs are empowered repeatedly to cross-examine witnesses about their qualifications to speak. Local residents have withdrawn from inquires after being treated as if they were defendants in a fraud case.

One might have hoped that the inquiry inspectors, being nominally independent, would seek to restrain such abuses. But they are scarcely the sort who would be inclined to rock the boat. Of the 48 serving in 1993, only eight were under 60. Thirty-two were retired officers of the armed forces. Characteristically they know something about engineering but next to nothing about environment or planning. They are largely dependent upon the department for advice and information.

But the overwhelming problem, as the Council for the Protection of Rural England points out, is that the DoT and its quango the Highways Agency act as both promoter and decision maker. The department puts the scheme forward, the agency steers it through the consultation process, and the department then decides whether or not it should go ahead. The decision emerges, in other words, from what is essentially an internal discussion, a small part of which the public is allowed to witness but, in practice, not to influence.

Reviewing the last five or ten years of road-building decisions, one cannot help concluding that the Department of Transport is wilfully making the wrong decisions. Its reluctance to allow debate not only at public inquiries but also in parliament can only emerge from an awareness that its policies cannot resist scrutiny. It is painfully clear that they are designed neither to relieve congestion nor to improve the quality of people’s lives. Environmentalists are no longer alone in claiming that the department is guided by a wholly different concern: the provision of work for friends in the construction and road haulage industries.

Only when the objectors become protestors, confronting the people engaged to build the roads, does anything resembling a public debate take place. The arguments that should have been raised at the inquiry are then put to the road builders for the first time. But these discussions, between the wholly disenfranchised and the wholly empowered, can, of course, lead nowhere.

Perhaps the cruellest mockery of all is the department’s claim that protestors are wasting taxpayers’ money, when they are, in fact, making use of their first opportunity to challenge the expenditure of billions. The people sitting in the trees, lying in front of bulldozers, even damaging machinery, can scarcely be censured for doing so. For them, as for all of us, pouring sand into the engines of earthmovers is one of the few forms of participation left.

George Monbiot is a Visiting Fellow of Green College, Oxford.