Hard-wired Traffic Jams

The Government’s transport policies are being destroyed by its housebuilding plans

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 7th January 1998.

Four hundred and nineteen MPs think traffic reduction is a good idea. They are supporting the Road Traffic Reduction Bill, due for debate at the end of this month. But, while the transport ministers Gavin Strang and Glenda Jackson have both signed up, their colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) have so far failed to grace the matter with their attention.

At least no one can accuse Richard Caborn, the Planning Minister, or Nick Raynsford, the Minister for Construction, of inconsistency. In November, Richard Caborn announced that half the 4.4 million new homes he claims are needed in England will be built in the countryside. Nick Raynsford has repeatedly stressed his enthusiasm for new suburban developments. Their plans, if implemented, will lay waste to their department’s commitment to “integrated transport”, of which last year’s green paper made such resolute boasts. The department brought together just seven months ago to ensure that transport planning and environmental planning don’t conflict already seems to be pulling itself apart.

The main component of future traffic management is effective development control. Disaggregated, low-density housing of the kind Raynsford and Caborn envisage is impossible to serve with efficient public transport. Even without taking its new housing figures into account, the DETR’s projections already show rural traffic increasing substantially faster than urban traffic. The government can tax, cajole and antagonise car drivers as much as it likes, but the people of the new suburban sprawl will have no choice but to stay behind the wheel. Traffic jams will be hardwired.

The battle over new housing has been portrayed, notably by Professor Peter Hall, whose increasingly crude and bizarre public statements lend a bogus intellectual authority to Caborn’s plans, as a narrow environmental problem: humans vs newts. But the principal hazard of suburban sprawl is a crisis of social provision. Inadequate transport is one of the greatest sources of deprivation in rural areas. If you live in the countryside and have no car (and one third of British households have no access to a car) you can forget about shopping, forget about services and forget about employment.

Greenfield land on the fringes of cities is being used by some local authorities as a dustbin for the poor. Without shops, with miserably inadequate and expensive public transport, these new out-of-town, out-of-sight and out-of-mind estates are turning into gigantic poverty traps. When the rich flee to their rather more congenial rural enclaves, the flow of wealth is further choked. Urban decay and ghettoisation become almost ineradicable.

Ironically, one of the factors limiting the provision of houses in cities is the extraordinarily generous allowance both local authorities and central government make for the car. Some councils insist that as many as three off-road parking spaces be allocated to every new home. When the London Borough of Islington tried to halve its parking requirements, the Government Office for London, now part of the DETR, forbade it to do so. A study published this week by the London Planning Advisory Committee and the DETR shows that reducing the parking requirement is one of the principal means by which London could accomodate nearly all its new households in good quality, low-rise homes with gardens, without having to make use of new development land.

But do the ministers for planning and construction want to know? Both have made speeches which suggest that they are listening rather too hard to the House Builders’ Federation and the Property Industry Forum, which swing inordinate weight within the DETR. Property companies have bought vast tracts of land on the fringes of towns and cities in the hope of getting planning permission for new housing there, raising its value several hundredfold. It is easier and far more profitable to build on greenfield sites than on urban wastes. Developers have little interest in constructing new towns (which could, conceivably, both generate their own economies and make use of effective public transport) and every interest in the much cheaper option of investing in suburban sprawl.

John Prescott has to decide whether he wants the DETR to become a department for integration – of transport, development and prosperity – or a department for physical, economic and social fragmentation. If he is serious about pursuing the first option, then nothing needs more urgent integration than his contumacious ministers.