First Create Your Traffic Problem

The purpose of the Hastings bypass is to increase congestion on the South coast, paving the way for a motorway

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 8th March 2001

The primary purpose of all new development is to provide contracts for developers. When they obtain permission to proceed, the value of the land they own can rise a thousandfold. Credit lines open, the Treasury unlocks its gates, and public funds are turned into private income.

Some developments have a secondary purpose: to deliver public benefits. But when there is no conceivable advantage for anyone outside the construction industry, their backers can proceed only with a little help from their friends. So, in the 1980s, the Conservative government, assiduously lobbied by the road-building firms, set out to persuade the public that new roads relieve traffic and generate wealth. Local editors and businessmen were wined and dined by civil servants, public enquiries were rigged, consultation documents warned — in the face of all the evidence — that without more construction the economy would collapse.

But the biggest prize remained elusive. The road builders wanted a motorway along the south coast, from Folkestone in Kent to Honiton in Devon. The contracts would be worth over £5 billion. But the new road would pass through several marginal constituencies, destroying some of Britain’s most beautiful landscapes and best protected ancient monuments. The Tories backed down. But developers never give up. This month Tony Blair, who promised on Tuesday to put the environment “at the top of the agenda”, will decide whether or not to revive one of the most devastating developments ever proposed in Britain.

The roadbuilders’ problem is that there is no earthly need for a motorway. Nearly all the cars on the south coast route are local, moving to and from the nearest towns. Long distance traffic uses the M20, M25, M3 and A303. So it will have to be built by stealth. The scheme has been re-packaged as a series of bypasses. When the bypasses are linked up, a motorway miraculously appears.

But before you can build your bypasses, first you must build your congestion. You must start at the most vulnerable point on the route, where traffic problems are already severe and deprivation can be used as an excuse for development. Hastings was the obvious choice.

So the lobbyists, working now through the local authorities and the local newspapers they recruited while the Tories were in power, re-launched the Hastings section of the south coast motorway as a “regeneration” scheme, linked to a new business park outside Bexhill. The town’s proposed bypasses, the local papers claim on an almost daily basis, will reduce unemployment and relieve congestion.

Unfortunately the “multimodal study” commissioned to assess the scheme reached precisely the opposite conclusion. The new roads will draw employers out of Hastings, increasing joblessness there by 300. The long-term unemployed, most of whom live in the town centre and do not possess cars, will suffer most. The new housing attached to the bypasses will increase the workforce by 3,900, while the business park will supply a maximum of 3,100 jobs: unemployment will rise by 800.

And crucially, far from relieving congestion, the new scheme will compound it. The Hastings bypasses will load an extra 1000 cars a day onto A259 to the east, and 2,500 onto the A27 to the west. These volumes are insupportable. As the consultants’ report concludes, “this additional traffic may create additional pressure for further road building along the strategic east:west axis”. And that road-building will, in turn, load cars onto the surrounding roads, generating inexorable pressure for the completion of a motorway from Folkestone to Honiton.

Once you have recruited the newspapers, the MP, especially in a Labour marginal like Hastings, falls into the bag. Mike Foster has pegged his political survival to the construction of the new roads. On the Today programme three weeks ago, I warned him that if he continued to claim that they would reduce unemployment in Hastings, he would be lying to his constituents. He did not dispute this, but insisted that as the majority of Hastings residents wanted the project to go ahead, the roads had to be built. Anti-bypass campaigners report that as soon as local people are told what the multimodal study really says about jobs and traffic, they change their minds.

Mr Blair has a stark choice. He can protect the taxpayer, the environment and the people of the south coast from a monstrous and wholly unnecessary scheme, or he can protect a man whose continued employment depends upon destroying other people’s. It shouldn’t be a difficult decision to make. But as as the election approaches and the MP totters, our newly green Prime Minister must be sorely tempted to bypass democracy.