Taking his cue from Highways England, former Road Minister, Jesse Norman, argued that a new Expressway is vital to “unlock“ economic growth in the South East, helping to deliver one million new homes.
But why concentrate further growth in the South East? We already have the densest population in the UK, huge demand on land, very high levels of congestion and worrying stresses on our water supply.
Meanwhile, estimates suggest that the Expressway will cost the taxpayer around £4bn. It is heartening to know that the Department for Transport is awash with public money, but spending it in a relatively wealthy South East makes little sense. In terms of wealth distribution, the UK is the most unequal of the ten Northern European countries, with six out of ten of the poorest regions of Northern Europe being in the UK. A recent and damning UN report on UK poverty and human rights states that 14 million people – one fifth of the country’s population – live in poverty. That £4bn would surely be better spent in regions that need it.
Instead, there appears to be a vague idea that, if growth is encouraged in the South East, the tax base will grow and the money gained from this could be used to invest elsewhere – at some point. But waiting potentially decades for some possible return is not sensible. The deeply worrying structural problems in our society ought to be tackled now.
Rather than do this, the Government seems hell-bent on perpetuating an affluent, environmentally damaged and overcrowded South-East that sucks in talent and investment, while the rest of the country is left to fill Amazon orders and clean second homes. High Speed Two was intended to rebalance the UK economy. The Oxford-Cambridge Corridor appears designed to do the opposite. If the Government is going to spend vast sums of public money on infrastructure projects, it could at least do it consistently.
In the meantime, new revised projections for household growth provided by the Office for National Statistics show that housing demand will be 17% lower in the SE and in East of England (i.e. the Cambridge end) (Planning, 28 September 2018, p8).
If the economic argument doesn’t stand up, what of the arguments about improved “connectivity”? Jesse Norman states that the proposed Expressway “fills a major gap in the national road network”.
But connectivity between Oxford and Cambridge was supposed to be enhanced by the East-West rail-link, wasn’t it? Ah, but the minister has this covered. A new Expressway will help to reduce “the risk of car dependence“. It will “work together with the proposed East West Rail link to revolutionise east-west connectivity.”
The Expressway is sometimes referred to as “the missing link”. BEAG suggests that the missing link is actually the one in the Government’s chain of logic.
If connectivity between Oxford and Cambridge is a problem, rather than build a new motorway at public expense, why not do something about the cost of public travel? Between 1980 and 2016, the cost of bus and coach travel rose by 64% and rail travel by 63%, despite a small drop in 2016. By contrast, the cost of travelling by car has decreased by 20%. (For a detailed report on the figures.)
Does the knowledge economy have to get in a car?
Building a new road is not a twenty-first century response to the issue of connectivity. It is surely possible that the government could find a less environmentally harmful approach. For example, one that doesn’t belong in the 1970s.