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Wales has stopped building new roads. Will other countries go down the same route?

To reduce our reliance on cars, radical changes are needed, so the Welsh government’s decision to freeze road building is a small shift in the right direction.

In June last year, the government of Wales said it was halting all new road-building projects. The plan was a bold move in the effort to hit net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The more roads there are, the more cars there will be to fill them, experts said – while scientists, community groups and doctors’ unions pleaded for action on air pollution. An external panel will review all proposed future schemes.

It’s no coincidence that Wales was the first UK country to appoint a Future Generations Commissioner. The commissioner, Sophie Howe – tasked with protecting the long-term interests of Welsh society – urged Welsh Parliament members to freeze road building in 2020. When they did, she hailed the “very brave” move and said that while the needs of rural residents with fewer transport links mustn’t be forgotten, radical changes would be needed in order to protect the future of the planet. 

Wales’s focus on putting long-term thinking at the forefront of political decision-making chimes with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, created by Big Issue founder Lord John Bird, which is currently making its way through Parliament.

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Like the climate crisis, the impacts of new roads and traffic congestion hit poorer communities the hardest while substandard public transport perpetuates the UK’s deep inequality. Air pollution levels breach safe legal limits at more than 97 per cent of homes across the country, with those in poverty and people from ethnic minority backgrounds being worst affected. It’s a growing problem, driven largely by increasing levels of private car ownership, while the World Health Organisation links air pollution to dementia, type 2 diabetes, strokes, lung cancers and respiratory illnesses. 

Around 40,000 deaths each year can be attributed to toxic air in the UK alone, according to research by the Royal College of Physicians. In 2020, nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah became the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. She lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, one of the busiest roads in London, and the concentration of air toxins exacerbated her asthma to the point of a fatal attack, the coroner ruled.

The health of the planet also relies on how successfully each UK nation reduces its reliance on private cars. Taking decisive action on the climate crisis would require “changes in all parts of our lives”, Lee Waters, deputy minister for climate change, told the Senedd when he announced the freeze on road building: “In the next 10 years, we are going to need to more than double all the cuts we’ve managed over the last 30.”

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Some experts don’t buy the idea that new roads diverting traffic away from built-up residential areas are the answer. Road traffic acts like a gas, said sustainable transport expert Professor John Whitelegg, explaining how more roads usually means more cars, as “it always expands to fill the space available”. Effects on local health mean each car on inner-city London roads costs the NHS around £8,000, Oxford and Bath university research has shown. So who are new roads really for? Studies suggest that while reliance on cars is often the only option for those in under-served rural areas, it’s investment in public transport networks – not new roads – which helps lift people out of poverty.

Transport is “integral to improving equality, by increasing access to jobs, education and services”, NatCen researchers said in a 2019 report commissioned by Westminster’s Department for Transport. People in lower-paid jobs who live in more deprived areas are more likely to use buses, according to the study, and they’re more likely to turn down better-paying work because of transport issues. It also found that people on higher incomes tend to use cars and trains more often. Any policies which make transport more accessible and more affordable will promote equality.

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The Welsh government’s policy on road building wasn’t universally welcomed. The approach “just feels wrong”, according to Simon Hart, secretary of state for Wales. Both UK and Wales governments have rejected petitions from lobby groups calling for new Welsh roads in recent months. But the campaign against new roads is spreading. Plans for a new route under the Thames – the Silvertown Tunnel – are at the heart of a frantic row which has seen scientists, teachers, doctors, councillors and other locals stage protests this summer. Construction is due to start on the £2.2billion tunnel linking the Royal Docks and North Greenwich imminently, despite opposition from both Newham and Greenwich councils. 

Speaking at a recent protest, National Education Union members said local teachers face a widespread asthma problem among children, but that the issues decreased during Covid-19 lockdowns when road traffic was cut significantly. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan hasn’t budged on the plan – but if Wales’s approach catches on, it could be the beginning of the end for road building around the UK.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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