Blurred vehicle lights on busy road at night

Roads to ruin? The UK's most controversial road plans

Building new or bigger roads creates more traffic. Better to spend the cash on public transport, cycle routes and rail links for people and freight.
By Paul Quinn    |      Published:  19 Jul 2018    |      12 minute read

The government (via Highways England) is working on its biggest road-building programme for more than 2 decades. It intends to spend £15 billion on 100 major road schemes over the next few years.

Its plan is to “modernise our busiest A-roads and lay the foundations for a network of expressways”. Expressways, it claims, will provide “many of the benefits of a motorway performance road without the conventional costs.”

We worry that expressways would actually offer the environmentally damaging aspects of motorways too. Wide 4-lane highways. Lots of concrete barriers. More bridges and flyovers. No access for bikes and buses. More air pollution and noise pollution, more climate-changing emissions and so on.

We also question the cost-effectiveness of these road expansions – certainly when environmental costs are taken into account.

We think the huge amounts of money involved could be much better used on other parts of the country’s transport infrastructure.

In a minute we'll look at a few of the country’s most controversial road plans. We'll see why, taken together, they paint a bleak picture for our environment. Unless of course we work together to change them.

If you're ready to take action now, why not sign our petition for greater investment in public transport? It's one of the key solutions to our transport crisis.

Now for a quick overview of 4 reasons we believe road expansion is the wrong answer to the UK’s transport problems.

Long traffic jam viewed in car wing mirror
If you build it, they will come...
Credit: Stanley Nguma/Pexels

1) More roads = more traffic

The idea of building wider, potentially faster roads might appeal to people regularly stuck in traffic jams. But in fact evidence shows any benefits are short-lived.

More and bigger roads might ease bottlenecks in the very short-term; but in reality traffic grows when road capacity is increased – “induced traffic”, as it’s called in the trade.

2) More roads = more air pollution

Until we reach the goal of all vehicles being electric-powered, it’s inevitable that more roads and more traffic means more exhaust fumes. Diesel cars and trucks are particularly filthy. And even electric vehicles create pollution from tyres and brakes.

Faster roads are a problem too. It’s been shown that restricting road speeds reduces the amount of air pollution from vehicles. So expressways that allow higher speeds will create worse air quality.

We’d want to see emissions from all vehicles reduced, and a national network of Low Emission Zones in towns and cities.

Car exhaust pipe emitting cloud of fumes
Most road vehicles belch noxious exhaust fumes into the air
Credit: Ruben de Rijcke/WikimediaCC3.0

3) More roads = more climate change

Transport accounts for around a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions. And unlike other sectors such as homes and power generation, emissions from transport haven't declined over the past couple of decades. The vast majority of vehicles on our roads still burn fossil fuels (petrol or diesel), and that’s feeding global warming at an alarming rate.

We need to reduce traffic levels overall. But we also need to make sure the vehicles we do have on our roads can be powered by clean electricity.

All new roads really should be electric-vehicle ready, with enough fast charging points. Most motorway service areas now have a few rapid charge points, largely thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ecotricity, but we’ll need more.

4) More roads = more nature destroyed

The government’s road-building agenda is threatening some of our most important green spaces up and down the country.

All roads are a barrier and hazard to wildlife. And roads in the wrong places can destroy and fragment wildlife habitats, as well as harming landscapes that are important for their nature, geology, historical  or aesthetic value.

Noise and light pollution can cause underestimated damage too.

In order to reverse some of the damage done, we're petitioning the UK government to double UK tree cover by 2045. 


Alternatives to road expansion

Money obviously has to be spent on roads – for repairs and upkeep apart from anything else. But sometimes a big new road-building scheme might become a costly distraction from less glamorous but more efficient alternatives. 

You might have heard road campaigners use phrases like “Fix it First” or “Better not Bigger”. The message is that, before spending billions on huge infrastructure projects, government should focus on fixing the roads we have, often at a smaller local level. And making them as efficient and “green” as possible – better for road users and the environment.

“Green retrofitting” means making older roads fit for a 21st century environment. It might involve adding safe, high-quality cycle routes along roadways. Or creating new road crossings for walkers, cyclists and wildlife. Or tackling air pollution by planting trees and woodland next to highways.

"Green bridge" planted with trees and bushes over dual carriageway road and cars
Example of a Dutch ecoduct or green bridge over road
Credit: Apdency/WikimediaCC0

Something you see in countries such as the Netherlands is a “green bridge” (or ecoduct) – lush with grasses, shrubs or trees – across a busy road. There are a few rare examples in the UK too. As well as looking nicer than a plain concrete bridge, they’re often used as wildlife corridors, connecting habitats for animals. And local walkers appreciate the added wild landscaping. 

In 2014 environment and transport groups asked that 20-30% of the new Highways Agency budget should be set aside for green retrofitting initiatives. In fact less than 5% has been allocated for it.

Better ways to cut traffic jams

Two obvious suggestions for starters:

1. Get lorries off roads by moving freight onto railways.

2. Encourage more people to use public transport, share lifts, cycle or walk.

These are doable if the will is there. In the 2000s the Highways Agency successfully used education programmes to change people’s road use, nudging them to drive less, share cars and use the train or bus more. Those schemes have been scrapped since 2010, but are worth reviving.

Roads should be seen as just one part of an integrated transport system – alongside reliable, cheaper public transport, rail freight, more train stations, park and ride schemes, car clubs, bike hire, bus priority, cycle lanes. And bicycle training in schools and workplaces too.  

Improving options and facilities for walking and cycling makes it easier for people to make healthy travel options, and keep more cars off our roads. Danger, or the perception of danger, from motor traffic is the biggest barrier to cycling – so the greatest need is for a proper network to allow people to cycle in safety.

Speaking of which, here's an inspiring glimpse at part of Copenhagen's bike-only route through the city, including the bridge known as the Bicycle Snake.

Road builders and biodiversity

Road builders and other big infrastructure developers will sometimes acknowledge the importance of protecting nature from the impacts of their projects.

One response is the concept of “biodiversity net gains”. The basic idea is that any construction scheme should leave the overall level of natural diversity – plants, animals, green spaces, waterways – higher than it was before the work began.

The worry is that the “gained” biodiversity wouldn’t be the same as what’s been lost. Some, such as ancient woodland, is literally irreplaceable. Often the constructors will offer to offset the impact they’re having in one place by protecting or replacing biodiversity somewhere else. It’s sometimes known as offsetting. 

In our view it’s better to prevent environmental damage in the first place, rather than trying to compensate for it afterwards, or elsewhere.

A new approach to roads and transport

Politicians and transport planners have to start taking a long-term view and prioritising options that do the least damage to people’s health and our environment. Concreting more and more of our countryside isn’t the best solution to our transport needs. 

The government has been looking at transport in the same way for decades. Almost always they assert that such-and-such a project will tackle congestion or boost the local economy, despite the lack of evidence for either effect in practice.

We need a new, smarter approach.

Technology is already transforming the way we live – with online shopping, virtual meetings and working from home now the norm for lots of people. Less than a third of young people now have driving licences. Electric vehicle use is expanding, and driverless cars are on the horizon. It’s clear that the transport needs of the future won’t be the same as those of the past.

Bad road plans and why we’re against them

Back to the current slew of roadbuilding.

There’s already local opposition to a lot of the government’s planned road schemes, with good local media coverage in places.

But it should be recognised that at a national level the scale and number of schemes in the pipeline represent an all-out assault on nature, air quality and the climate.


A5036 Liverpool Port access road, south Sefton

Map showing one proposed road route through Rimrose Valley urban green space in Liverpool
One proposed bypass goes straight through Rimrose Valley park
Credit: Highways England/Crown Copyright/OGL

Highways England (HE) wants to build a controversial dual carriageway through Rimrose Valley Country Park in Litherland, south Sefton. The stated aim is to ease congestion on roads accessing the expanding Port of Liverpool.

Rimrose Valley park is a precious, much-loved tranquil green space in an urban area that otherwise has generally high levels of air pollution.

Locals argue that running the road through the park will damage the health of people and nature, and say the choices offered by HE are not good enough. They say better options would be to improve rail routes, or even digging a tunnel to avoid damage to the park, despite the obvious extra cost.

They want Rimrose Valley park to be recognised as an essential local green space, of special value to the community, which should not be damaged by any developments.

A6-M60 link road, Goyt Valley, Stockport

Google map showing Stockport centre south east to Foggbrook
Bypass plans could destroy precious green spaces around Stockport
Credit: Google

A 9 km dual carriageway is planned through Goyt Valley countryside and Poise Brook Valley nature reserve and ancient woodland.

Local campaigners say the proposed £500m A6-M60 bypass will destroy a precious green corridor – a chain of fields, green spaces and magical ancient woodlands that act as a breathing space between busy roads. They say no fewer than 11 woods are at risk from the bypass development.

Peak District National Park

There are plans for a series of road developments linking up the M60 in the south east of Manchester to the M1 north of Sheffield. Including a dual carriageway through the Peak District National Park.

Two parts of the proposed route are:


The proposed tunnel has been shortened from its original 32 km to around 6 km. But any expressway and tunnel through the Peak District National Park would be a damaging intrusion in a beautiful landscape.

As well as disturbing the tranquility, it would destroy wildlife habitats, cause air, noise and light pollution, and increase carbon emissions.

Woodhead Pass above reservoir in Peak District National Park with hills
Woodhead Pass and reservoir - tunnel plans could harm this landscape
Credit: Siobhan Brennan Raymond/WikimediaCC2.0


Part of the same trans-Pennine project as above. It includes a planned dual carriageway bypass of Mottram village from the M67 to a new roundabout on pretty Mottram Moor in the Peak District.


Hampshire to Sussex expressway

Highways England’s Road Investment Strategy (known as RIS1) launched at the end of 2014 included turning the A27 from Hampshire through to East Sussex into an expressway.

This sounded familiar. Back in the late 1990s Friends of the Earth was involved in a big campaign that successfully fended off a South Coast super-highway. Those plans involved various new roads from Folkestone in Kent in the South East to Honiton in Devon in the South West. Some of the schemes being suggested now are similar.

As well as several highly damaging individual road schemes (detailed below), the expressway plan would create 6 new junctions (including bridges/flyovers or tunnels), 4 of them in or next to the South Downs National Park.

All of them would cause significant landscape damage and probably increased noise pollution. But it’s also their cumulative impacts that are not being considered – and are clearly in conflict with the government’s 25-year Environment Plan.

Local people, via the South Coast Alliance for Transport and the Environment, commissioned research that put forward ways of improving travel choices without the need for these expensive road schemes.

Looking at some of the road plans in the south in more detail:


Map showing proposed route for Arundel bypass
Planned Arundel bypass goes through some ancient woodland and other precious landscapes
Credit: Highways England/Crown Copyright/OGL

Highways England (HE) ran a consultation on 3 routes around Arundel in 2017. All 3 would have severe impacts on ancient woodland and the South Downs National Park.

HE announced its preferred route in May 2018. It would destroy more than 6 hectares of the natural landscape, and cause environmental disruption and noise pollution in the Binsted area and across the tranquil Arun Valley.

Within 2 weeks the South Downs National Park Authority applied for a judicial review of Highways England’s choice. That’s quite unusual, and shows how much concern there is.


West Sussex Council and Highways England seemed set on pushing a northern bypass around Chichester, even though it could impact directly on the National Park, environmentally and in terms of air and noise pollution. The community was split and the scheme was pulled in 2017.


Map showing Worthing area road development plans, with environmental considerations
Worthing area road plan showing "environmental constraints"
Credit: Highways England/Crown Copyright/OGL

The scheme that HE consulted on in 2017 would have impinged slightly on the National Park in a couple of places due to junction expansion. It would most likely increase air and noise pollution and make things worse for pedestrians and cyclists, even with more crossings included.

The plans were widely criticised in the consultation. An announcement on what happens next has been delayed, and is rumoured to come in June 2018.


There are two sets of plans here:

Option 1 – modest “online” improvements (ie on existing A27 road), costing around £75m.

After consultation, the preferred option includes cycle facilities along the whole A27 and upgrades of Drusillas roundabout and at the Polegate end. Originally included a Selmeston bypass in the National Park, but this was strongly opposed by the Park Authority and conservation groups.

Option 2 – brand new single or dual carriageway road to the north of the existing A27.

This is being pushed by the A27 Reference Group, a coalition of local politicians and business interests. They successfully lobbied government for £3m to look at the feasibility of a new road between Lewes and Polegate.

If the brand new road is built it would destroy a swathe of countryside and massively increase air and noise pollution. While it might move traffic further away from the National Park for much of its length, it would cause significant damage to the National Park below Mount Caburn.

With more traffic and faster speeds, air and noise pollution would also increase, which might negate to some extent the benefits of moving the road away from the National Park in the east.


M4 Gwent Levels, Newport

Promoted by the Welsh Government, a new 22 km stretch of motorway south of Newport is planned. It’s billed as an M4 relief road, although it would be used in addition to the current stretch.

Originally proposed by John Redwood (when Secretary of State for Wales) in the early 1990s, it has been rejected a number of times but keeps on returning.

The proposed route crosses 5 wetland Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the Gwent Levels – an area described as the green lungs of Newport. Common cranes have also been spotted on the Gwent Levels, for the first time in 4 centuries – as you can see in this short video.


A year-long public inquiry recently closed and the report is expected in the autumn. The road is already a big political issue. The final decision will affect the wellbeing of people and nature for generations to come.

It’s strongly opposed by Friends of the Earth Cymru, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and lots of other organisations, as well a wide range of academics who contributed to the public inquiry.

On top of the obvious impact on landscape and wildlife there’s opposition on the grounds of noise and air pollution, climate change, economic value and cost. And simply that it’s not the transport solution the area needs.


A6 upgrade

A £160m development for the A6 road between Belfast and Derry. The most contentious part is a dual carriageway between Toome and Castledawson, near the edge of Lough Beg – an internationally recognised Ramsar-designated wetland, bird sanctuary and National Nature Reserve.

It’s also close to the childhood home of former Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney, who was inspired by the area.

Despite the potential disturbance to wintering swans on nearby Lough Beg and Lough Neagh, several appeals have already been rejected. Now the European Court of Justice seems the last hope to stop this “travesty” of a road.  

Watch this short video about the road proposal, made by Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland.

It speaks volumes about the direction of our country, and our society really, when a road becomes more important than a major part of our identity – our cultural heritage and our landscape.

Dermott Hickson, campaigning against the A6 upgrade


A417, near Nettleton Bottom/Birdlip, Gloucestershire

Known locally as the missing link (because it’s the only bit of single carriageway on the road between the M4 and M5), this 5 km stretch is in line for large-scale reconstruction.

The main problem is it’s in the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and crosses the geologically important and visually stunning Cotswolds Escarpment at Crickley Hill. 

Despite much consideration and consultation (Highways England’s preferred route is Option 30), this road will still be visually intrusive, sever links between delicate wildlife habitats, and increase noise and air pollution. It’s also likely to bring a lot of extra traffic through the Cotswold AONB.

Some local wildlife and green groups would have preferred more consideration given to other alternatives, including more expensive tunnel options. Or indeed relieving existing traffic congestion in other less destructive ways.

This short Highways England video gives an idea of the scale of the proposals for this road.


A303 Stonehenge and associated schemes

Highways England wants to build a 4-lane expressway and 2.9 km tunnel through this UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS).

UNESCO firmly objects to the plan for all this construction inside the WHS.

Stonehenge landscape with burial mound
Stonehenge landscape with "barrow" burial mound
Credit: Peter Trimming/WikimediaCC2.0

As well as being archaeologically unique, the threatened area is rich in wildlife. There are bats (protected in European law) and rare birds such as the stone-curlew, along with barn owls, corn buntings, grey partridges, lapwings and yellow wagtails.

The nearby River Avon and River Till are designated Special Areas of Conservation for aquatic plants and snails, and water quality along stretches of the former has declined dramatically in the past 3 years. Increased traffic and road building in the immediate vicinity will add to these pressures.


Oxford to Cambridge expressway

A decades-old plan has been revived, at a proposed cost of £3.5bn. But there has been no consultation on whether people want these new roads. Of particular concern is damage to Otmoor nature reserve – a unique habitat of rare wetland and grazing floodplain in Oxfordshire.

Oxfordshire County Council and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, have pushed this agenda, and Highways England will be setting out 3 route options for new roads this summer.

Map showing 3 options for expressway roads between Oxford and Milton Keynes
Three options for initial expressways between Oxford and Milton Keynes, on route to Cambridge
Credit: Highways England/Crown Copyright/OGL

Many locals and environmental organisations feel that all 3 are highly damaging to nature, including ancient woodlands, floodplain meadows and rare birds, bats and butterflies.

The local Expressway Action Group and others tried to get a public inquiry into the whole plan. Its Facebook page says: “Ten miles of Oxfordshire’s green belt, unspoilt countryside and irreplaceable wildlife havens are at risk of being concreted over without any proper public consultation or a democratic mandate.”

Call for more investment in public transport

If we want to help people out of their cars and combat climate change, the government needs to ditch its obsession with road building. Instead it should invest in cleaner, better, affordable public transport – that will actually make it possible for people to leave their cars at home.

Please sign the petition urging the government to invest in public transport that works for everyone.

The government should ditch its obsession with roadbuilding and instead invest in cleaner, better, affordable public transport.