Detractors pour scorn on toll road proposals

Critics are queuing up to lambast plans for a toll road in the M6 corridor, reports Catherine Early.

A tolled expressway between Birmingham and Manchester has been hailed by ministers as a solution to congestion that will also deliver economic benefits. But the scheme's opponents argue that not only will it entrench traffic problems, it could even undermine regeneration efforts.

On the same day that the West Midlands Regional Assembly delivered its verdict that the plans contravene its local transport strategy (Planning, 29 October, p6), campaign groups Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Transport 2000 published a report casting doubt on the government's arguments in favour of the scheme.

The report, by consultant Alan Wenban-Smith, debunks claims about the benefits gained from the M6 toll road, which opened last December. According to the government's own statistics, Wenban-Smith points out, the toll road has reduced traffic on the M6 through Birmingham by only eight per cent. This figure is already being eroded as traffic is attracted back onto the M6.

On regeneration, the report warns that the M6 Expressway package would lead to further car-based sprawl, widening social polarisation and exclusion.

Regional productivity would be reduced by making the economies of the North West and West Midlands more road-dependent and eroding the economic critical mass of their conurbations.

Another fear is that the expressway would undermine the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line, which runs through the same corridor. FoE regional campaigner Chris Crean says: "We need to get to grips with traffic where it is generated - in our towns and cities - not carpet the countryside with toll motorways."

Transport 2000 director Stephen Joseph insists that any strategy to solve traffic problems on the M6 needs to be based on traffic reduction. "According to government sources, for every person in favour of this scheme there are 18 against. Doesn't that speak for itself?" he asks.

David Robinson, chairman of the planning, environment and transport key priority group at the North West Regional Assembly, is sceptical about the alleged boost that the proposal, outlined in a government consultation paper issued this summer (Planning, 9 July, p1), will bring to his region.

"We are not against the idea of nationwide pricing once proposals are worked up, but we are not happy about the concept of having a tolling system in isolation," says Robinson. "Building another motorway is the predict-and-provide approach and it will soon fill up. There is a lot more scope to divert traffic from road to rail."

Chris Haynes, policy manager of transportation strategy at Birmingham City Council, is concerned that the plans are not detailed enough. "There is very little information on which to base a judgement. We are particularly concerned about the environmental impact of an extra four lanes," he says.

"Doing nothing about the congestion is not an option," agrees a spokeswoman for Manchester City Council. "But there is just not enough information on the costs and benefits of the proposal and how it would impact on the existing road network. There is concern that it would take around 15 years to complete, but there is an urgent need to tackle it now."

Wenban-Smith recommends that any further study should examine alternative pricing measures that could be introduced more generally in the short to medium term, pending the advent of electronic tolling. The M6 Expressway, he concludes, is no more than "a cul-de-sac, not a step on the way".

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