• Landscapes

    Probably one of the more major repercussions of the recent Tory electoral catastrophe is the apparent green light it gives the government to plough ahead with their gargantuan resurgent road building programme. By way of a reminder, that means the continuation of some 238 schemes; more than 76 bypasses, 48 link roads, 12 link roads and 56 widened roads. All in all that’s some 772 miles of new or widened roads. It’s a reversion to old Tory form, given apparent legitimacy by a panicky response to our economic situation where any kind of fiscal stimulus is seen as the only way forward.

    Too bad then that the weight of evidence is stacked up against the long-term efficacy of building our way out of congestion. And too bad that figures show that levels of traffic may have actually been plateauing these last ten years if not on a steady decline. But that hardly seems to matter in the new paradigm of Conservative consensus. Let’s just build our way out of recession, whatever the logic or evidence may actually be.

    Many people I know would rather not drive were it not for the exorbitant costs – and frequent overcrowding – of public transport. A unique opportunity of potential behavioral change is being lost by at best indifference but in all likelihood a cynical rejection of a genuine chance for a true modal shift.

    Though of course while that’s true, it cannot all be laid at the feet of the government. While a probable still-sizable majority of folk own and frequently travel by car, it can be argued that procurement of roads is simply responding to popular demand. For most people in the UK, regular car use is a fact of life. For families in particular or for most living anywhere particularly rural, they’re often a seemingly unalterable crutch if not actually outright indispensible. Their advantages in getting people exactly where they need to be at any given time, their capacity for shifting stuff as well as people apparently give them a huge upper hand.

    That’s the logic of car use; an undeniable one for so many. But their plush if pathogen-laden interiors insulate people in more ways than one. Not only is the immediacy of the natural world removed from us as if by a veil or the displacing effect of rapid movement, but the true costs of the roads that facilitate car use are equally hidden. Not just the landscapes and communities marred or removed but fiscally too; the cost of roads are rendered obscene at a time of supposed tightening of belts. It has been estimated that each metre of new road costs in the region of £25,000. And that at a time when, as we all know, other vital services in local councils are being cut to the quick; real, vital services that make a huge impact on people’s daily lives here and now.

    It would be easy to say this was tragic. Tragic because we could be at a genuine crossroads for major changes in how we get about. Not some throwback where cars are got rid of altogether, but shifts in overall behaviour where car ownership is no longer some kind of mechanised Holy Grail for individuals and families alike, where lift sharing and car sharing clubs can truly take off, where trains are affordable and spacious, where we cultivate a different sense of distance, a different sense of respect for the places we pass through.

    If it wasn't for the prospective loss of so many places you could say it was more like a very black farce; at least as far as governmental policy goes. In times of financial hardship a clear choice has been made along ideological, not practical grounds. It has less to do with the grinding pressure of congestion and everything to do with car manufacturing, oil and road building lobbies. It’s just a happy accident for them that so many of us are suckling on the petrol-headed teat.

    And the roads themselves; vanguards of development, offering a dream of easy freedom. For another few years till another is needed, steering the masses away from hard choices, fostering an easy way of doing things, taking us further to escape what we’ve done to our immediate locality. They lock us in to six-laned roads, to half-lives on the motorways where everything is flat and air comes stalely through the vents.

    Who wouldn’t be free of all this if we actually believed we had a choice? A choice that might not always be as gratifying or easy as jumping in the driving seat at any given moment. But one which offers another kind of freedom; freedom from the drudgery of roads, from the financial yolk of keeping a car on the road, a freedom to be able to really look at and travel benignly through the landscapes and places around us.

    Otherwise we only enforce on the wider world the landscapes already within us. If we are wired to machines every hour of the day, if our heads and souls are so full of a never-ending media, if we are so transfixed with affairs of the day or the latest app or who in the public eye is saying precisely what about precisely who and all the while the world at our windows is crying out to bring us all closer and home to our natural gifts, our natural inheritance just to be out in creation – is it any wonder that, if we cannot hear that call, then all the moors, the woodlands and the ancient fields seem a little bit more abstract as we weigh their cost; expendables to modern life, pleasant irrelevancies that mean little to economies of luxury and pace while all the while we let ourselves grow poorer by degrees, the world suffers and one day we wake and find ourselves surrounded by a wasteland, crying out how was it that we let it come to this?

    We all of us have choices still, whether as individuals or as part of our society itself. For many, car use remains alluring and undeniably convenient. But it’s clearer than ever it comes at a huge cost. Perhaps it comes down to that which we consider most important; our landscapes and communities, the wildlife we should act as stewards towards, or an open road, however temporary, the ability to pass unhindered down the screeslope of prediction and provision. We cannot wish some all-or-nothing, either-or where every journey amounts to an irredeemable castigation. But choices remain and we cannot continue to deny that new roads ultimately serve no one; they may help cut congestion for a time but we all have to pay a long-term price. We have to ask ourselves what kind of country we really want to live in. Will we be remembered as a generation that sacrificed so much while propping up policies discredited decades ago? Finding our way into a different future is largely a question of will. It’s a real sorry state of affairs then that our current government seems so intent on building the last things we need.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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