• Same Old Roads, Different Century

    We shouldn’t be surprised by now, but occasionally the scale of the contempt for our natural heritage such as that shown by George Osborne in yesterday’s autumn review retains the capacity to stun. Salient then among the chancellor’s decisions to eject large portions of whatever remained of his cabinet’s green credentials, backing energy intensive industries like steel and cement (to the detriment of the comparatively greater provider of jobs of the renewable sector) and threatening to do away with laws to safeguard wildlife, was the decision to plough ahead with every one of the DfT’s road schemes that were in any way eligible to be built. Given the tenuousness of many the schemes' position with funding, it is in a way a pretty considerable acheivement.

    It’s hard not to see this as anything other than a reversion to old Tory form, a rush in the tide of the times to what once was familiar ground, hoping perhaps for crumbs of comfort in what at one point were old certainties. Never mind then that this particular model of infrastructure was outdated and out-argued a long time ago. The beast of our current car culture had never gone away, the appetite for roads simply appeased until now by a tightening of fiscal strings, a kind of silver lining in a wave of bitter news.

    All that has changed and it’s hard not to feel as if we have been transported back to the worst of the eighties: huge youth unemployment, a surge of homelessness waiting in the wings (that is in itself a timebomb not set to go off until sometime next year) even the ghost of Margaret Thatcher resurrected on our screens. And the new roads over it all, like a resurrected standard from a long gone war or a mantra for an old school model of how business and people should move.

    That the great seismic shift that saw Labour delivered to power, that saw countless road schemes effectively scrapped and a renewed sense that a sustainable transport policy was finally on our doorsteps has now been annulled is suddenly clearer than ever. And was it really any wonder in a decade and a half that saw trainfares slowly or rapidly rising even amid signs that many more people would have travelled like this had they been able to afford it? It wasn’t exactly helped by Clarkson presiding over an ever more credulous mass, driving cars up mountain sides like some kind of leaden fuelled conquistador, motoring down to the Sea of Galilee itself, proclaiming to all who were willing to listen that life behind a wheel is still a fundamental for fulfillment.

    At times like these, it’s harder than ever not to look for inspiration to a time when a mass of largely disaffected segments of society staged a huge rebellion on exactly this issue. And with the well documented contribution of road traffic to climate change, with the knowledge that increased road capacity only leads to increased car use, there is clearly a huge need for a response of comparable scale and passion.

    Without sufficient outcry and the hope of reconsideration, the schemes laid out in this autumn review look more than foreboding. For the countless hectares of irreplaceable land that will be lost to the plough, lost to us and taken from the habitats that they form and help maintain, it is nothing short of full blown tragedy. And it would be easy to see as dismaying that so many may feel themselves to be left no option but to protest at a time when our collective efforts would be better spent in any number of more constructive ways.

    If it seems futile to urge this government to still strive to do something other than oiling the wheels of yesterday’s industries or presenting favours to their friends in privatised big business then we have a rich history of dissent to draw on and be inspired by. And the lessons such history lends may still hold the promise of how we might persuade Osborne and his colleagues to set a better course than this; a better course than populist postures that set us back decades and which have only ever served to carve our country into isolated pockets of what’s natural while propagating social sprawl that will become ever more out on a limb as the oil wells continue to dry.

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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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