In September last year, the chief executive of Next, Lord Wolfson – also a Conservative Party donor and former advisor, who happens to be married to an aide to George Osborne – wrote an opinion column in the Times (£), calling for growth (or rather, particular policies to create growth). He wrote
The central problem is that many are blind to the wealth that could be created by better infrastructure and housing. Ask any Londoner: what would happen to the capital’s economy if the North Circular Road, Westway flyover, Dartford Tunnel and M25 were all permanently closed? They would instantly comprehend the permanent damage to businesses, jobs and wealth, not to mention the misery it would impose on those living in the city. Yet we find it hard to imagine the vast amount of wealth that could be created by building new roads, flyovers and tunnels.
The Westway is, funnily enough, one of the few bits of the inner London ‘Motorway Box’ that actually got built. (If you haven’t seen this excellent film about the extraordinary, aborted, Ringway project, then it’s well worth a watch). By Wolfson’s logic, the failure to flatten vast swathes of London to create ‘proper’ roads back in the 1960s and 1970s has somehow inhibited the economic growth of London.
But the Westway is only superficially ‘integral’ to London’s transport because… it’s there. If you build a nice big flyover that allows you to speed in to central London by car from west London (and indeed from out of London) then obviously people are going to start using it. And using it. And using it. Until it fills up with the people making these kinds of trips.
The lack of ‘Westways’ in the rest of central London hasn’t inhibited growth, because people have found other ways to get into the city, and to move about it. Trains. The underground. Buses. Dare I say it – bikes. And of course on foot. Modes of transport that are just as effective at getting you from A to B, without the horrendous visual intrusion, noise and blight that accompanies the Westway. They’re just more efficient, and more appropriate to a city. They also leave space on the road network for essential trips – deliveries, and so on, as well as for the kind of people who are just going to go on driving anyway.
So the lesson of the Westway is actually the opposite of what Wolfson thinks it is. He thinks taking it away would cause catastrophic economic collapse, when in fact it’s a relic, a tiny fraction of a system that didn’t get built, while London carried on functioning without it. Rather than building more Westways, we should stop and look at how London functions without them. And indeed how other cities function without flyovers within them, while cities like Los Angeles remain clogged, despite vast road-building programmes (this was something Jane Jacobs appreciated even back in the 1960s).
But this isn’t the lesson Wolfson wants to learn. In the same Times article, he goes on to write -
There is an intellectual battle that must be fought and won before any real progress can be made. Until the country comes to truly accept that building faster roads and new family homes creates wealth, it will always be an uphill battle for governments to develop them.
If we can win this argument, the potential for wealth-creating development is vast. We could build a series of flyovers into central London, allowing the wealth of the capital to spread outwards. For example a “Southway” could allow people to drive from Croydon to Westminster in just 12 minutes.
Yes, he really wants to build a flyover from Croydon to Westminster, so people can drive into central London in 12 minutes. Where would all these motor vehicles go once they had arrived there? What would be destroyed to construct these roads?
The problem is that Wolfson only sees the ‘whizzy fast car trips!’ and ‘investment!’ side of the equation, not the ‘are you sure that’s really a good idea?’ side. There’s nothing wrong with investment; you just have to make sure you’re investing in projects that aren’t idiotic.
Fast forward a year, and it seems Wolfson is still peddling the same message – Turn Your City into a Carscape for Economic Success! He was recently the guest speaker at the Sheffield Chamber Commerce of Industry’s Presidents Dinner. You can watch his speech here. Talking about economic growth in Sheffield, he argues
The potential’s there, but it’s got to be done right. And doing things right means giving people what they want. And there is an extraordinary appetite across the whole country for planners to give people things that they don’t quite want. So let’s just some up exactly what they want.
They want access. They want to be able to drive quickly to and from the city centre. They want plenty of parking. They’d preferably want a covered area. People don’t like being in the rain. So cover an area, as they have done in Leeds….
… They want it to be safe. They’d prefer not to be run over. They’d like to be able to push their buggies without the risk of a lorry mounting the kerb and mowing down their young family.
It’s easy to come up with designs that allow people to drive quickly into a town or city centre, with plentiful parking, and without too much damage to the quality of life, if you are starting from scratch with a new town. Houten is a good example of how a town can be simultaneously easy to drive into and out of, and yet retain the essential features that make it a pleasant place to live. Milton Keynes is a good example of how to do it badly.
But Wolfson is talking about established cities, where people live already, and where the road network is simply not set up to deal with a vast amount of motor traffic – the kind of motor traffic that would be generated if you ‘give people what they want’, in his words (and are we sure people do want huge roads going straight into the centre of Westminster, or Sheffield, with accompanying plentiful car parks?). This would require destruction on a vast scale – something he is at least honest about – and also would result in another kind of destruction, the destruction of the attractiveness and amenity of the places that Wolfson thinks should accommodate unlimited motor traffic.
It’s the transport version of killing the goose. We need investment in infrastructure that improves the quality of urban life, not reduces it.