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Roads investment must come with a shift in aesthetic attitudes

Just before Christmas the government announced a £15bn programme to triple road investment by the end of the decade.

This is not only a great opportunity to mend potholes, build new capacity and reduce congestion.

It’s also a chance to put decades of ugly and ubiquitous road design behind us, and start afresh with a new vision – one where form is as important as function and aesthetics, architecture and the interaction between roads and the environment are primary considerations.

Change is long overdue.

As our road network developed, we seemed to stop caring about how it looked or if it blended with the landscape.

“It’s a chance to put decades of ugly and ubiquitous road design behind us, and start afresh with a new vision”

Planners, engineers and architects spoke different languages, and projects were fast-tracked.

We allowed substandard, drab design to proliferate, until it became the norm.

Best of both

Today, offering either an effective transport system or a clean environment is a false choice.

Through the Roads Investment Strategy, we can instil new design principles at the start of infrastructure development, so aesthetics and environmental issues are prioritised alongside engineering issues.

We can benefit from advances in green technologies and construction techniques – from false cuttings and quieter tarmac to better noise barriers.

By involving different groups at an earlier stage, we can speed up the planning process for major schemes by securing consensus.

“I want every project to be rooted in its locality, reflecting and enhancing the natural landscape”

This would actually save money in the long run.

Our goal must always be to integrate roads into their surroundings – flowing with the landscape, or concealing structures where possible.

Roads should be environmental assets and carry cleaner, greener vehicles. Bridges should be beautiful. Biodiversity must be preserved.

Highway showcase

There are some fantastic examples of what can be achieved.

The Hindhead A3 scheme didn’t just protect the surrounding countryside; it enhanced it, creating the largest area of lowland heath in southern Britain.

I understand this is a massive task. That’s why I’ve made a number of practical proposals.

First, I want every project to be rooted in its locality, reflecting and enhancing the natural landscape.

This is about giving communities greater ownership of schemes that are going to affect their lives, as well as giving more character to the road network.

Second, we need a more inclusive approach to working with contractors and industry partners.

The integrity of the relationship between highways authorities, councils, architects and other industry bodies is of paramount importance so that they work together, rather than in silos.

“We need a more inclusive approach to working with contractors and industry partners”

Third, I want to create a roads Design Panel – just as we have with Crossrail and High Speed 2 – including organisations with different interests, from countryside groups to engineers, local planners and suppliers.

Supporting this process will be a new set of principles incorporated into the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges.

Finally, I want to foster a new appreciation for industry best practice and to make clear that increasing road capacity and smoothing traffic flow are not the sum total of our ambitions.

What I’m proposing is a fundamental shift to undo the most intrusive road design of the past 50 years and create new aesthetic values that reflect and even magnify the beauty of the landscape.

John Hayes MP is the minister for transport

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