19 February 2024
Business Green, by Sam Richards

Crossrail, now branded as the Elizabeth Line, which links East and West London has been a huge success. Yes Britain should have been able to deliver this major transport project cheaper than the
£18bn price tag, and yes it should have been built quicker too. But it's hard to argue it's not had a positive impact.

Areas of Greater London that had to endure poor public transport now have a state-of-the-art high speed railway connecting them to Central London. Meaning hundreds of thousands of people can be in the heart of the capital in just 20 minutes.

And with over 200 million journeys being made every year, the project's environmental impact is substantial.

The Elizabeth Line will cut CO2 emissions by as much as 225,000 tonnes a year, largely due to the slashing car journeys and the replacement of diesel trains.

Yet this level of spending on transport infrastructure should not be reserved just for London.

It is a scandal that Leeds is the largest city in Europe without a tram system and that commuters can no longer rely on trains in the North.

We need to build more trams, more trains, more metros, and more EV charging stations across the country. Not just because these are necessary to get to net zero, but because they are essential for connecting communities to good quality jobs.

But three-quarters of the country still drive to work, with many drivers unable to do their job without a vehicle. And come 2050 when we are a net zero economy most of these drivers will still be on the roads; they'll just be driving electric vehicles.

Britain's outdated and sclerotic planning system holds back the building of new nuclear, onshore and offshore wind, solar farms, new pylons, EV charging stations and the new roads that we will still need in a net zero Britain.

The Lower Thames Crossing is a perfect example.

First proposed in the late 2000s the new road connecting Kent and Essex is not only needed to relieve pressure on the Dartford Crossing - one of the most congested roads in the country, it will also improve air quality by diverting over 13 million vehicles away from Dartford every year.

And with 40 per cent of traffic on the Dartford Crossing freight heading to our most important ports, the lack of capacity is strangling economic growth.

Yet despite being made a national priority infrastructure project 13 years ago, and £300m spent on its planning application alone, major construction work is yet to begin on the much needed new road.

The National Highways planning application is so big that it stretches to an astonishing 359,866 pages across 2,383 separate documents.

To read all 94,534,273 words produced by National Highways for the Development Consent Order, assuming an average reading speed of 200 words a minute, it would take a planning inspector 328 days to read every document, if they read for 24-hour a day.

This is the same planning system that means it takes 13 years for an offshore wind farm to go from idea to generating power despite construction only taking two years. A system that means it can take five years for a utility scale solar farm to get up and running. And it's the same system that means EV charging stations lie idle at motorway service stations because they can't be connected to the grid.

Many people will worry that you can't cut emissions while still building roads.

However, research by Britain Remade suggests the problem may not be as big as it seems. We found that building new motorways and major roads between 2015 and 2020 accounted for just 0.1 per cent of UK road emissions, including emissions from both construction and the new journeys that an upgraded road unlocks.

Our analysis, published last year, revealed that carbon emissions from motorists are expected to plummet by 64 per cent by 2050, compared to 2020 levels, as motorists make the switch from petrol and diesel vehicles to EVs. This is despite an expected 18 per cent increase in total miles driven during the same time period. The key to greening our transport system lies not in blocking new roads, but in decarbonising the fleet.

But this will only happen if the government continues to invest in upgrading Britain's roads and makes sure the charging infrastructure required to help people make the switch to EVs is in place.

This means fixing a planning system that not only leads to bypasses being delayed, but makes it harder to install public charging points and stops us building the new clean sources of energy we

need to have a fully decarbonised grid.

By the end of this decade the UK can have a modern transport system that is reliable, cheap and clean. But first we have to let Britain build it.