M6 Toll Road will be ‘White Elephant' says Transport 2000

19 August 2005

The M6 Toll Road at Birmingham was described as a white elephant by Transport 2000 on the day that the motorway was due to open to the public. The 27-mile route through the West Midlands green belt would not reduce congestion on the original route in the long term, said the environmental group, with any immediate respite from traffic jams quickly cancelled out by rising traffic levels due to the release of suppressed demand.

 

Steve Hounsham, spokesman for Transport 2000, said: “This toll road is likely to be a white elephant providing no more than temporary relief from traffic congestion on the original route. Birmingham's green belt has been sacrificed in vain because in five years time congestion will be back to normal. The only difference will be there will be two roads full of traffic moving through the area in the place of one.”

 

Transport 2000 also said that the new route would lead to bottlenecks at each end of the toll road, would increase traffic on local roads and would lead to further destruction of the green belt through stimulating development along the route. The road also damages two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, affects a large number of communities between Cannock and Coleshill and cuts through the middle of the Forest of Mercia.

 

Who's behind the project?

The concession for the road is held by Midland Expressway Limited (MEL), which is owned by Macquarie Bank of Australia in conjunction with Autostrada of Italy. Macquarie has an option to take 100 per cent control. Macquarie also has a large stake, approaching 25 per cent, in Birmingham International Airport, which is adjacent to the route of the M6 Toll Road. Finance for the road was provided by the Bank of America and Abbey National Treasury Services, who also financed the highly controversial Isle of Skye Bridge. The road was built by the CAMBBA consortium, which brought together Carrilion, Alfred McAlpine, Balfour Beatty and Amec.

 

The key facts

The M6 Toll Road was promoted in the 1980s as a public motorway. It would have linked with the proposed Western Orbital Motorway (later scrapped) and the M42 to complete an orbital motorway around the West Midlands conurbation. An inquiry in 1988 recommended that the road should be built. As part of the 1989 New Roads by New Means initiative from the then Conservative government, the M6 Toll Road (then known as the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, or BNRR) and the Western Orbital Motorway were both proposed as toll roads. The tender for the BNRR attracted three bidders and a secret concession agreement was signed with MEL. A public inquiry into the proposed scheme lasted from June1994 to October 1995: the longest ever into a road scheme in the UK. Construction was approved in 1997 and started in January 2001.

 

The politics: Labour's first U-turn?

In the early 1990s many local Labour MPs opposed the construction of the BNRR, including Mike O'Brien, MP for North Warwickshire and now a Foreign Office Minister. In 1994 Labour's then Shadow Transport Secretary, Frank Dobson, visiting Mike O'Brien's constituency, issued a press release saying that a future Labour Government would not build the road. This remained the party's position in the 1997 General Election. Indeed, opposition to the BNRR was a key factor in the victory of Brian Jenkins, the Labour candidate in the 1996 by-election in the constituency of South-East Staffordshire (now called Tamworth). John Prescott had also commented: “I suppose it is ironic but I do not think the BNRR will do anything to relieve such congestion as its supporters insist it will.”

 

However, in July 1997, just three months after the General Election, the Government performed a U-turn (believed to be the new Government's first in any policy area) and gave permission for the road's construction. Opponents of the scheme challenged the decision in the courts on the basis that the decision had been influenced by the substantial compensation which would have had to be paid to MEL if the scheme was cancelled. The judge ruled in the Government's favour, although he found that the details of the concession agreement should have been made public at the inquiry.

 

Opposition

There was only muted opposition to the public proposals in 1988 because local people did not believe they could fight the proposals. However, when the toll road was proposed there was a much more concerted campaign, reflecting the much higher national profile of road building and the damage new roads inflict upon our environment, economy and quality of life. An informal coalition, initially set up by West Midlands Friends of the Earth, evolved into the Alliance Against the BNRR. This bought together over 30 organisations, including environmental groups and residents along the whole length of the route.

 

The alliance successfully lobbied councils and MPs and persuaded the Labour Party while in opposition to say it would not build the BNRR. The official consultation process resulted in over 10,000 letters of objection. The alliance co-ordinated evidence against the BNRR at the public inquiry, which saw evidence given by a wide range of opponents of the scheme, including local individuals, parish councils, local authorities, campaign groups and national and international transport specialists.

 

The alliance challenged the decision to build the road and the secrecy of the concession agreement in the courts. However, MEL and the Government were able to maintain the commercial confidentiality of key sections of the concession agreement and eventually the spiralling cost of taking the case further forced the alliance to pull out. However, during the court action, the Government changed its policy to ensure all future concession agreements would be open to public scrutiny. This did not apply, however, to the BNNR/MEL concession.

 

Anti-road protesters set up a number of camps along the proposed route at Green Wood, Moneymore House, Boundary Cottage and Canwell Spinney. The camps were in place for over a year between November 1997 and January 1999, when the last camp was cleared.

 

The economics

Although the ‘public' version of the BNRR was subject to a cost-benefit analysis, none was carried out for the privately funded toll road, as both the Highways Agency and MEL claimed it was unnecessary. The inspector at the public inquiry did not require a cost-benefit analysis, claiming that a private company would not build the road if it was not economic. This statement confuses the company's profits with the public interest.

 

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) funded a cost-benefit analysis, which was carried out by the respected transport consultancy MTRU, following Government procedure. This concluded that when the delays caused by the road and the cost of the toll were taken into account, the result would be negative.

 

Costs

The scheme is classed in all official documents as ‘privately funded' which suggests that there is no cost to the taxpayer. In fact some parts of the scheme are being publicly funded. For example, the section of road linking the M6 in Warwickshire to the M42/M6 Toll Road merge, which is part of the scheme and is needed to allow traffic to get to the M6 Toll Road, was paid for by the Government at a cost of approximately £20 million. This information is not contained in any road programme and only came to light as a result of a Parliamentary question. Proposals for a link road between the M6 Toll Road and the M54 are now being promoted and would be paid for by the Government, even though MEL would clearly benefit from the project.

 

The impacts of the M6 Toll Road

The M6 Toll Road runs through 27 miles of Green Belt. It damages two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs: Britain's most important wildlife sites) at Blythe Valley and Chasewater, the latter severely. It affects a large number of communities between Cannock and Coleshill. It severs a number of local roads and threatened to sever the Lichfield and Hatherton canals, stopping their restoration, until a public campaign paid for infrastructure to stop this happening. It also cuts through the middle of the Forest of Mercia.

 

Forty-one homes were knocked down during the construction of the M6 Toll Road, the majority of which were on Hednesford Road, Brownhills West. During the construction process many people have been affected by noise, dust, and large vehicles using inappropriate roads. Construction continued during the foot and mouth outbreak despite concerns from local farmers about the effects of vehicles and workers crossing fields and country lanes. There have been numerous complaints from local people about the behaviour of construction workers and their insensitivity to people's concerns. The response of MEL and national politicians to these concerns has been poor. In some places landscaping and tree planting schemes have not been completed or earth mounds and fences have not been installed.

 

There will be further impacts when the road opens: visual intrusion and noise from traffic, light pollution from both the road and the toll booths and an increase in air pollution. Compensation claims relating to these issues can be made after the road has been open for a year. There will also be increased traffic flows on many roads in the vicinity of the M6 Toll Road. Any future changes of land use in the Green Belt threaten to aggravate these problems.

 

The toll regime

As a result of the concession agreement, and despite challenges at the public inquiry, the toll rate is completely at the discretion of MEL. The single restriction is that MEL can only change the toll levels rates every six months. It was assumed that uncharged ‘competition' from the M6, the A5/A38/A446 and A50 would act in the public interest and not set toll levels too high.

 

However, this did not take into account that, as the road begins to become congested (when traffic levels approach approximately 80,000 vehicles per day), then MEL's commercial interests will be served by discouraging traffic by raising toll levels. This is likely to be done selectively, discouraging lorries because of concerns about road damage, safety and speed, and concentrating on cars. Although objectors won over the public inquiry inspector, the argument was rejected by the Secretary of State, who said MEL was unlikely to behave in this manner and that the issue had not been raised by freight interests.

 

MEL said at the public inquiry that it would charge £2.50 for cars and £5 for lorries. The actual toll charges announced are £3 for cars (£2 for night-time journeys) and £11 for lorries (£10 for night-time journeys), with a discount of £1 on all charges for the first 10 million vehicles to use the road. These figures are, per mile, much higher than any considered by the Government or anyone else for road-user charging. Freight operators are now complaining that the Government cannot intervene. It is important to note that none of this money will be invested in improving alternatives to the car, but will all go to the companies involved and their shareholders.

 

MEL's analysis of toll levels showed that half of the cars and lorries potentially using the M6 Toll would be deterred by the predicted toll levels. In particular, very few lorries would use the road. How drivers respond to toll levels is central to the robustness of MEL's figures, in terms both of traffic benefit and of their own profits.

 

Recently both the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association have registered their anger at the tolling regime proposed by the MEL and a number of their members have indicated that they may well boycott the road.

 

Toll roads such as the Dulles Greenway (which connects Washington DC's Dulles airport with Leesburg, Virginia) struggled in the early years to attract traffic at levels anywhere near predictions and had to be refinanced. Campaigners believe that it is vital that the Government, which promised that the road would not cost the public purse, does not bail out a company which took a commercial risk.

 

Will the M6 Toll Road work?

According to the Highways Agency, the M6 Toll Road will have a limited impact on traffic in the West Midlands conurbation. It will reduce traffic on roads immediately parallel to it but increase traffic on roads accessing it, including the congested M42 and M6 routes at either end.

 

The impact on the M6 through Birmingham is limited: approximately 160,000 vehicles a day will use the M6 with or without the M6 Toll Road. The transfer rate to the toll route is between 1 and 4 per cent of all traffic on the M6 through the conurbation. This is less than the transfer from the A5/A38/A446 route, and even this may be optimistic given the huge potential for the generation of traffic currently suppressed by congestion. For example, many people are put off visiting Ikea at Junction 9 on the M6 because of current congestion levels.

 

Any time gained on the M6 Toll Road may be lost on other parts of the motorway network because the toll road tends to concentrate more traffic onto other sections of the M6 and the M42. The increase in capacity close to the urban area is likely to lead to extra traffic generation. This is less likely for the M6 Toll Road because of the charge level, and more so for the parallel non-charged network.

 

Development pressures

The M6 Toll Road will make potential development sites in the Green Belt more attractive to potential developers, at the expense of brownfield and other sites in urban areas. Birmingham City Council has already identified possible development sites at Peddimore and Bassets Pole. In the current review of its Unitary Development Plan, the council is trying to remove these sites from the Green Belt. This has provoked objections from 30,000 members of the public and from the Government Office for the West Midlands.

 

A recent brochure produced by GVA Grimley, Locate West Midlands and InStaffs (the development agency for Staffordshire) entitled Business in the Fast Lane claimed: “It is not often that 1000 acres of prime development land are opened up in an established area with easy access to a motorway grade road.” They identified 27 sites with many “within ten minutes' drive time of a motorway junction”. Only two included reference to rail access. The majority are greenfield opportunities which by their very nature would act as traffic generators adding even more traffic to the already overburdened local road network.

 

Former mining communities such as Burntwood, Chasetown and Cheslyn Hay could also be affected. The communities do have former industrial sites which would benefit from regeneration, but also areas of Green Belt that contain SSSIs, mainly heathland areas formerly attached to Cannock Chase.

 

The M6 Toll Road and national road user charging

Road user charging has been high on the transport agenda since the start of congestion charging in London in February 2003. Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has recently made clear his strong support for a national charging scheme.

 

The opening of the M6 Toll Road is likely to push the issue to the top of the agenda again, but may succeed mainly in confusing the issues because it will be the only toll boothed motorway ever built in the UK, and the tolls will go to a private firm for the benefit of its shareholders, not reinvested in providing better alternatives to car use. It is known that the impact of the M6 Toll Road is one of the factors that the Government will consider (alongside the impact of road charging for lorries, due to be introduced in 2006) before making a decision on whether or not to press ahead with national road user charging.

 

Transport 2000, Friends of the Earth and CPRE support the principle of road user charging, together with the provision of better alternatives to the car and the use of land-use planning to reduce the need to travel, as part of a wider policy of traffic reduction. The M6 Toll Road is not designed to do this.

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