Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty

August 31, 2018   3 mins

Did you know that the UK government is planning to build a £3 billion expressway between Oxford and Cambridge? (‘Expressway’ being a fancy word for a programme of upgrades to the roads that currently link the two university towns.)

Opposition to the scheme – which supports a wider plan to build a million more homes in communities along the route – is growing. The core arguments are articulated by George Monbiot in the Guardian:

“A recent study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England shows that, far from relieving congestion, new road schemes create new traffic – a tendency first noted in 1925 and ignored by transport planners ever since. But the treadmill must keep turning. The bypasses must be bypassed with new bypasses, new jobs must be created to match the new housing, and new housing must be built to match the new jobs. Growth must continue, until it destroys everything it claims to enhance.”

Put that way, it all sounds absurdly pointless – a gargantuan make-work scheme powered by circular logic. Except that it’s not circular at all. Development is justified by a very real external input: people.

Something like a quarter of a million people migrate to the United Kingdom every year. That’s a net figure (i.e. immigration minus emigration) – and there’s quite a lot of variation from year to year. The net migration figure for the year ending March 2018 was 270,000. This is down somewhat on 2016, when net migration was running at levels above 300,000. The fall from the peak is referred to by some as a ‘Brexodus’. 

I’m not sure that one should describe an increase of somewhere between two and three million people per decade as any kind of exodus; but whatever you call it, these are people who need jobs, homes and access to transport. Oh, and unless we expect them to live in total indolence and absolute poverty, they will cause economic growth – human beings tend to do that, given the chance.

Amazingly, many of those who object to new development – and, in some cases, to the very concept of economic growth – have no problem with mass migration, indeed they may well actively favour open-door immigration policies. The good folk of both Oxford and Cambridge voted overwhelmingly for Britain to remain in the European Union, which requires member states to accept the principle of free movement of EU citizens across borders.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s population is expected to pass 70 million by the end of the next decade, that’s up from 66 million now. Given that UK birth rates are already below the ‘replacement level’, this increase in population is the result of people of living longer and of high levels of net migration. 

So where are these extra millions going to live? While the Oxford-Cambridge corridor is clearly favoured by the government as a focus for new development, George Monbiot is sceptical:

“…A million new homes amounts, in effect, to an Oxford-Cambridge conurbation.

“But none of this is up for debate. By the time we are asked for our opinion, there will be little left to discuss but the colour of the road signs. The questions that count, such as whether the new infrastructure should be built, or even where it should be built, will have been made without us.

“The justification for this scheme is not transport or housing as an end in itself. Its objective, according to the National Infrastructure Commission, is to enable the region ‘to maximise its economic potential’…”

But don’t most of us seek to maximise our economic potential or, to put it less bloodlessly: try to put our talents to good use and make a life for ourselves? And isn’t that what most migrants come to this country to do?

It strikes me that we are having a debate about where we don’t want new development (i.e. anywhere near us), but avoiding the debate about where we do want it.

So, if not the Oxford-Cambridge corridor, then where? Should we allow London to sprawl outwards until it reaches Oxford and Cambridge anyway? Bulldoze every public park and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the South East? Only expand towns that voted for Brexit?

One thing is for sure: Building absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone (BANANA) is not an option – not when the population is growing at its current rate.

Monbiot makes a number of excellent points about the truly terrible way that we plan new infrastructure in this country. I also agree with him that we need to make the provision of essentials like transport and energy radically more sustainable – even if that means constraining individual choice.

Above all, we must rediscover the joys of spatial policy i.e. high-level decisions about what ought to go where and when. It’s a process that has to begin and end with people – from initial assessments of need to the final say.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.