When is a road not a a road?

…when it is a ‘road of beauty, of form enhancing function’, according to Roads Minister John Hayes, who yesterday set out a ‘new aesthetic vision’ for England’s road network.

On a platform provided by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Campaign for Better Transport, and law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, John Hayes made an unusual and perhaps unexpected speech for a politician.

The Minister set a positive vision of a future where Britain is ‘criss-crossed by award-winning roads’ which ‘sink softly into the landscape’, and was critical of a past ‘in which ‘[w]e allowed sub-standard, ubiquitous, drab, cheap, soul-sapping design to proliferate, until it became the norm’.

People walking on the old A3 main road, now grassed over, at the Devil's Punch Bowl, Hindhead Common, Surrey.

He talked too of a balance between personal choice and the ‘condition of our common life’. Quoting philosopher John Gray, he said ‘The capacity for unfettered choice has little value when it must be exercised in a public space that…is filthy, desolate and dangerous. The exercise of free choice has most value when it occurs in a public space that is rich in options and amenities, and its value dwindles as that public space wanes”.

The Minister’s proposals involve retrofitting existing roads, and adopting a changed approach to new road building, as part of the new Roads Investment Strategy. He held up HS2, Crossrail and the Olympics as proof that good design need be no more expensive than bad design. Two National Trust sites featured in his comments. He celebrated the immensely positive effect of the Hindhead tunnel in reuniting the Devil’s Punchbowl and Hindhead Common, and used the plans for a tunnel at Stonehenge as an early sign of the Government’s commitment to this agenda.

View of Stonehenge, Wiltshire.

His five point plan, in summary, is this:

  • Local people to participate in design planning early in the process, with local character given greater importance
  • A fresh approach to Government’s relations with contractors and other industry partners, to ensure that design and quality are central, rather than simple ‘best value’ considerations
  • Create a Design Panel, involving rural groups, architects, engineers, highways authorities and construction businesses
  • Establish a set of design principles, similar to the Prince of Wales’ 20 principles on architecture.
  • An appreciation of industry best practice.

As the Minister gave his speech, the elephant in the room was the implicit acceptance of new road schemes in his comments. Many would say that it is wrong to accept proposed new roads until other methods have been exhausted – managing demand or improving public transport for instance.

It was however refreshing to hear a politician talk expansively and with passion and thoughtfulness about the importance of beauty, of the aim of uniting form of function, of making things both beautiful and useful.

We hope that these comments mark a step change in all parties’ approaches in this area.

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