Road to ruin

David McVey has discovered that the M74 extension is running even further over budget than has been reported and that the promised public transport improvements have been negligible. Here he asks why is no-one else asking these questions?

The M74 Northern Extension, said, mile-for-mile, to be Europe’s most expensive urban motorway, is fast approaching completion. However, its history is complex and controversial. In 2002, the BBC called it ‘the £250m missing link’ but by 2006, the estimated cost of the road had risen to £500m. In February 2008, an over-excited Robbie Dinwoodie, writing in *The Herald*, hailed the beginning of work on the ground and commented that “At £650m, the project is up by around £100m on the last estimate but, crucially, the government has been able to build in a cap on the deal which means the cost cannot escalate from now until completion in 2011”. However, Dinwoodie’s sunny optimism was misplaced; in March 2010 Transport Scotland informed me that the latest estimate of the cost was £692m.

Any public project where building costs soar alarmingly, whether it’s the Scottish Parliament building or the Edinburgh trams, the new Hampden or the new Wembley, tends to get a serious kicking in the papers and from those politicians not in power, but both the press and the political classes have unyieldingly supported the M74 Extension throughout its troubled development. Public criticism hasn’t been muted so much as completely absent.

In other words, the very minor changes introduced were never intended to be costly or significant, and were simply a tiny carrot to dangle in front of those opposed to, inconvenienced by or otherwise affected by the new road. After the roads lobby had got its way, the complementary public transport provisions were largely forgotten.

The M74 Northern Extension actually has its roots in 1960s planning, when cars and motorways were seen to be the future in the context of the post-Beeching marginalisation of the rail system. Much of the land along the course of the extension had lain derelict and abandoned for decades waiting for the announcement that work would actually start. The project was delayed again when the New Labour government was elected in 1997 on a platform of supporting public transport over road building. That commitment, of course, didn’t last long and the six-mile, six-lane motorway was scheduled to begin construction, through a swathe of Glasgow’s Southside, in 2002. However, so many and powerful were the objections to the development, particularly from local community groups, that a public enquiry was called, delaying the beginning of works once more.

The enquiry was convened and listened to evidence between December 2003 and March 2004. Those local communities whose areas the road was due to slice through, backed by environmental and sustainable transport groups, put the case against the development. Big business, local councils, motorists’ groups and an uncharacteristically harmonious alliance of the four main Scottish political parties pressed for the project to go ahead. The inquiry report was completed in July 2004 but was suppressed by the then Scottish Executive; we now know that its officials had, during this period, advised that, despite official denials, the new road *would* breach a number of environmental guidelines. Only a Freedom of Information request finally prompted the release of the report in March 2005.

The results were – or, at least, should have been – devastating for the roads lobby; the reporter found no evidence that the road would bring the jobs bonanza or the economic prosperity that its promoters promised. Congestion would at best be redistributed, not alleviated, and there would be no benefit to the 59% of Glasgow households with no access to a car; rather, social exclusion would be increased. The report recommended that the building of the road ‘should not be authorised’. However, the then Scottish Transport Minister, Nicol Stephen (who since then has been ennobled and now sits in the House of Lords), announced that the Project would go ahead. In other words, the public enquiry report, the evidence it had considered and the concerns of the local community were to be ignored and construction would proceed. Many opponents of the project suggested that the entire appeals process had been a sham and I’m certainly not arguing.

A legal challenge, supported by community and environmental groups, was subsequently mounted but this collapsed in disarray in January 2006 for reasons that are still unclear. All the same, it wasn’t until February 2008 that the order was finally given to begin construction. A new SNP Government had replaced the Liberal/Labour coalition and it was new Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson who made the announcement, demonstrating that the new boss really was the same as the old boss.

Our main political parties usually strongly dislike being seen to agree in public, even though these days there is little difference between their ideologies and agendas; but they were never more united than in welcoming the new six-lane motorway which was about to slice through Glasgow. Analysis and democracy through political debate were suspended and a dubious unanimity dominated the airwaves. The then Glasgow Council Leader Stephen Purcell (remember him?) announced “This is tremendous news for jobs, for commuters, and for the 2014 Commonwealth Games!”. In fact, the Commonwealth Games had not been a consideration at any stage of the development of the project. In any case, as was the case with all of the scheme’s supporters, Purcell’s comments flew in the face of all the available evidence, economic, social and environmental, as presented at the public enquiry. There were also messages of approval from the CBI and the far-right, near-deranged motorists’ lobby group the Association of British Drivers (ABD); supposedly ‘Labour’ and ‘Liberal’ figures seemed happy to be seen in such company. In *The Herald* article I quoted earlier, Robbie Dinwoodie finally parted from reality completely in claiming “…only the environmental lobby and its political arm, the Greens [voiced] serious dissent”. So much for the views of the local community and the findings of the public enquiry.

This is all now history, of course; the road is currently taking shape and it will blight Glasgow and its environment for generations. Early in its gestation, promoters of the road tried to address the social exclusion factor by citing a plan to introduce a number of public transport improvements that would run complementary to the development of the M74 Extension. I became curious about what had happened to these measures. There is no mention of them on Transport Scotland’s M74 Completion project website. I contacted the project’s Community Liaison Team; surely, if anyone would know about public transport improvements designed to serve the communities affected by the new road, they would? In fact, puzzlingly, they told me they had no information about them. I wrote direct to Transport Scotland and, with some difficulty, finally obtained some replies.

Allan Roberts of Transport Scotland listed a number of public transport improvements that had already been put in place, including “…Streamline, an enhanced bus service operating along Quality Bus Corridors in the Greater Glasgow area”. There was also “…the Smarter Choices Smarter Places – East End Accessibility initiative [which] comprises a package of localised measures including infrastructure improvements, an intensive sustainable transport marketing campaign and practical support for people wishing to adopt sustainable travel methods”. Other than this, Mr Roberts had to fall back on lauding “…the benefits of the M74 Completion in terms of freeing up road space for public transport, cyclists and pedestrians…”.

You might reasonably suggest, along with me, that this doesn’t sound much in comparison to Europe’s costliest urban road. So I obtained, again with difficulty, a further response from Mr Roberts asking for the comparative cost of the public transport improvements and the M74 Extension project. It was in this communication that I was told of the latest, £692m, cost of the road. However Mr Roberts also wrote, concerning the public transport element “…we do not have details on the level of expenditure on these interventions”. In other words, the very minor changes introduced were never intended to be costly or significant, and were simply a tiny carrot to dangle in front of those opposed to, inconvenienced by or otherwise affected by the new road. After the roads lobby had got its way, the complementary public transport provisions were largely forgotten – even by the Community Liaison Team, the ones you’d most expect to know about them.

It is true that Scotland has seen some recent major rail developments; the Airdrie-Bathgate scheme, opened to the public in December 2010, is the latest of these. However, the next major project, the Borders Railway is limited, flawed, and must still be regarded as likely never to occur. The Scottish Government has accepted the need to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by 80 per cent before 2050. Quite how this will happen with the M74 Northern Extension, the new M80 Haggs to Stepps alignment, the Kirkintilloch Link Road (opened in December 2010 and largely built on old rail formations), the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, a new Forth Crossing and Glasgow’s East End Regeneration Route all attracting and increasing road use is anyone’s guess. Some have said that Scotland is in the vanguard of rail development in the UK; I’d suggest that, on the contrary, we’re seeing a new golden age of the car dawning.

There is no evidence that the M74 Extension will bring prosperity to anywhere – any more than, elsewhere in Glasgow, the M77 has energised Pollok or the M8 has turned Easterhouse into a garden suburb. No doubt, in due course, statistics will show that a whole new range of economic activity has developed alongside the course of the road, bringing a number of new jobs to the area; but bear in mind that much of the course of the road has been derelict, awaiting the beginning of construction work once local opposition, public enquiries and other minor inconveniences have been set aside. It’s easy to improve on nothing. What we’ll never know is what an alternative, more modestly funded programme of urban renewal, public works and public transport spending would have brought to this part of Glasgow’s Southside.

The M74 Northern Extension will be an environmental blight. It will do little if anything to help most people economically. But the most worrying aspect of the whole sorry affair is the uncritical unanimity of the press, the main political parties and of big business in ignoring the evidence and distracting attention from the escalating cost of the project. It’s really as if they do value ten minutes shaved off their drive to Glasgow Airport above everything else. And I suspect they do. Most of all, the very existence of the M74 Extension represents a troubling defeat for democracy and open government.