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Roads to Ruin one year on: Better policies, but road spending plans largely unchanged

Published 10 August 2022 by Marie Ferdelman

A year ago today we published our ‘Roads to Ruin’ report, which found that Transport Scotland:

  1. Spent over £4 billion on new roads between 2011 and 2021, and
  2. Had projects to expand road capacity worth more than £7 billion in the pipeline.

Note that this £7 billion is not the budget for repairs or upgrading existing roads to make them safer or more resilient. This is Transport Scotland’s budget for building new roads or expanding capacity on existing roads through dualling and other interventions.

This expansion in road capacity had been closely tracked by increases in miles driven and emissions from road traffic. Transport Scotland itself has reported that “motorway emissions have increased substantially since 1990, with the 2018 level 81% above that of the 1990 baseline. This increase in motorway emissions since 1990 has coincided with a substantial increase in the length of Scotland’s motorway neork. Between 1990 and 2017, Scotland’s motorway network increased in length from 312km to 645km. Motorway vehicle kilometres rose from 3242 million in 1990 to 8518 million in 2018.”

Better policy, little action

A year later, there have been some positive developments with regard to road transport policy.

The Scottish Government had already announced its target to reduce car kms by 20% by 2030. But it has since published its route map for delivering on this target and has promised a car demand management framework by 2025. Although this is later than we would like, it is a welcome change in policy, indicating a willingness to at least consider restricting unnecessary car use.

Shortly after the publication of our report, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party also announced their cooperation agreement. This included an agreement to “not build road infrastructure to cater for forecast unconstrained increases in traffic volume”. And while a presumption for dualling of the A96 remains, the agreement also committed to a climate compatibility assessment of the project. More recently there has also been discussion that the Nairn bypass may not be built, although this appears to be primarily motivated by budget constraints rather than climate concerns.

However, other projects remain firmly in the pipeline, including the Sheriffhall roundabout in Edinburgh which when given the green light was projected to cost £10 – £50 million but has now escalated to a cost of £116 million. This is more than double the upper limits of the original budget. The continued political support for this project is even more questionable when considering that The City of Edinburgh Council has gone beyond the Scottish Government’s traffic reduction target and has committed to reducing car traffic by 30% by 2030 (Glasgow City Council has made the same commitment). How this fits with building a motorway flyover that enables more car drivers to enter the city is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, Wales is demonstrating that another way is possible. Last year, Wales had already announced its plan to review all new road building schemes against its climate commitments and consider alternative solutions through multi-modal analysis of transport corridors. We had praised this approach in our report as a comprehensive and robust approach to considering whether road building projects were truly beneficial in a climate emergency. One road building project has already been cancelled under this programme and others are awaiting review.

Transparency remains lacking

One of our key criticisms in the report was that while the vast majority of roads projects between 2011 and 2021 went over time and over budget, there was very little transparency of the cost increases in these projects. Our research found that public project websites were often not updated with recent cost estimates. In some cases we found through FOISA requests that not even Transport Scotland held up to date cost estimates for their projects or had final costings years after the completion of a project.

Unfortunately this does not appear to have changed in the past year. For instance, the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route was completed in February 2019. Nearly three and a half years later there is still no update on the final project cost available on the Transport Scotland project website.

Better policies, but road spending plans largely unchanged

On the whole we are seeing some movement on the issue of road building but at the moment the Scottish Government remains mostly stuck in announcement mode. We have some excellent policies now that should enable climate friendlier transport investment decisions to be made. But so far very few of those policies have translated into meaningful action.