Beautiful roads

A new aesthetic vision for the road network.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

A new aesthetic vision for the road network.

Just before Christmas the government announced the biggest upgrade to roads in a generation - a £15 billion programme to triple investment by the end of the decade.

An enormous opportunity to transform the roads that traverse our nation.

Roads that carry our goods, that are the arteries of trade that bear us safely home, that are the threads in the tapestry of our national landscape.

And we have got to get this right.

Because once again, we are at a crossroads.

Two paths lie before us.

There is the well-trodden path we have travelled down as a nation many times, when driving major public projects over the past century and that is the path of mere utility, of banality - even ugliness.

But then there is the road less travelled. The road of beauty of form enhancing function. The road, I will argue today, that we must now take.

Beauty matters

A civilisation is largely defined by what it builds. How we see the Roman empire or ancient Greece is shaped by what they left behind for those born later.

Places to live, work, meet or worship. All successful civilisations have looked beyond mere utility. Beyond the immediate practicalities, to consider form as well as function.

Yet nowadays to talk about the importance of beauty is to risk incurring scorn. I discovered this when, as Energy Minister, I started a national conversation about onshore wind turbines.

It wasn’t just the costs of on-shore wind that concerned me.

I was also alarmed that industrial structures could be forced on communities - immense structures on the skyline destroying views enjoyed for generations. Central to my continuing concern is that wind turbines are - with all their industrial ubiquity - simply ugly. While some disagreed with me and attempted to make an aesthetic case for these industrial buildings, others simply dismissed my argument as irrelevant.

They did so on the basis of the easily-grasped, though utterly crass notion that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The notion that beauty is relative has been used to justify much of the ugliness imposed on our towns and cities by architects, planners and developers since the Second World War.

It seems so obvious that beautiful buildings and places designed in harmony with nature lift the spirits to inspire and enthrall.

Obvious too that so many discordant post-war tower blocks and housing estates have blighted lives and destroyed communities.

The failure of tower blocks as a social experiment is a consequence of the misconception that humans are perfectible. But their aesthetic failure is based on the opposite misconception: that the God given world is not. Indeed, at the heart of much modern architecture, like much modern art, is the Nietzschean conception that we can create our own value system. It is not for nothing that the ‘hero’ of Ayn Rand’s despicable book ‘The Fountainhead’ is an architect.

Much modern architecture fails precisely because it rejects those principles of design that time has taught us delight the senses. Where modern design does succeed, it is often by accident, or because, where form has at least followed function, a building has a high degree of utility.

But this is not, as Edmund Burke noted long ago in an early work on aesthetics, the same as beauty. Burke understood that there is a great deal in common in what people find beautiful. But this is not related to utility; our appreciation of beauty is an effect ‘previous to any knowledge of use’.

In other words, we know something to be beautiful before we understand its function. When we perceive beauty, he wrote, our ‘senses and imagination captivate the soul before understanding is ready either to join with them or to oppose them’.

Our perception of beauty is not rational. It stems from the unconscious; from our deepest feelings and emotions as human beings. It also stems from finding resonance in things that help us understand that we are part of nature.

‘Something beautiful you can truly own’, was the tag line of a campaign for the E-Type Jaguar in the TV drama Mad Men, an apt example of what Burke was writing about.

How ironic that we care so much about car design. About the sleek lines gracing our sports saloons. About the leather trimmed interiors, and the burr walnut dashboards when the scene outside the car is often so ugly.

So today I want to make the case for a new vision for roads and the architectural features on and around them.

A change in the way we perceive the network, and the way it interacts with the landscape and environment.

I want to raise awareness of the unparalleled opportunity we have now.

As part of the most ambitious ‘Road investment strategy’ in modern times.

To make the design of the infrastructure as important as the design of other buildings around us.

To protect and even enhance the beauty of our countryside.

To create a road system in harmony with its surroundings.

And to establish a robust set of design principles that can transform the way we plan and deliver road projects.

What went wrong?

First we must learn from our past mistakes. As a country we were late to appreciate the social and economic value of major roads and motorways.

The first highways in the US opened before the First World War.

The first stretch of Italian Autostrada opened in the 1920s,

While Germany’s Autobahn network developed the decade after.

Here, it wasn’t until the 1930s that responsibility for trunk roads passed from county councils to the Ministry of Transport.

The first time central government had controlled the network since the Romans.

And it wasn’t until the 1940s that Frederick Cook, Chief Highway Engineer, suggested that the government considered the potential of a wider high speed road network.

Even then, Lord Leathers, Minister of Transport, warned against ‘enthusiasts who are perhaps unduly influenced by Continental analogies’. Very little progress was made in the years after the war as governments, understandably, prioritised social services and defence over infrastructure.

But in the 1950s things began to change.

The 1951 Festival of Britain, epitomised by the futuristic Skylon sculpture set the tone for the next 2 decades.

Britain wanted to look forward. To modernise. To develop and regenerate. To expand and diversify the economy. Transport was critical to that process.

For the first time, aspiring middle class families were able to afford the ultimate dream – car ownership.

By the end of the decade, the inter-city road network was taking shape.

Supported by flamboyant Transport Minister Ernest Marples, who also championed the building of a new motorway network in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

At the opening of the M1, Marples proclaimed the motorways as ‘opening up a new era in road travel, in keeping with the new, exciting scientific age in which we all live’.

The new superhighway was such an attraction that drivers had to be warned against parking on the hard shoulder to enjoy a picnic.

How things changed.

Over the following decades, enthusiasm for development gradually turned into resistance.

And as the road network developed, we seem to have cared less and less about good design.

We grew to accept that roads and motorways must be an ugly necessity that we had to bear.

Part of the problem was that planners, engineers and architects were speaking very different languages. And rather than find a way for them to work together, projects were fast-tracked. Such was the pace of construction that universal design became the norm – a brutal common denominator.

We allowed bad design to become ubiquitous.

Hideous footbridges.

Unnecessary light pollution.

Roads that divided the landscape rather than threading through it.

Everyone will have their own worst example in mind.

For me, one has always been the Boston Manor viaduct, a set of brutalist monoliths that seem to have escaped from the grimmer end of some American metropolis.

Ring roads, footbridges, underpasses and pedestrianisation have all served to create a destructive sense of alienation from the built environment

In his 1970s novel Concrete Island JG Ballard recounts the story of a modern day Robinson Crusoe marooned, not on a desert island, but on a motorway intersection on the outskirts of London. Ballard’s narrative is powerful because the brutal, empty concrete spaces that typify our road network look so alien that we are unable to relate to them.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. In fact, on the very first motorway to be built – the Preston Bypass – good design was central to the engineers’ vision.

James Drake, the head of the project, even defied government regulations – which typically enough, demanded that bridges be painted battleship grey – by ordering that each one be a different, bright colour.

The largest, crossing the Ribble, was a fetching duck-egg blue.

His work elsewhere in Lancashire drew on the architectural traditions of German modernism, and even today stand out as including some of the most beautiful bits of the motorway network.

But designers like this were driven to conformity, not by a lack of vision but by a lack of funds. The grey men with their grey paint were unstoppable; and so the drab, utilitarian network we know came into being. It was a sadly missed opportunity.

How sad too, that some who like to wear the badge ‘environmentalist’ seem interested in that which lies beyond their control.

The environment is – after all – something we all encounter on a daily basis.

It is not just about CO₂ and global warming, although there is a natural congruence between a beautiful environment and a sustainable one.

It is only by having regard for what we find outside each of our doors that we can humanise the environmental debate and reconnect with those things often found in the natural world which we find beautiful.

Beauty should not just be seen as a ‘nice to have’ but something important that enhances well-being.

Between 1972 and 1981 the researcher Roger Ulrich, studying patients in a Pennsylvanian Hospital, discovered those that had views of nature recovered after an operation far quicker, and needed less pain relief, than those with views of a bland brick wall.

As the philosopher John Gray has written, “the forms of common life in which we find our identities are the environments in which we live and have our being: they are our human ecology”.

For my part, I have always placed great importance on the condition of our common life because I understand that personal liberty is meaningless if people live within a brutal and barren environment.

Again as, John Gray has written: “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”.

This is what sustainable transport truly means: bringing vitality to our public spaces, as well as working in harmony with the environment. It feeds opportunity by fuelling accessibility.

Transport should help us to make the most of existing amenities, of our urban centres. But too often in the past, new roads have detracted from public spaces, either by cutting people off from historic towns and cities, as is the case with many ring roads, or by encouraging people to travel longer distances to out of town shopping malls.

A fresh start

Now we have a great chance to put these past failures behind us. We know how important roads are - crucial to economic growth and quality of life.

They serve our well being.

And we know the economic and environmental costs of rising congestion.

We simply could not go on ignoring these issues. So we’re right to make this record commitment to funding. We’re right to have been strategic in our thinking. And we’re right to have based our decisions on empirical evidence and tests.

This has helped us establish where to build roads.

Now we need to work out what to build.

Let me explain my thinking in a little more detail.

Roads are part of our landscape. We cannot un-invent the car or order people to stay in the village of their birth.

So we need to integrate roads into their surroundings. Flowing with the landscape. Or concealing structure where possible.

They should be environmental assets. Carrying cleaner, greener vehicles.

I believe roads, and bridges that cross them, can lift the soul.

It’s a massive task. But I want to see the same kind of transformation of how we perceive road travel as we have seen with parts of the railway. A generation ago the main London railway termini were dark, dirty and depressing shadows of their former selves.

The demolition of the Euston Arch at the start of the 1960s was emblematic of a wider destruction of the romance and style of rail travel. By the 1970s the idea of spending more time than absolutely necessary at a railway station would have been seen as absurd. Indeed, a British Rail cheese sandwich became a national joke.

Now St Pancras and Kings Cross have become popular destinations in their own right. Railway stations which are places to shop, to wine and dine. We have reclaimed the vision of Sir John Betjeman, whose statue rightly adorns the reborn St Pancras.

I want to see a similar vision for our road network and for the service areas.

Service stations were once rather glamorous. Crowds flocked to the opening of the first service station at Watford Gap in November 1959, and to Newport Pagnell which opened the following year. But like the motorway system they served, the glamour faded quickly.

They became more notable for bad food, congestion and litter than for providing a pleasant, friendly environment for motorists and their passengers to take a break.

John Major made an effort to improve things when he told the 1992 Conservative Party conference that service stations needed to be reformed. And many were subsequently privatised.

If you look at the latest service stations – at Beaconsfield and at Cobham – you can see good design beginning to creep back in, but we must do much more.

From buildings that look like outstations of the South Bank Centre towards miniature Terminal 5s.

More air and more light.

I want to encourage owners and operators to go further.

Providing green spaces as well as car parking spaces.

Improving the quality and range of independent cafes and shops available.

These places should be charming and eclectic, creating a break from the particular monotony of long distance travel, not adding to its monotony through their ubiquity.

We’re making a big investment to install electric car charging facilities across the network.

But my vision for service stations is not just to offer a place where cars can be recharged.

But also where drivers can be recharged. Relaxed and ready to carry on with their journey.

I understand there are people who may struggle to connect an aesthetic vision with the ‘Road Investment Strategy’ we announced in December. Indeed, there are many passionate campaigners who oppose nearly all road investment on the grounds that it must be damaging to the environment.

But what I’m arguing for is a complete change in the way we conceive such programmes. A fundamental paradigm shift that outdates all previous initiatives.

Let’s be absolutely clear. For a long time, we got it wrong, very wrong.

We allowed sub-standard, ubiquitous, drab, cheap, soul-sapping design to proliferate, until it become the norm.

And as a nation, we shrugged our shoulders.

As individuals, we may not have liked it. But collectively, governments, local councils, highways authorities, planners, architects did nothing to change it.

But today. Right here. Now, we have an opportunity. To banish ugly design from new road schemes. And make sure it never returns.

Through the ‘Road Investment Strategy’, we can instill sound new design principles right at the start of infrastructure development – so aesthetics and environmental issues are considered alongside engineering and local planning.

This need not lead to unsustainable cost. It’s a myth that elegance costs more than we can afford.

Good design need be no more expensive than bad design. We accepted this with HS2, Crossrail and the 2012 Olympics.

And actually by involving different groups at an earlier stage, we can speed up the planning process for major schemes by securing a consensus on aesthetics, which are so often a cause of dismay and delay in the planning, when the schemes are in their infancy.

This would actually save money in the long run. It would also encourage a wider appreciation of the environmental impact of schemes.

We need a new understanding that improving our road network isn’t just about speeding up journeys at any cost. It’s about creating a network that works better for communities and the environment too.

That might mean:

  • less costly, smarter lighting that comes on when it is needed
  • cutting light pollution, but not at the cost of reducing safety
  • building green bridges; more tunneling and better noise barriers that will help blend roads with the prevailing landscape
  • improving air quality

Some of the road schemes announced in December are in highly sensitive sites.

You have heard about our plans for Stonehenge. This is the latest of many schemes to tackle an existing problem - to solve an environmental challenge by adapting the road to its surroundings. This must become our rule, not a notable exception.

The ‘Road investment strategy’ includes £300 million for the environment up to 2021.

Another £250 million for cycling, safety and integration. £150 million for innovation, and £100 million for air quality. This will help deliver improvements to reduce noise levels at 1150 sites benefiting 250,000 people.

It also includes a Biodiversity Plan for the strategic road network that will reverse the overall loss of biodiversity.

I am after all the minister responsible for managing the Infrastructure Bill through Parliament – the Bill which will save the beaver. And measures too to reduce the flood risk - while providing better environmental protection to our watercourses.

Thank goodness we have moved on from the days when Swampy was headline news. Those road protests were against schemes designed more than a quarter of century ago, by a generation of road builders whose careers began when the very first motorways were being created. Today, offering either an effective transport system or a clean and green environment is a false dichotomy.

Just as modern concepts of sustainable travel no longer have to be anti-car. And I’m not just talking here about new schemes. We need to think about how we retrofit modern environmental standards to the existing network.

As I have already said, in December we announced major funding for environmental improvements to the strategic roads network as part of the ‘Road investment strategy’.

We have to move on from outdated ways of thinking, so we find answers to the challenges we face together.

We’re benefiting from massive advances in green technologies and construction techniques. From false cuttings and quieter road surfaces, to better noise barriers. Indeed the Highways Agency is now trialling noise barriers that are also solar panels.

I know Hindhead is often used as an example, but that project not only protected the surrounding countryside – it made it better.

A tunnel was built to bypass the village of Hindhead and remove a notorious traffic bottleneck. But the scheme also reunited 2 commons previously split by the road, creating the largest area of lowland heath in southern Britain. Developers planted 200,000 trees and shrubs to provide a magnificent haven for wildlife and lovers of our countryside.

The old road was torn up, and the head of the National Trust came down to sew heather on the broken earth.

A victory for those of us who know that our sense of place shapes our sense of worth. A victory for the community.

But I could just as well talk about the A30 in Cornwall from Bodmin to Indian Queens. The A30 is the main road into Cornwall. Local people have cried out for a dual carriageway for generations.

And here, the road ran straight through the Goss Moor Special Area of Conservation.

You’d think the stage was set for a showdown between the road-builders and the environmentalists. But instead we aimed higher, did more. Instead of just building another lane next to the current road, the Highways Agency announced it was going, in effect, to build a dual carriageway bypass around the environmental site.

With that built, it was possible to tear up the old road, reuniting the 2 halves of the site into one single, highly valuable site. The new road was lined with ‘Cornish hedges’ – stone-faced hedgebanks with bushes growing from the top which are typical to the area.

So good design was the rule on and off the road.

This scheme didn’t just win environmental awards – it actually broke the record for the most environmentally sensitive highways scheme ever assessed by the Institution of Civil Engineers. And it was acknowledged as an outstanding success by Friends of the Earth.

The crude assumption is that all road building is bad and destructive.

It’s not just crude.

It’s also completely outdated.

Take the new wetland nature reserve on Wallasea Island – built from almost 5 million tonnes of earth excavated from beneath London as part of the Crossrail project.

Or the half a billion pounds we’re spending developing the ultra low emission vehicle market.

Electric vehicle sales are really starting to motor. And by the end of this year, as I alluded to earlier, we will have built rapid charge points for electric cars in every motorway service station in England.

So let’s move on from the prejudiced narrative of the past.

Together to make things better.

This isn’t about government changing its mind. Or environmental campaigners, or industry changing theirs. It’s about a collective change of mind.

A systematic reconsideration of how we can work together for the common good in the national interest.

The proposals

To begin that, I offer a five point plan for engagement.

By first, making sure every project is rooted in its locality and actually enhances the natural landscape. I want local people to participate in all design planning.

And they should be involved early on in the process – at public consultation stage. Consultation should be about more than a line on a map.

It needs to give people a chance to get a sense of how the road will fit with the landscape and its surroundings. They need to have a chance to question and improve what’s proposed.

As I said a few minutes ago, this would help guard against ‘one-size-fits-all’ design. Giving projects greater local character to harmonise with their surroundings.

We do achieve this today on occasions.

The Highways Agency has told me about some excellent infrastructure projects which are a credit to the teams who worked on them. But this needs to be part of a routine process on each project in every region.

I want design to create new landmarks that will be featured in local guides for decades to come. I want new bridges that are not only useful, but that are loved by the people who use them. And I want to give local people greater ownership of schemes that are going to affect their lives.

Local popular engagement in shaping schemes in the common interest. All road schemes shaped through the people’s will.

Second, from today we will work on a fresh approach to our relationship with contractors and other industry partners.

I’m not speaking here about just finessing the current system. I’m talking about a whole new culture within the industry.

The integrity of the working relationship between highways authorities, councils, architects and industry partners designing solutions together, rather than in silos, is of paramount importance.

We need all parties to show commitment to the strategy, and to understand their role in making change happen.

In the past, there has always been that pressure to cut costs – to get rid of what more blinkered individuals would call gold-plating. When there’s no long-term commitment to funding, there’s always an incentive to strip out everything you can and get the price as low as possible. That’s simply not fair to those we expect to deliver our strategy.

Narrow that bridge; reduce that embankment; see whether you need quite so many trees – in the great road building era of the sixties and seventies, such thinking was endemic.

I don’t believe in gold-plating; but I do believe in green-plating.

By being clear at the start that design and quality are central, the supply chain can build this into business plans.

And by making the funding secure, they can know that their effort isn’t wasted.

When they learn that investment in good design helps them win business, companies will realise this is money well-spent.

Third, I want to create a Design Panel. Such panels have been successfully used for Crossrail and HS2. Not just ensuring that the projects benefit from good design principles, but also that costs are controlled.

Of course the Roads Design Panel would need to include a variety of organisations with different interests. Groups like the CPRE and CBT, and the Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities.

But also architects, engineers, highways authorities and construction businesses. The panel will become a key forum, bringing together visionaries and practitioners, and may consider awards for good design.

The emphasis will be on quick, efficient and inclusive decision-making.

Not unnecessary debate that might hold up the delivery of schemes. By getting organisations with proven track records in their respective fields.

To broaden their focus from transport and engineering.

To the preservation and enhancement of our beautiful country.

We can address the demands of the future in a way that prioritises form as well as function.

And give a new meaning to the phrase ‘the art of the possible’.

And that brings me on to point four; establishing a set of design principles.

This will help provide guidance for developers that will be incorporated into the ‘Design manual for roads and bridges’ – the bible for road engineers.

These would be a similar vein to the 10 principles set out by the Prince of Wales in an article on sustainable urban growth for the Architectural Review in December last year.

His Royal Highness wrote about developments respecting the land, and designed to within the landscape they occupy – as they do in Poundbury, The Duchy of Cornwall’s model town in Dorset.

He urged developers to pay attention to scale, harmony with surrounding buildings, and the use of local materials with distinct character.

So we want roads to be based upon time honoured principles of good design.

From maintaining the right proportions in construction.

To use of street lighting, signage and other roads ‘furniture’.

And from delivering better air quality and biodiversity.

To reducing noise, and integrating with local walking and cycling routes.

Crucially for me, all we create should be a pleasure to look at, with a central focus on the aesthetics and the integration of roads and structures with the landscape and particular local setting.

And finally, my fifth endorsement - an appreciation of - industry best practice. To send out a clear message that this is not an add on to what we’re already doing.

Nor is it a roads programme as previous governments would have understood it. Increasing road capacity and smoothing traffic flow are not the sum total of our ambitions. What we’re proposing is a fundamental shift to make Highways England an exemplar of good design.

We’ve already got some magnificent examples of what can be achieved. Including the single biggest environmental commitment in the history of British road building – the Stonehenge tunnel. Then there’s the A27 on the south coast and the A417 in Gloucestershire. Two projects where environmental concerns have been carefully considered alongside design.

I want these schemes to be the trail-blazers for the future. A future in which Britain is criss-crossed by award winning roads.

Where roads sink softly into the landscape.

Where people reminisce about how bad it was before the work was done.

And I want that future to start now.


This is a new vision for the single biggest asset owned by government. Our roads.

An asset we all rely on for our well being. An asset that powers our economy. Yet an asset that for decades we’ve been neglecting.

Not only through underinvestment. But also through a fatal disconnect between infrastructure, society and environment.

Somewhere along the way, we managed to separate these elements.

Ignoring the fact that at heart we knew they’re intrinsically related.

And that for society to be successful, we need a balance.

Between the things that we require to be economically competitive.

Like jobs, transport, and industry.

And the things that we require to be happy, healthy and secure.

Like family, community and the beauty of our surroundings.

We’ve grown so accustomed to repeated ugliness as we drive around our country that it’s sometimes difficult to imagine anything changing. But we have a better opportunity to grasp change today than we have ever had. I believe we can set a new design standard for roads.

One that balances aesthetic, functional and technological considerations.

Yet one that ties roads to their localities.

Our goal is not just to undo the most intrusive, insensitive road design of the past 50 years. It’s to create a new aesthetic. Values that reflect and even enhance the beauty of the local landscape.

It’s to harness the fantastic design talent we have in this country.

So people have more control over their environment.

It’s to get engineers and countryside campaigners and local councillors working with government and contractors to devise and deliver shared answers to common problems.

We stand at the start of a new road to a destination some believed we were no longer capable of reaching.

This road less travelled is our route to a better future.

Thank you

Published 4 February 2015