The money has run out, or so we keep being told. There are no funds left for any but essential projects: the frontline services and the capital spending which cannot be deferred. Councils in particular are desperate for cash: so desperate that they are having to cut everything from libraries to residential care homes, Sure Start centres to Citizens' Advice Bureaux. Every month they have to make horrible decisions whose consequences will damage people's lives.
So why are these same cash-strapped councils now intending, alongside central government, to spend £897m on new roads, some of which were first proposed decades ago, but which were deemed unnecessary even when cash was abundant? And why is the government minded to approve this spending?
I mentioned these weird priorities in my column this week, but I didn't have space to spell out the full implications of the new road-building programme. What is happening here should provoke equal outrage among those who oppose the cuts, those who want to protect the environment and those who are still waiting for the rational, integrated transport system we were promised 15 years ago.
To receive government approval for their major transport schemes, local authorities submit them to something called the development pool. The Department for Transport (DfT) then decides which ones should be funded. It now has a shortlist of "best and final funding bids" and will make its decisions in December. If you want to comment on any of these bids, you have until 14 October to do so.
The Campaign for Better Transport has worked through these applications and found schemes first proposed during the bad old days of the last Conservative government, which slashed public transport and started what it called the "biggest road-building programme since the Romans". That ground to a halt in the face of some of the most widespread and determined protests the country has seen in the past half-century.
Among the development pool bids are some useful schemes, which will boost employment, take pressure off the roads and meet economic needs without trashing the environment. They include some sensible, small-scale public transport projects. But, the campaign's analysis shows (pdf), by far the largest section of the bids is for new roads, many of which will do little but provide lucrative contracts for construction companies.
Some of them have been fiercely opposed by local people for years. Here are a few examples:
The Bexhill-Hastings link road: 6km in length. £86m.
The Norwich Northern distributor route: 14km, £113m.
The Kingskerswell bypass in Devon: 6km, £108m.
The South Bristol link road: 5km, £43m.
The Lincoln Eastern bypass, 8km, £96m.
The cost of these roads will be shared between the government and the council promoting them. Any overruns will have to be met by the council. If previous form is anything to go by, these extra costs could be stupendous. The Campaign for Better Transport has calculated the overruns for 19 recently completed bypass projects. It found that the average starting cost of these roads was £20m. The average final cost was £33m.
Here are the job cuts being made by the councils part-funding the five unpopular schemes I've mentioned:
• East Sussex county council, which wants to build the Bexhill to Hastings road, is cutting 200 jobs.
• Norfolk county council, pushing the Norwich Northern distributor route, is cutting 750 jobs.
• Devon county council and Torbay unitary authority, promoting the Kingskerswell bypass, are cutting 1,740 jobs.
• North Somerset council and Bristol city council, hoping to build the South Bristol link road, are cutting 870 jobs.
• Lincolnshire county council, lobbying for the Lincoln eastern bypass, is cutting 2,000 jobs.
All of these county councils are also making sweeping cuts to their funding of bus services, in order to save money. So two things are happening. Vast sums are being squandered on road schemes which will simply shunt the congestion problem on to the next bottleneck – by councils cutting a wide variety of essential services. And a massive reallocation of cash is taking place from public transport to private transport.
For a number of good reasons, these roads were not funded when the country was swimming in cash. So why, when we're now so short, are they being put forward, and favoured?
It seems that the door to new roads has swung open again. The Conservatives have long had an interest in getting people off public transport and into cars. Public transport is often unionised. It pools resources and encourages social mixing and collective action. Car driving, by contrast, isolates us from other people and encourages us to see society – pedestrians, bicycles, other cars, speed limits, traffic calming – as an obstacle. The car drives us to the right. It is a powerful but overlooked agent of political change.
But aside from the political gains, this is madness. Oil isn't getting any cheaper or any more abundant. There's a desperate need to switch to public transport to take the pressure off the roads and off the environment. The money we should be spending on essential services is being frittered away on projects which could defer but cannot solve our national transport problems.
Even as the government intends to build more roads, it intends to excuse new developments, through its disastrous national planning policy framework, from the obligation to minimise congestion and the need to travel, except where the impacts are "severe": a term it fails to define. One government department will build more roads, ostensibly to relieve congestion. Another will exacerbate congestion by loading the roads with more cars. And these, mind, are the people who claim to be the champions of fiscal responsibility.