The government’s plan to extend the M74 into Glasgow will undermine targets to cut air pollution and combat climate chaos, according to secret advice given to ministers.
A memo from officials to the former environment minister, Ross Finnie, in 2005 warned that building the five-mile, six-lane motorway would breach Glasgow’s air quality objective and significantly hamper plans to cut carbon emissions from transport.
But the M74 extension was still given the go-ahead by the previous Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition, and has been backed by the current Scottish Nationalist government. The groundbreaking ceremony to launch construction work in May was headed by the First Minister, Alex Salmond.
The internal memo to Finnie criticised roads officials who had suggested that the new motorway would reduce pollution and meet the air quality objective by re-routing traffic. There was “no evidence” to support this argument, it argued.
In fact increases in nitrogen dioxide pollution alongside the road, the memo pointed out, “could be sufficient to result in breaching of the objective, particularly at the Kingston Bridge junction.”
The memo also cautioned that the predicted increase of 80,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the M74 extension in 2010 would have a “significant” impact on plans to cut climate emissions. “They will cancel out 20 per cent of the emission reductions projected from the transport 10 year delivery plan,” it said.
The memo concluded, however, that the environmental disadvantages did not outweigh other arguments in favour of building the motorway. As a result, transport officials strongly advised ministers to reject the recommendation of the public inquiry reporter, Richard Hickman, to abandon the project.
Hickman was criticised by one official in 2005 as being “idealistic” for suggesting that “every single activity than man embarks on must result in a reduction of carbon dioxide”. Officials’ comments have been disclosed by more than 30 documents which the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, ordered the government to release.
Duncan McLaren, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said it was “scandalous” that the former Scottish Executive tried to keep information on the M74 extension secret. “When ministers did this shabby deal to extend the M74 they did so in full knowledge that it could lead to breaches of European air quality law,” he argued.
Glasgow’s Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, said: “It’s disgraceful that advocates of this concrete vanity project tried to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes by claiming that it would clean up Glasgow’s air. How could anyone with more than half a brain back the idea of dumping tens of thousands of extra cars into the city with the dirtiest air in Scotland?”
The Scottish government said that it wanted to cut carbon emissions 80 per cent by 2050 at the same time as increasing “sustainable economic growth” to match UK levels by 2011. The M74 extension was needed to help grow the economy.
“We recognise the challenge of balancing our growth and emissions reduction targets and in particular the pressures arising from increasing transport emissions,” stated a government spokesperson.
“We will shortly bring forward an initial assessment of policy options to inform consideration of how we reach the ambitious target proposed in Scotland’s climate change bill.”