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Rishi Sunak's move to end Smart Motorways experiment

The Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for everyone to be numerically skilled is not exactly the kind of pledge to get people rushing to the polling station.

Imagine being a Conservative council election candidate on a leaflet door-knocking stint and being asked by a potential supporter what the government’s key promises are and having to reply “well, if you back us, you’ll get extra maths lessons”.

Prime Minster Rishi Sunak
Prime Minster Rishi Sunak

I suppose on one level, improving the nation’s capacity to do sums is important, if only so we can work out how much council tax is going up; why spiralling energy prices are going up and why the weekly supermarket trip is suddenly much more expensive.

It might also have meant the government should have exercised more caution when it carried out the cost-benefit analysis of the introduction of smart motorways.

The screeching u-turn has come too late for the stretch of the M20 which has been converted into a smart motorway between junctions three and five – a scheme which has cost the taxpayer a mere £92million.

There has been additional costs associated with improving safety, including five new emergency areas; emergency roadside telephones and CCTV cameras to improve emergency service response times.

According to the DfT, it meant there’s somewhere to go in an emergency every 1,950 metres.

Construction of the smart motorway M20 between junction 4 and junction 5 in 2019
Construction of the smart motorway M20 between junction 4 and junction 5 in 2019

It's counter intuitive, but if a road scheme requires so many bells and whistles to make it safe, it’s not surprising motorists are uneasy.

The government also faces the issue of breaking contract agreements with construction developers, thought to be valued at £300m. Completing the remaining programme was estimated to cost £1bn.

Financial costs aside, the key issue has been around safety, with motorists rightly feeling potentially more at risk should they be forced to stop in the lane that used to be the hard shoulder.

This lack of public confidence around safety has been the main reason why the rest of the planned motorway schemes have been scrapped.

The PM put it like this: “Many people across the country rely on driving to get to work, to take their children to school and go about their daily lives and I want them to be able to do so with full confidence that the roads they drive on are safe.”

Public confidence has drained away not just recently but over many years, yet the government proceeded to push ahead asserting that the smart schemes were safe.

It may find there are further questions to answer.

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