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Rishi Sunak scraps plans for new smart motorways in England

The building of new smart motorways is being cancelled as Rishi Sunak acknowledged concerns about safety and cost.

Fourteen planned smart motorways – including 11 that are already paused and three earmarked for construction – will be removed from government road-building plans, given financial pressures and in recognition of the lack of public trust.

Campaigners welcomed the move, but demanded the government now return the hard shoulder on existing conversions.

The Department for Transport said the construction of these schemes would have cost more than £1bn, but added that the construction of two stretches of smart motorway – at junctions six to eight of the M56 and 21a to 26 of the M6 – will continue as they are already more than three-quarters complete.

Existing stretches will remain but be subjected to a safety refit so there are 150 more emergency stopping places across the network.

About 10% of England’s motorway network is made up of smart motorways. They involve various methods to manage the flow of traffic, such as converting the hard shoulder into a live running lane and variable speed limits. But there have been longstanding safety fears after fatal incidents in which vehicles stopped in live lanes without a hard shoulder were hit from behind.

In January 2022, the government paused the expansion of motorways where the hard shoulder is used as a permanent live traffic lane. This was to enable five years of data to be collected to assess whether they are safe for drivers.

In his Tory leadership campaign last summer, Sunak vowed to ban them.

“All drivers deserve to have confidence in the roads they use to get around the country,” the prime minister said.

“That’s why last year I pledged to stop the building of all new smart motorways, and today I’m making good on that promise.

“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.”

Pressure had been mounting on the government to scrap the routes, which have been criticised by MPs and road safety campaigners, including the RAC and AA.

Campaigner Claire Mercer, whose husband was killed on a smart motorway in South Yorkshire, welcomed the government’s move but pledged to continue pushing for the hard shoulder to return on every road.

She told the PA news agency: “It’s great, it’s very good news. I’m particularly happy that it’s been confirmed that the routes that are in planning, in progress, have also been cancelled. I didn’t think they’d do that.

“So it’s good news, but obviously it’s the existing ones that are killing us. And I’m not settling for more emergency refuge areas. So it’s half the battle, but we’ve still got half the battle to go.”

Jason Mercer and another man, Alexandru Murgeanu, died in 2019 when they were hit by a lorry on the M1 near Sheffield after they stopped on the inside lane of the smart motorway section after a minor collision.

Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Mercer’s Rotherham constituency, said: “I’m relieved the government has finally listened to motorists and common sense, but this announcement is long overdue and I need to see the detail before celebrating.

“Will the government be returning the hard shoulder on existing conversions? Will the schemes currently in construction be restored? Why now when two parliamentary select committee inquiries, their own review and countless campaigns by family members of those who died on these death traps wasn’t enough to persuade them?”

The AA president, Edmund King, said: “We have had enough coroners passing down their deadly and heart-breaking judgments where the lack of a hard shoulder has contributed to deaths.

“At last the government has listened and we are delighted to see the rollout of ‘smart’ motorways scrapped.

“We would also like to see the hard shoulder reinstated on existing stretches in due course.”

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said: “We want the public to know that this government is listening to their concerns.

“Today’s announcement means no new smart motorways will be built, recognising the lack of public confidence felt by drivers and the cost pressures due to inflation.”

Read more:
Rishi Sunak scraps plans for new smart motorways in England

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