The United Kingdom of Coney Island

If I had to choose a new national symbol for Britain, which happily I don’t, I think I should choose the orange and white-striped traffic cone. The other day I drove 120 miles to a town in the east of the country and there were road-works every ten miles on average. The journey took an hour longer than predicted in each direction.

I tried alternative routes but it was no use: it was like trying to dodge locusts in a plague. And on another journey, taken three days later, this time of 32 miles, there were road-works every 4 miles.

Mistrustful as I am of the make-work favoured by Kenyesian economics, I succumbed to the paranoid thought that perhaps some of these road works were not really necessary: what was being altered was not the road so much as the unemployment statistics. But I have no evidence for this, only a mistrust that anything will be much better for all this work.

There was another phenomenon, however, that interested me en route. This was the road-works that had been completed sometime before, but from which the orange and white plastic cones had not been removed, together with the large numbers of rusting portable traffic signs lying flat on the ground with the sandbags by which they had been held erect strewn around them. It seems that neither the contractors nor the local authorities has sufficient pride in their work or their duty to clear up this unsightly mess – of which, incidentally, I have seen no equivalent in other countries in Europe, though I have seen other messes, such as the bidonvilles that are growing up around Paris.

Of course, I would gladly have gone by public transport, but Dr Beeching put paid to that possibility a long time ago. No doubt it would be unfair to tax the poor man with all horrors of British road traffic since the publication of his report of accursed memory, but by the time the A14 was built (one of the roads down which I tried to go), it was surely predictable that it would ease congestion for a time only to increase the traffic so greatly that it would be perpetually under repair, to the great frustration of all who then felt obliged to take it.

As for the minister of transport at the time of Dr Beeching, Ernest Marples, he was involved in that greatest and unresolvable political conflict of all, the conflict of interest.

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