UK roadbuilding strategy needs to take in climate commitments, government says
‘Fundamental changes’ to travel patterns due to the pandemic and environmental goals prompted rethink of spending on roads
Britain’s GBP27bn roadbuilding strategy will have to be redrawn to take account of environmental commitments, the government has admitted, in a victory for campaigners who sought a judicial review.
The government’s transport decarbonisation plan, published on Wednesday, pledged to review the national networks national policy statement, which outlined a strategy of major spending on roads.
The plan said that the “fundamental changes” brought to travel patterns by the pandemic as well as climate commitments had prompted the decision, although the government had faced a potentially difficult legal battle after court documents showed that the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, had resisted officials’ advice to review the roads policy.
The pledge means that the Department for Transport will abandon its legal defence in one of the two cases brought by the Transport Action Network (Tan). The campaigners are likely to be awarded costs.
However, the decarbonisation plan still suggests that the government will continue large-scale road building, on the assumption that future vehicles will be electric or low-emission.
In a foreword to the plan, Shapps stated: “Our major transport infrastructure programmes were designed before the pandemic. We want to understand how changing patterns of work, shopping and business travel might affect them.
“As new demand patterns become clearer, we will also review the national policy statement which sets out the government’s policies on the national road network. Our ambitious roads programme reflects – and will continue to reflect – that in any imaginable circumstances, the clear majority of longer journeys, passenger, and freight, will be made by road; and that rural, remote areas will always depend more heavily on roads.”
The road strategy was written in 2014, before the UK’s legal commitment to net-zero and its latest carbon budget. The plan said that “it is right that we review it in the light of these developments, and update forecasts on which it is based to reflect more recent, post-pandemic conditions, once they are known.”
Chris Todd, director of Tan, said the promised review was a step in the right direction but expressed concern that action would be more important than words: “It vindicates our two legal challenges of Grants Shapps’s previous refusals to re-examine this outdated roads policy in the past 12 months. However, it won’t necessarily deliver the change needed.
“Without a suspension of the sections linked to climate change, while the review is carried out, carbon emissions will continue to be dismissed when assessing new roads. It is also unlikely that a review will happen very quickly when urgent action is required in this area.”
A second case brought by Tan – a parallel challenge to the Roads Investment Strategy (RIS2), which funds the GBP27bn policy – was heard in the high court last month, and a judgment is expected in the next few weeks.
“Without a cut to RIS2 funding and soon, the roads programme will continue pulling us in the wrong direction, undermining the ambition in this plan,” Todd added. “Just talking about using our cars less is not enough to achieve change when the government is spending billions on new roads, increasing traffic and congestion and driving climate change.”
The decarbonisation plan was published on the same day that a further consultation was launched to build the controversial GBP8bn Lower Thames Crossing.