Transport Decarbonisation Plan: Government u-turns on roads policy review

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has admitted that the government’s overarching planning policy for major new road schemes is incompatible with net zero and must be revised, a u-turn on its position just weeks ago.

The announcement came in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, which was published yesterday afternoon. The decision to amend the National Policy Statement (NPS) for National Networks was not mentioned in a preceding written statement to the Commons, nor a press release circulated the day before.

In a foreword to the plan, Shapps said that the pandemic had accelerated pre-existing trends in society: “Homeworking has changed traditional commuter and shopping trips, probably forever. Videoconferencing has changed business travel. These things, in themselves, will save thousands of tonnes of carbon – but they also create new challenges, such as a further rise in already proliferating delivery vehicles on the roads.”

“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,” he added, though the plan does not provide a date for it.

The promise means that the government has effectively abandoned a position that it argued in court only a fortnight ago.

On 29 June, the Transport Action Network (TAN) appeared in the High Court to argue that the government’s RIS2 roadbuilding programme, worth £27bn, fails to accommodate the net zero obligation and the Paris agreement on climate change, despite it being “obviously material”.

Its counsel, David Wolfe QC, said that until all road vehicles are decarbonised, “an increase in road traffic means an increase in greenhouse gas emissions … The secretary of state needed to grapple with that. He could not just ignore it, as he did.”

But the government’s barrister, John Litton QC, replied that “full and proper regard” to climate objectives had been given when the programme was drawn up.

The group has also been pursuing a separate, though parallel, challenge specifically against the NPS, filing its claim in December. TAN later revealed that Shapps’ civil servants had advised him that climate policies adopted since its 2014 publication meant that it should be updated – advice that he countermanded. This was despite the DfT admitting that the Airports National Policy statement merited revision for the same reason.

He made another decision not to review the NPS only in March, forcing the campaigners to withdraw their original claim and launch a fresh one. Their legal costs are now expected to be reimbursed.

TAN said that its legal challenges had been vindicated, asking if the DfT will “bite the bullet and scrap its unpopular and highly damaging roads programme?”

But the plan indicates that this is an unlikely prospect, stating that “continued investment in our roads…will remain as necessary as ever to ensure the functioning of the nation and to reduce the congestion which is a major source of carbon. Almost half of our £27 billion programme for England’s strategic roads, though often described as for roadbuilding or capacity expansion, is in fact for renewing, maintaining and operating the existing network, or for funds to improve safety and biodiversity, deliver active travel schemes and tackle noise or pollution.”

This is despite saying elsewhere that, “We cannot pile ever more cars, delivery vans and taxis onto the same congested urban roads. That would be difficult for the roads, let alone the planet, to tolerate. As we build back better from the pandemic, it will be essential to avoid a car-led recovery.”