‘Uncomfortable ride for ministers’: Decision to slash active travel funding goes to court

Campaigners have been given permission to judicially review the Department for Transport’s (DfT) decision to cut funding for walking and cycling by 75 per cent.

On 9 March, ministers announced a cut of funds dedicated to active travel for the remainder of the Parliament from about £308 to £100 million.

Lawyers for the campaign group Transport Action Network (TAN) have argued that the minister’s decision ignored legal requirements, in particular, climate, air quality and equalities duties, in spite of previously acknowledging the “significant” benefits of active travel for these issues.

Mr Justice Jay last week gave the green light to a full hearing on the case, which he said was “potentially important” since it concerns a legal provision that has not been looked at previously.

The Infrastructure Act 2015 requires the DfT to publish walking and cycling objectives, plus the resources to be made available to achieve them, in a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS).

The central target of half of urban journeys being walked or cycled by 2030 forms a key part of the UK’s climate and air quality plans. The DfT forecast that it would fail to meet this target, even before the funding cuts, stating in a 2022 progress report to Parliament that only 41-47% would be walked or cycled by 2030, far short of the 50% target.

Ahead of the High Court hearing, DfT lawyers were forced to disclose slides highlighting how the cuts would devastate sustainable travel in most of England’s local transport authorities. For example, cutting 40% of funding for upgrade work for shared use pathways on the National Cycling Network (NCN) would result in a reduction of new or upgraded shared-use paths of 30 miles per year, mostly impacting rural connectivity and access for disabled people.  

Chris Todd, director of TAN, noted that when the funding was cut in March, ministers had promised to find additional cash as soon as possible, yet none of the £36 billion saved from cutting HS2 had been dedicated to active travel.

“It’s obvious that ministers are no longer serious, whether about their commitments to cut congestion, improve travel choices, address climate change or clean up our air. We’re disappointed that we had no choice but to take them to court. However, we’re delighted the judge agreed this important case deserves a full hearing.”

In its 2023 progress report, the Climate Change Committee said that transport emissions were not forecast to fall fast enough, and called for the government to restore the funding allocated for active travel in the 2021 Spending Review. The Public Accounts Committee is also set to report on the cuts in the next few days.

A full legal hearing is expected to take place in early 2024. TAN is crowdfunding to pay its £40,000 legal costs. It is represented by David Forsdick KC and Charles Bishop of Landmark Chambers, instructed by Leigh Day.

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith said: “It was only after independent scrutiny from a National Audit Office investigation that double-counting in active travel funding was revealed. The court case should shed light on the DfT’s lack of join-up between funding, cycling and walking objectives and targets to address climate change and air quality. This could be an uncomfortable ride for ministers.”

A spokesperson for the DfT said that it had invested more than £3 billion in active travel over the period to 2025, and that the Network North programme, which prime minister Rishi Sunak announced in October as a replacement for HS2, would also provide additional funding to local authorities to take forward schemes in their areas, which could include walking and cycling schemes.

“We remain committed to our ambitious active travel targets and stand ready to defend the secretary of state’s decision at the hearing in due course,” the spokesperson added.