UK’s £27bn Roadbuilding Plan Ruled Legal Following Challenge from Campaigners

Campaigners have said they will appeal the decision and believe the government’s plans are “more at risk of being cut back this autumn than ever”.
Credit: Anthony M/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Campaigners have vowed to lodge an appeal after losing their bid to halt the UK’s “largest ever” roadbuilding plan on climate grounds.

In a judgment made on Monday, the High Court ruled that the government had acted lawfully in producing the £27.4 billion second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2).

During a two-day judicial review hearing in June, Transport Action Network (TAN) had argued a briefing that accompanied the release of the strategy did not fully explain how the plan would comply with a national target of reaching net zero by 2050, or its impact on nearer-term climate goals.

But in his judgment Mr Justice Holgate ruled that the briefing, “albeit laconic”, was a “legally adequate precis”.

The judge found no issue with the Department for Transport’s (DfT) own analysis of emissions from RIS2. 

And he rejected TAN’s argument that DfT should have assessed the strategy’s cumulative impacts over the period 2020-2050, saying there was no target against which such an assessment could be compared. 

“I see no reason to question the judgment reached by the DfT that the various measures of carbon emissions from RIS2 were legally insignificant… when related to appropriate comparators for assessing the effect on climate change objectives.” 

‘Opposition is Rising’

TAN campaigner Rebecca Lush said the group was “shocked” at the decision and accused the DfT of not treating climate change “with the urgency it deserves”. 

But she said the court case had at least shone a light on the department’s decision-making. “As the government draws up its net zero strategy, opposition is rising and the roads programme is more at risk of being cut back this autumn than ever,” she said.

In a statement, a DfT spokesperson said it welcomed the court’s judgment. 

“Decarbonising transport is one of our main priorities and earlier this month we published our Transport Decarbonisation Plan setting transport on the path to achieving net zero by 2050,” they said.

A key issue of the case was the degree to which it is appropriate for courts to scrutinise the climate impacts of major government decisions. 

The judge concluded that the government is taking a range of steps to tackle emissions from the transport sector and submissions “clearly showed” how government policy “continues to evolve to address the urgency of the need to meet carbon targets”. 

He added that “whether they are enough is not a matter for the court” and noted there was “no requirement in the [Climate Change Act] 2008, or in government policy, for carbon emissions for all road transport to become net zero”. 

Last month, in its annual report to Parliament, the Climate Change Committee recommended the UK introduce a “net zero test” to ensure that all government decisions are compatible with national emissions targets. TAN said the judgment could therefore set an important precedent about how intensively courts in England and Wales can review government policy to ensure a potential “net zero test” is met in practice.

However, the judgment did stress that the individual road projects outlined in RIS2 will still require approval through the usual development consent process, or will be subject to environmental impact assessment. It said there was “no reason” why their impact on the latest and most ambitious carbon budgets “may not be taken into account”.

TAN also brought a separate but related legal challenge against the government’s National Networks National Policy Statement, which sets out how policy road schemes are considered in planning decisions.

Last week, the government said it would review that statement in light of its net zero targets, its plan for a green industrial revolution, the sixth carbon budget and the new transport decarbonisation plan. But it noted that the pandemic had had a big impact on transport patterns in the UK, with “fundamental changes” in commuting, shopping and business travel alongside a “hopefully temporary move away from public transport” as more people travelled by car.

The review will include a “thorough examination of the modelling and forecasts that support the statement of need for development and the environmental, safety, resilience and local community considerations that planning decisions must take into account”.

The review will not be completed until spring 2023 and current policy will not be suspended while the review is taking place. TAN says it is considering its options regarding its legal challenge against the National Policy Statement.

UK’s £27bn Roadbuilding Plan Ruled Legal Following Challenge from Campaigners
Isabella Kaminski is a UK-based freelance journalist specialising in the environment and climate change.

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