Are we turning the corner on road building?

The recent Climate Change Committee (CCC) 2022 Progress Report to Parliament criticised the Government’s road building plans for increasing demand and emissions. It stated that they should not be encouraging unconstrained traffic growth and needed to be compatible with net-zero. Could we finally be turning the corner on road building in England?

CCC recommendations

In its report, the CCC, an independent statutory body, applauded the Government’s ambition on climate change, but was very critical on the lack of delivery and progress in many areas, including transport. It also made a number of new recommendations, including the need for targets for reducing car travel. It noted that both Scotland and Wales had adopted such targets and saw this as important in bringing about immediate carbon reductions while the vehicle fleet is still transitioning to electric vehicles (which of course is no silver bullet).

Very helpfully for communities around England opposing road schemes, the CCC expressed concerns about the development of the next Roads Investment Strategy (RIS3) for 2025-2030. The report recommended that the Department for Transport and National Highways must “rigorously assess the emissions impacts of these plans and thoroughly consider alternative approaches”.

Hope for RIS3?

The Road Investment Strategy (RIS) is a five-year programme of major investments on the Strategic Road Network by National Highways (a government-owned company). We are currently in the RIS2 period, which started in 2020 and ends in 2025.

We have been calling for the RIS3 budget to be spent on maintenance and addressing local community severance and safety issues, rather than building new roads. Otherwise it will only drive up traffic and take us backwards on our net zero ambitions. As Professor John Whitelegg said recently, traffic is like gas – ‘it always expands to fill the space available’.

Recent comments by Nick Harris, Chief Executive of National Highways suggest we may have reasons to feel optimistic about RIS3. Harris has said that RIS3 is unlikely to contain as many major road building projects as the current investment period, with more money being allocated to junction upgrades, renewal and repair work.

While road maintenance is generally welcomed by all road users, junction upgrades can still unleash significant road capacity so are not quite as benign as they sound. For example, the planned M3 Junction 9 scheme would increase carbon emissions by over half a million tonnes.

The recent court victory by Friends of the Earth and others, successfully challenging the Government’s Net Zero Strategy (NZS), has also exposed that the Government does not have a coherent plan for tackling road transport emissions. It will need to rewrite the NZS, and include quantifiable measures of how emissions will be reduced at the scale and speed required.

Communities around England have been heroically challenging large road schemes, often on climate change grounds as well as noise, pollution, habitat loss, and severance of communities. This includes Norfolk residents who have just launched a potential legal challenge of the Government’s decision to approve a new section of the A47.

Driving change

The second half of 2022 provides important opportunities to increase pressure on the DfT to change its direction of travel as two major consultations will take place on:

  • The National Networks National Policy Statement (NNNPS) review. This is the document against which all new road schemes on the Strategic Roads Network (SRN) are judged. The current policy effectively instructs decision makers to ignore climate change when assessing new road plans. This is absurd in a climate emergency and must be changed.
  • The proposals for RIS3 (the third roads programme for the SRN).

We cannot wait until the bulldozers are rolling in to try and stop new roads. Direct action needs to be the last resort. We need to stop these roads in their infancy before they are fully developed by changing government policy.

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Together we can!

While it can seem like an uphill struggle at times, it is possible to stop new roads. Local people have seen off new roads in Suffolk and Herefordshire in the last few years. Campaigning in isolation during the pandemic has not been easy. Thankfully our national conference in September will bring people together to discuss plans for fighting new roads and tackling climate change. A big focus will be on traffic reduction, and we’ll hear from Lee Waters on the approach Wales is taking.

You can register for our conference here.


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