Regions lead the decarbonisation race

Something remarkable appears to be happening in the regions. As the Department for Transport drags its heels over tackling climate change (with its much trumpeted transport decarbonisation plan delayed yet again), the regions have taken up the challenge with a relish. Transport for the North is the first sub-national (regional) transport body to test transport proposals to see whether they are compatible with its carbon pathway to net zero.

However, it is being overtaken in ambition by a more junior upstart. England’s Economic Heartland last month adopted its transport strategy which aims to be net-zero by 2040 and most notably has a target of reducing private vehicle journeys by 5% every decade. The first such traffic reduction target in any transport strategy to date.

Midlands Connect, which only adopted a transport strategy in 2017, is already carrying out a refresh and has highlighted climate change as a key challenge. At present it has a rather woolly commitment to net-zero by 2050 but with the consultation open until the 19th March there is still a chance to try and influence this.

Meanwhile, Transport East, a relative newcomer, is currently looking to develop its transport strategy and will consult on a draft over the summer. It’s not known whether it will seek an earlier date to reach net-zero but it has stated that it wants to be an ambitious and forward looking body.

One of the smaller regional bodies, Western Gateway, has recently agreed a target of reaching net-zero by 2050 at the latest. This is similar to Transport for the South East which adopted an equivalent target in its strategy adopted last year. It is currently carrying out a number of area studies and it remains to be seen whether it will take the opportunity to take a more enlightened approach to driving down carbon emissions, or will road building continue to feature heavily in its plans?

However, there is a but. All of the regional transport bodies continue to promote large road building schemes which fly in the face of the need to decarbonise as quickly as possible. So while they have realised that we need to do things differently, and are indeed being more ambitious than central government, which can only be good news, they still seem to have a blind spot when it comes to road building.

The latest line we’ve heard being trotted out is we’re not just building roads for cars but for active travel and public transport. While there may be some need for minor road expansion to accommodate bus priority measures, most road building is still about increasing road capacity for private vehicles. To hide this, politicians are quickly learning the language of spin to try and greenwash their tarnished road building schemes.

So is this a cynical ploy by regional bodies, who are under pressure to be seen to act on climate change but in reality will be hard placed to deliver? After all it’s the DfT that funds any infrastructure and its silo approach to funding and solutions is stifling innovation and new thinking. The regions are asking for more flexibility on funding focussed on improving connectivity which would also allow them to invest in digital rather than physical infrastructure. Therefore, it would be unfair to dismiss their efforts to try and do things differently. Undoubtedly there is a desire for change, but how far that desire extends or will be acted upon remains to be seen. After all it is easy enough to set a target. It is much harder to actually deliver on it.

Photo: Ian Francis /


Signing up will allow you to access our monthly newsletter and the latest actions and events