Step forward as DfT agrees roads policy review

The Department for Transport has partially backed down in the face of our second legal challenge, agreeing to review its outdated roads policy which dismisses climate change (BUT see UPDATE below).

Buried in the DfT’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan was a concession to review the National Policy Statement for National Networks (NPSNN). We first asked transport secretary Grant Shapps to do this in March 2020, sixteen months ago. We realised that the NPSNN, which was approved in 2014, meant no new roads could be challenged on climate change grounds. Since then, the Department for Transport have messed us and our lawyers around so much that we have had to threaten legal action not once but twice!

The NPSNN matters as it sets out the Government’s view on road building and the rules by which major road schemes are assessed. However local communities opposing road schemes soon discover that the NPSNN policy on climate change effectively means that carbon impacts are not considered when scrutinising new road proposals. It compares the extra emissions arising from individual schemes to national carbon budgets, allowing any increases, however large, to be dismissed as “insignificant”. We call this “the ridiculous carbon test”. It is worth noting that no other metric used to justify a new road, such as economic benefit, is judged in this way. It is clearly a nonsense test.

The NPSNN was approved in 2014, predating our Paris Agreement obligations to cut carbon by 68% by 2030, and our new net zero obligations passed in 2019. It was obvious to most people that it needed to be brought up to date.

However, internal documents revealed through the court’s disclosure process showed that Shapps’s legal advisors had recommended to him that the NPSNN should be reviewed, yet he refused to listen.

We are understandably sceptical about the urgency with which the DfT will treat this proposed review. Rather than accept that we were right and avoid the need for legal challenge they gave us no other option but to take them to court. Even then they have been obstructive and dragged their heels at every opportunity.

More critically, and this will be a sign of how serious they are, will they suspend parts of the existing NPSNN while the review is carried out? For if they don’t, then the existing policies which allow climate change to be effectively dismissed as a consideration when assessing new roads, will remain in force. That would clearly not make sense and would undermine the ambition of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

Whilst road projects are part of “Project Speed”, climate policy is treated as “Project Sloth”. We suspect the DfT will want to delay any changes to the NPSNN for as long as possible to allow it to  bulldoze through the many controversial road schemes in its £27bn RIS2 roads programme. Roads such as the Lower Thames Crossing, four A47 schemes, the A27 Arundel Bypass in West Sussex, the A57 Link Road in the Peak District, the A428 in Cambridgeshire, the A417 Missing Link in the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the A5036 Port of Liverpool Access Road (which will destroy a country park). All of these schemes are at a critical stage in the planning process and are likely to be judged against the existing NPSNN policies.

So while we undoubtedly have scored a victory in getting Grant Shapps to finally accept the inevitable, there is still much to play for. What happens next will show whether the Government is truly serious about tackling climate change and showing international leadership ahead of the COP26 climate talks in November. Or will this be just another foot dragging exercise as they stall for more time to carry on business as usual?

UPDATE: Our scepticism was justified as on 22 July Grant Shapps announced that he is refusing to suspend the climate parts of the NPSNN roads policy during the review, which he also said would not complete until Spring 2023 – almost two years from now. This means that all the major road schemes listed above will still be assessed against this outdated policy and their climate impacts will continue to be ignored. We are considering further legal action.


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