In the aftermath of Rishi Sunak’s cancellation of HS2 north of Birmingham, there’s a lot of change and uncertainty. While the Department for Transport (DfT) tries to make sense of this, three important reports were published.
1. National Infrastructure Assessment
The first was the Second National Infrastructure Assessment, published by the National Infrastructure Commission. This sets out what infrastructure the commission thinks is needed over the next 30 years. Unfortunately it appeared to back a lot of road building without proper consideration of the impact on climate change or public transport. Watch this space for a more in depth analysis of this assessment coming soon.
2. National Networks National Policy Statement
The same week also saw the much awaited Transport Committee report on the draft revised National Networks National Policy Statement (NPS). This is the main policy document guiding strategic road, and to a lesser extent rail, development in England. The current version dates from 2014 and should have been revised years ago. Indeed we flagged this in 2020 and had to threaten to take the Government to court several times before it eventually agreed to review the NPS. However, it then took almost two more years for the Government to issue a revised draft for consultation, little changed from the original; still failing to address climate change properly.
The Transport Committee is an influential cross-party group of MPs. Their report made a number of helpful recommendations, in particular calling on the Government to:
- Review the NPS every 5 years, or sooner where needed
- Respond to the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) recommendation to review the roads programme
- Define what is meant by ‘residual’ greenhouse gas emissions and what is or is not an acceptable level for decision making purposes
- Publish the National Transport Model (NTM) to allow greater scrutiny of National Highways’ claims
- Include scenarios in the NTM with reduced and zero growth road traffic and increased ambition for rail travel
- Increase transparency in the process for considering (dismissing) alternatives to road building
- Demonstrate how the NPS does not follow a ‘predict and provide’ approach
The report was fairly sceptical that the draft revised NPS was following anything but a predict and provide model, despite DfT officials and the Minister tying themselves in linguistic knots trying to pretend it wasn’t. Similarly their excuse for not having scenarios with reduced or zero traffic growth didn’t wash with the Committee given that the current eight scenarios the DfT uses are all growth situations. Hardly any of them are net-zero compliant and any that might be are based on implausibly high uptakes of EVs.
Overall, this committee report was another major criticism of the Government’s approach to road building and a vindication of the work TAN has been doing (We were quoted nine times in the report, from our written evidence and supplementary submission).
3. Strategic Roads Investment
On the day that the Transport Committee’s NPS report came out the Government published its overdue response to the Transport Committee’s report on Strategic Roads Investment. Due at the end of September, it was presumably published on the same day to try and bury its dismissal of many of the committee’s recommendations.
The committee called on the Government to consider scenarios with zero growth and traffic reduction when considering what the future might look like. Yet all the DfT could say in response was to parrot the line that “The Government’s approach to decarbonisation is not to stop people travelling, it is about enabling people to do the same things differently and more sustainably.” This is blatantly untrue when it has slashed bus services and is about to further reduce services (even if only on a temporary basis) on an already degraded rail network.
The Government continues to claim that its approach is sound even when the Climate Change Committee issued an assessment of the Government’s recent announcements stating: “Taking all recent developments into account, our assessment remains that the UK is unlikely to meet its NDC [Paris Agreement target] to reduce emissions by 68% between 1990 and 2030.”
Another recommendation was for the Government to prioritise day-to-day maintenance over complex expansion projects. The Government supposedly agreed but then hid the true level of maintenance spending saying that “almost half of the investment in strategic roads, though often described as roadbuilding, is in fact for renewing, maintaining and operating the existing network or for funds to retrofit the existing network to improve safety, enhance the natural environment, and tackle noise or pollution.” Strip out these other elements and you are left with a maintenance budget which is half that for new roads and less than a quarter of the total RIS2 roads budget.
The Government also ignored calls to reconsider the number of new road schemes it tries to build in the face of cost escalations and delays. Overall, its responses gave the impression of a Government out of touch with reality and with no new ideas to address today’s real and pressing problems.
Transport that matters most
These reports show that despite recommendations for change by a cross party group of MPs, the Government is wedded to the status quo of continuing the long term decline of public transport while throwing money at new road building. It claims to be delivering the forms of transport that ‘matter most to people’, but if that was the case it would be prioritising buses, walking and cycling. These are vital for young and old, for those without access to a car, or on low incomes, and disabled people. Pushing more people onto our roads is just making things worse for everyone, including drivers. It just doesn’t make sense.
The Transport Committee is urging the Government to respond to the Climate Change Committee’s call for an English roads review. Please write to your MP and urge them to demand one now! Hundreds of people have taken action and written to their MP already. Use our draft letter to write to your MP.
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