Government-funded road schemes worth up to £500m are being built without ministerial oversight and most likely based on outdated emissions targets, according to freedom of information requests obtained by environmental campaigners.
National Highways is the body that oversees road building in England, and it is being allowed “to mark its own homework” by ministers who have opted out of reviewing the economic case for new projects, say campaigners.
There is now a danger, they argue, that National Highways is pushing ahead “behind a wall of secrecy” with schemes that suit the narrow interests of road builders without taking into account more recent environmental and economic concerns.
The accusation comes as three road schemes in Norfolk worth collectively up to £500m are scrutinised by the high court in a long running dispute over the environmental impact of the projects.
In a case brought by local environmental campaigner Dr Andrew Boswell, and supported by TV wildlife presenter Chris Packham and former government scientific adviser David King, the claim will be made that National Highways has pressed ahead with schemes based on weak emissions standards “that increase global warming and wreck the local environment”.
Boswell has crowdfunded a judicial review to re-examine how emissions are calculated at the planning stage and whether they are based on the full increase across the network and not just where the road is built or widened.
The judgment, which is expected in March, could trigger a series of cases prepared by campaigners across the country, including an appeal by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) against a trans-Pennine A57 link roads scheme, intended to improve journeys between Manchester and Sheffield.
The CPRE said the scheme would carve a swath through the Peak District, damaging the green belts around both cities when alternative arrangements were possible.
Boswell said the proposed Stonehenge tunnel could be scrapped if the appeal court agreed that emissions standards needed to be applied more rigorously because emissions from extra traffic along the length of the A303 from Surrey to Devon would need to be taken into account and not just emissions around the Stonehenge site.
The National Highways agency has come under fire in recent years for a lack of transparency about its operations.
Last year the government agency was accused of a “systemic failure” on cycling provision after freedom of information requests revealed it did not know whether its infrastructure met its own design standards.
Despite spending £84m on 160 cycling and walking projects since 2015, the agency admitted it was unable to say exactly what it spent the money on, or the impact of the investment on cycle use and safety.
Some of the most expensive schemes are under the control of officials at the Department for Transport (DfT), but new roads, such as the £230m widening of the A30 near Truro, in Cornwall, will be reviewed by National Highways and could be completed without complying with the latest environmental rules.
Transport Action Network (Tan) said freedom of information requests found that the DfT was not scrutinising the final business case (FBC) of schemes valued below £500m, which meant planning consent on more than a dozen projects could given without ministerial scrutiny of the implications for the environment.
“Planning consent is granted before a FBC is developed – ie before the full and final economic case for the scheme has been scrutinised and approved,” the Tan said in a complaint letter to the National Audit Office.
“Examinations and the secretary of state instead rely on an outline business case that will often be several years out of date when deciding whether to grant consent.
“This could mean the secretary of state is making important legal decisions on planning consent based on inaccurate information, and a misinformed view of the benefits and costs of the scheme.”
Rebecca Lush, a roads and climate campaigner at Tan, said the situation meant the DfT was “allowing the agency to mark its own homework and then operating behind a wall of secrecy” … despite them costing millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and with costs notoriously always escalating.
“The government needs greater oversight of National Highways to ensure they deliver value for money for taxpayers, not less,” she added.
The RAC Foundation director, Steve Gooding, said there was a question mark over the transparency of road building schemes in England. “While the cost/benefit ratio that emerges from economists’ calculations is an important indicator of value it is not the sole basis on which road investment decisions are made, arguably more important for those scrutinising any road business case are the rationale for and accuracy of the many estimates and assumptions that go into those calculations,” said Gooding, a former director of roads at the DfT. He called for more transparency.
Lush said Tan had met a “brick wall of silence” while researching the basis for decisions, and she wanted the National Audit Office should investigate how schemes were being taken forward without ministers being involved.
“There is little to no accountability or transparency, despite billions of pounds of public funding being spent. We were left wondering what they were trying to hide.”
A spokesperson for the DfT said there were “stringent controls in place to ensure effective oversight and governance” after changes in 2015 allowed 18 Tier 2 schemes valued up to £500m to be overseen by National Highways.
“On top of this National Highways is monitored by the Office for Rail and Road, which is an independent body, and is scrutinised by parliament,” it added.
National Highways said it would allow the DfT to answer on its behalf.
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