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High Court challenge to government's £27 billion plans to build roads in England

Campaign group Transport Action Network says plans conflict with government commitments to fight climate change

 A High Court challenge has been launched against government plans to invest £27.4billion in England’s strategic road network over the next five years, and to invest the money instead in sustainable travel, including public transport and cycling.

The legal challenge is being brought by Transport Action Network (TAN), which argues that the roadbuilding programme – described last month by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak as the country’s “largest ever” – ignores commitments made by the government to tackle climate change.

In an article on, transport journalist and author Carlton Reid says that TAN has instructed the same lawyers that won a Court of Appeal case brought against the Department for Transport (DfT) by environmental campaigners to block the third runway at London Heathrow Airport.

In his announcement last month of the Road Investment Strategy 2 (RIS2), Sunak revealed that the government planned to spend £27.4 billion from 2020-25 on strategic roads managed by Highways England.

That reflected an increase from the £25.3 billion allocated in the draft strategy, which also provided for spend of £3.5 billion on local A roads.

While accounting for just 2 per cent of the country’s total roads network, the major roads managed by Highways England carry around a third of all motor traffic in the country, and two thirds of lorry traffic. 

TAN, which is launching a crowdfunding campaign this week to raise £38,000 to pay for its legal costs, insists that the government’s strategy conflicts with environmental laws as well as those aimed at tackling air pollution.

The campaign group is being represented by law firm Leigh Day, which has instructed barristers David Wolfe QC and Pete Lockley, who successfully argued against the government in the Heathrow Expansion case at the Court of Appeal.

Chris Todd, director of TAN, said: “How can the DfT claim to take climate change seriously when it is set to burn billions on the ‘largest ever roads programme’ to make things worse?”

In a statement, the group said: “We now need to go to the High Court to seek a judicial review of the decision to approve RIS2. This will be the biggest ever legal challenge to roads policy in history and the Government will have top lawyers defending it.”

TAN added that it wanted to see the planned expenditure on strategic roads instead “diverted into public transport, rail freight, cycling and walking.”

Leigh Day is acting for TAN. Rowan Smith, an environmental law solicitor with the firm, commented: “Our clients question the appropriateness of proceeding now with Road Investment Strategy 2, which would mean vast amounts of carbon and pollutants emitted into the atmosphere, with inevitably disastrous effects on the environment.

“Our clients are therefore arguing that the government ought to have properly assessed the climate change and air pollution impact of these proposals before going ahead,” he added.

In February, when TAN first said that it planned to take the government to court over its roadbuilding plans, a spokesperson for the DfT told BBC News: “We take our commitment to carbon targets immensely seriously and have one of the world's most ambitious plans for reducing carbon emissions. We have developed our roads strategy alongside this.

“We're also working hard to reduce the environmental impact of cars on our roads, with our ambitious plans to encourage the uptake of battery electric vehicles resulting in one sold every 15 minutes last year.”

The legal challenge, of course, comes at a time when the country is in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, with people urged to stay at home except for essential journeys, and road traffic has plummeted as a result.

With the government pumping money into initiatives such as supporting businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, including funding furloughing schemes for employees, it’s likely that at least some of the pledges made by Sunak in last month’s Budget – including the investment in building roads – may need to be revised.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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crazy-legs | 4 years ago

As the country clawed its way out of the financial crisis in 2008/09 the Government, desperate for economic reboot, did a whole load of things like cutting fuel duty and incentivising diesel car purchases (cos they were supposed to be more efficient...) and a quick win of a load of road-building stuff to "get the economy moving again". It is literally the only way they know how.

Problem is that road-building begets road building.

Town / junction etc suffers bad traffic - build a bypass!
Bypass built and that unlocks a whole load of land ripe for development so houses, out-of-town retail parks etc get built and suddenly the bypass is now just a road to those facilities. And then it becomes really busy so a plan is put forward to...

build a bypass!

It's an utter failure of planning and the idea that it's OK to continue building roads becasue "most vehicles will be electric by some random long off date in the future" is just bollocks.


massive4x4 | 4 years ago
1 like

This plan is for the national strategic road network, these aren't roads that people will be using their bikes on or journeys likely to be replaced by cycling.

The challenge may be successful on a technicality but it shouldn't be.

If you look at the compound annual growth rate of electric vehicles all new cars will be electric by 2030.

In all likelihood the market will work out that nobody wants to be caught buying the last new ICE car long before then and that existing ICE cars will be sweated longer from the mid-2020s before they can be replaced by EVs so ICE production will decay away quicker than EV production increases.

Cars are about 85% of passenger miles in the UK, in cycling friendly Netherlands they are about the same % and their strategic road network is much more dense than the UKs (on a per km/person or km/km2 basis) . You can have both!

Walkable neighbourhoods, shared spaces and car free zones are all great but they don't really do much for those people using the strategic road network, nore will "improving public transport" as it would have to achieve orders of magntitude increases in capacity (think HS2 X 30) to offload any significant number of cars (see 85% of passenger miles). This also assumes that from a climate change perspective that public transport is better than an EV, it isn't particulary if you account for the infrastructure required for trains vs cars and also relative speed at which both can be electrified.

  • Improve the strategic road network
  • Bring in EVs and autonomous
  • Road pricing to control congestion and drive those autonomous cars to be shared. All integrated into the app.
  • Walkable neighbourhoods and a full dutch cycle network

Don't be anti car all the time.

Jem PT | 4 years ago

I would have thought that this comittment will fall foul of the new economic situation the country will find itself in as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?

eburtthebike replied to Jem PT | 4 years ago

Jem PT wrote:

I would have thought that this comittment will fall foul of the new economic situation the country will find itself in as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?

No, no, no, no.  Building more roads is absolutely essential for increasing economic output.  Well, that is to say, it puts lots of money into the pockets of tory party donors.

HarrogateSpa | 4 years ago

"We take our commitment to carbon targets immensely seriously... We have developed our roads strategy alongside this."

Total baloney. There's a line between spin and outright lying, and the DfT spokesperson has crossed it.

eburtthebike | 4 years ago

The government's transport strategy, if I can dignify it with that name, is, like everything else they seem to be doing, a shambles.  It makes commitments to active travel and cutting pollution, then carries on as if those promises mean nothing.  They waste £100bn on HS2 which didn't have an economic case when it only cost £35bn, and refuse to fund active travel, despite making lots of nice noises about it.

Public polls show that active travel is supported by the majority and increasing motor vehicle travel isn't, but the government ignore that in pursuit of profligate motorised mobility.

We can only hope that this challenge succeeds and these idiotic plans are scuppered.  I'd write to my MP but he's so true blue he'd just brush me off again.

iandusud replied to eburtthebike | 4 years ago

I couldn't have put better myself.

eburtthebike replied to iandusud | 4 years ago

iandusud wrote:

I couldn't have put better myself.


ktache | 4 years ago

I think it would be nice to get the roads we have in better shape than they are at the moment.  Fix the stuff we already have.

Repair those potholes.

And do it well, with maybe some resurfacing.

crazy-legs replied to ktache | 4 years ago

The funding is not for that - regional roads are managed and paid for by councils. Major / strategic roads are funded by DfT and that's where this £25bn is coming from, it's not something that can be re-allocated elsewhere.

Same with HS2, everyone keeps saying "spend that money on cycleways / the NHS / electric charging infra..." but the funding isn't for that. It's a mix of borrowing and grants ringfenced for HS2.

ktache replied to crazy-legs | 4 years ago

But the government can decide where it wants to spend it's (our) money.

It has repeatedly underfunded local councils, it could quite easily decide to fund the local road network if it wanted to, even ringfencing the money for repairing and maintaining roads.

It already contributes to a "pothole fund", inadequate to fix them of course, but it sounds good.

crazy-legs replied to ktache | 4 years ago
1 like

Yes and no. I absolutely get where you're coming from but Government doesn't work that way with funding over ansd aobe what it already gives to councils as standard.

Central Government might say "we have a fund of £10bn to go to (eg) road building, bid for it".

That puts councils in competition against each other (rather than working together) to put forward schemes to justify some money and that £10bn gets split and split and split again until a council ends up with (say) £15m to fund a particular scheme it's put forward. Lets say it's a new junction. Everyone wants the money of course so everyone bids for it no matter how "needed" the scheme and you end up in a situation where the £15m allocated HAS to be spent on that junction using the plans submitted. Even if it turns out to be shit, you have to build it that way and when traffic is at a standstill or there's an accident a week there or zero provision for active travel, you then have to go back to Government and put in a new bid for junction improvements.

It's a terrible, scandalous waste of resources, it's very inefficient (often leading to schemes being delivered years late as funding becomes available and when they're delivered, they're not the answers that are needed anymore). But that is the model that's used and it's not something you can just change overnight to say "sod it, just split the £25bn between all the counties weighted by population and let the councils deal with it as they think it's needed".

That's devolution and central Government is not a fan of devolution. God forbid that the regions might have a voice of their own!

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