Highway to Hell?: Activists lose legal bid to prevent the £27bn road investment plan

August 15, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Climate activists have lost a legal bid to stop a £27bn road investment plan for England.

What does this mean?

The plan is part of the Chancellor’s initiative to build 4,000 miles of new roads between 2020 and 2025 and spend £500m a year on filling potholes, as part of the £27bn road-building investment in the government’s budget. Originally, Rishi Sunak stated that the plan would “pay for work on over 20 connections to ports and airports, over 100 junctions”. Among the schemes promised is the controversial work to expand the A303 at Stonehenge, described by environmentalists and archaeologists as “catastrophic”. 

Campaigners argued that the decision to go forward with the road-building plan was irrational and out of line with the government’s legally binding commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 under the Paris Agreement. The campaigners lost their application for a judicial review, which they say amounts to government ministers being “let off the hook”.

Transport Action Network’s (TAN) director Chris Todd expressed dismay at the outcome, as he believes the effect of the judgment to prioritise “stability and certainty of the roads over that of our climate”. The High Court judge who dismissed TAN’s application for judicial review stated that although the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps did receive a briefing “albeit laconic” from officials stating that the policy was consistent with net-zero targets, Shapps did not need to know the actual numbers.

What's the big picture effect?

Is the government blatantly ignoring the science behind the climate crisis? Professor Jillian Anable of Leeds University’s Institute for Transport Studies believes that the government’s decision is in stark contrast with the modelling which shows that we need to cut traffic in order to work with the carbon budget. Environmental activists have been warning the government that the road-building plan is incompatible with climate commitments since the release of the budget in 2020. Notably, the transport sector is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and the only sector to have increased its emissions in recent years.

Chris Stark, Head of the Committee on Climate Change believes the money could be better spent elsewhere, believing that it would be better for the economy and the fight against climate breakdown for the funds to be invested in broadband. In times where video conferencing is likely to remain the new normal, he argues that it would provide a huge return to the economy by saving people’s time and increasing productivity through an improved fibre connection.

 In December 2020, the Friends of the Earth Activists’ Briefing made clear that thinking afresh about the transport policies in the UK is necessary for the climate emergency. Climate scientists have warned that we must make substantial changes to our travel behaviour, including driving less. The report lays out unequivocal support that steady incremental changes in travel patterns will not be enough. However, the organisation points to the government’s “Build Back Better” initiative as a unique opportunity to address such issues. Such an initiative seeks to encourage growth through investing in infrastructure and innovation in order to enable levelling up of every part of the UK, whilst facilitating the transition to net-zero emissions.

 The effects of the coronavirus crisis have shown that rapid and wide-scale changes to travel behaviour are possible, and an increase in virtual means of conferencing and doing business could encourage a drop off in the amount of travelling which is undertaken nationally. However, hopes of such a change occurring become slimmer with every mile of tarmac laid.

Report written by Hannah Parker

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