Yesterday in the High Court, Mr Justice Holgate, ruled in favour of road expansion plans when he ruled that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps did not break the law when he approved the £27.4bn plans. Campaigners have been left shocked, with Transport Action Network (the group which brought the case) director Chris Todd commenting that, “In a month of unprecedented fires and floods, the effect of this judgment is to prioritise the ‘stability and certainty’ of the roads over that of our climate”.
The main argument presented was that when the transport secretary approved the government’s second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2), he failed to consider the effect on the environment.
Road expansion plans to go ahead
Holgate stated that the net zero goals had been considered: “In the present case, the net zero target has plainly been taken into account in the setting of RIS2.” Holgate was careful to assign understanding to the transport secretary with the phrase “he must have been aware” several times: “In short, the defendant must have been aware of the relevant requirements and principles of the CCA 2008, reflecting the UK’s contribution to the objectives of the Paris Agreement, which is referred to throughout the strategy.”
An evaluation was hedged that giving statistical environmental evidence to the transport secretary, for him then to cite as an indication of how the RIS2 gave regard to the environmental impact, would have been a more prudent course of action. In a choice turn of phrase, the Holgate continued that this evidence would not have been a cause for overburdening Shapps:
“The SST was advised of the impact of the programme on the net zero target. He did not need to be shown the supporting numerical analysis. Some people might think that it would have been better if the SST had been supplied with at least some of that analysis and that that would not have involved overburdening the Minister.”
In essence, Shapps was advised that the second Road Investment Strategy met legal environmental obligations, without being provided of evidence of this, and then approved the strategy.
“The DfT does not treat climate change with the urgency it deserves”
In their press statement, Transport Action Network’s Chris Todd commented that:
“Even if rising waters were lapping at the steps of the courts and Whitehall, it appears scrutiny of government climate decisions would still be side-stepped. As the quickening pace of global heating threatens the rule of law, we need legislation upheld rather than ministers let off the hook”.
This was supported by Professor Jillian Anable, chair of transport and energy at the Institute of Transport Studies in the University of Leeds, who highlighted the decade of action that lies ahead to meet emission targets: “It is one tiny step forward and three steps back from this government. The long overdue transport decarbonisation plan unfortunately totally failed to outline how the transport sector will make deep cuts within the next 10 years.”
There does seem to be an inherent contradiction between the actions of the government and its statements with regards to the climate emergency.
In the ‘Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge’ government report 2020, Shapps stated in the foreword:
“Climate change is the most pressing environmental challenge of our time. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that we need to take action, and doing so is a clear priority for the government.”
He added further, “We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network”.
Within a year of these comments, the transport secretary then contradicts this message of using cars less as he forges ahead with road expansion plans.
COP 26 and threats to Stonehenge
With the UK hosting COP26 in just under 100 days, its role as a leader in climate targets and mitigation is under the spotlight, lest the UK government be accused of being hypocritical in its approach.
In the ‘Decarbonising Transport’ document above, Shapps announced that:
“The UK will be an internationally recognised leader in environmentally sustainable, lowcarbon technology and innovation in transport”.
All aspects that have been scrutinised by the court case.
The UK government needs to be serious in its commitment to the Paris Agreement and climate targets and this decision appears to be in contradiction of these goals, as well as potentially giving a ‘green light’ to other proposals such as the Stonehenge Tunnel scheme. Stonehenge, a world heritage site, which is danger of losing its status if the £1.7bn road tunnel goes ahead as planned – a tunnel that the decision yesterday allows.
Shapps will continue therefore with the review of the highways policy which will be completed in 2023. During this review period, any other road expansion scheduled for construction before then, such as the A66 Northern Trans-Pennine, A57 link roads, as well as the Lower Thames Crossing will continue as planned.
Transport Action Network will continue with their existing crowdfunding appeal of £100,000 to take their case to the Court of Appeal. All of this takes time and meanwhile we seem to be moving in the wrong direction when it comes to mitigating temperature rise and emissions rise.