Government faces court challenge over £27bn roads scheme

Traffic has fallen dramatically since lockdown but plans for the UK’s biggest road-building scheme are well under way.

The Government is facing significant action over the RIS 2 Investment Strategy

The government is facing legal action over its £27 billion road-building programme amid warnings that the scheme will undermine the UK’s climate change commitments.

Lawyers acting for an environmental group have written to the Department for Transport (DfT) and Highways England urging them to scrap the road investment strategy in its present form or face a court challenge.

The scheme – billed as the largest of its kind in the UK – will lead to upgrades of 4,000 miles of roads as well as improvements to 100 principal junctions and better connections to 20 ports and airports.

Redevelopments included in the programme include a two-mile long tunnel under Stonehenge. The government will also push ahead with the Lower Thames Crossing, the UK’s longest road tunnel, which will be built east of London.

However, the scheme, which was announced alongside the budget last month, has been criticised amid concerns that it fails to properly assess the climate change impact of extra vehicles. Transport is already the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK.

It was confirmed today that Transport Action Network, which campaigns for more sustainable journeys, has sent a pre-action protocol letter to the DfT. The letter, dated April 9, is the first stage of the legal process and asks the government to withdraw the strategy or face a potential high court challenge.

The move follows a similar successful challenge against the government’s approval for a third runway at Heathrow. The Court of Appeal ruled this year that the government’s policy on the airport was unlawful because it failed to properly consider the UK’s commitments under the UN Paris agreement which seeks to limit global temperature rises.

Campaigners claim that the road investment strategy, which releases funding to upgrade motorways and major A-roads over the next five years, is similarly flawed.

The document — officially the second strategy of its kind after a five-year plan that ran between 2015 and March 2020 — makes no mention of the Paris agreement and has limited references to climate change. It says that “with transport accounting for a third of all UK greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that all modes need to take urgent action to scale up their efforts to tackle climate change”.

This issue was subsequently covered by the UK’s first transport decarbonisation plan, which was published in March, after the budget. It acknowledged that the UK needed to “use our cars less”.

The network is being represented by Leigh Day solicitors as well as David Wolfe, QC, from Matrix chambers, who led the successful case against Heathrow expansion.

Chris Todd, the network’s director, said: “Road transport is now the single biggest source of UK carbon emissions.

“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?”

He added: “In the last few weeks ministers have said they want to go ‘further and faster’ to tackle climate change, finally recognising we need ‘to use our cars less’.

“Planning for [the road investment strategy 2] started in 2015, quite simply a different era. This massive roads programme is like a juggernaut that’s out of control. We have no choice now but to go to court to prevent an unfolding disaster.”

Jenny Bates, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Pushing ahead with a massive road-building programme completely destroys any pretence of the UK being a world leader in fighting the climate crisis, or of bringing the clean air we all need.

“More roads will only mean more traffic, and more planet and health-wrecking emissions being pumped into the air. The government needs to ditch its dangerous fixation with roadbuilding, and instead boost clean transport options such as trains, trams, bicycles and buses.”

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Please Note – This article was not written by a member of the SO Media Team.