Transport Action Network launches legal action arguing multi-billion pound road-building plans are not compatible with climate and air quality goals
The government's multi-billion pound road building programme is facing a legal challenge, after the Transport Action Network alleged the plans breach the UK's climate and air quality obligations.
In a move that looks to build on campaigners' recent success in having the government's approval of Heathrow's proposed third runway deemed illegal, the lawyers for the campaign group formally commenced legal proceedings against the Department for Transport yesterday.
Echoing the successful argument against the Heathrow approval, they argue that ministers did not adequately take the UK's net zero emissions target and its commitments under the Paris Agreement into account when approving the £27bn investment programme.
Earlier this year the High Court ruled the government had failed to properly consider its climate obligations when it approved Heathrow expansion plans, prompting the government to delay its National Infrastructure Strategy as officials reportedly sought to guard against future legal challenges along similar lines.
The government had hailed its road-building programme as the largest in UK history, with at least 50 new projects due to start within the next two years. Ministers have argued it can support the UK's net zero goals, given the plans to switch to a zero emission fleet in the coming decades.
In response to the legal challenge, a spokesperson for the Department for Transport defended its plans. "The second road investment strategy is consistent with our ambitions to improve air quality and decarbonise transport," they said. "We have received the letter and will respond formally in due course."
However, the legal challenge comes as the government faces growing calls to re-divert some of the road budget to support the digital infrastructure that can enable a continuation of some home working practices post-Brexit.
Committee on Climate Change chief executive Chris Stark made precisely this point at a virtual conference this week, echoing similar proposals from the AA.
Separately, Stark told the BBC that "the government mustn't be investing in anything likely to increase carbon emissions". "I expect that video conferencing will become the new normal, and we won't return to travelling the way we did," he added. "I would spend the roads budget on fibre. You would get a huge return to the economy with people having better connections. You would save people's time and increase their productivity."
His comments were echoed by Greenpeace climate campaigner Mel Evans, who argued that "when the President of the Automobile Association is calling for investment in broadband to reduce the use of 'inefficient, expensive and not good for the environment' motorways, and the Transport Secretary is celebrating the lack of cars on the roads, the government's massive road building programme is clearly out of step with the times as well as the Paris Agreement".
Chris Todd, director at TAN, said the government's continued commitment to road-building was undermining its climate strategy.
"This massive roads programme has become like a juggernaut that's out of control, that no one can stop," he said. "We now have no choice but to go to court to prevent an unfolding disaster."
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