Highways England confirms latest details of government's road building and upgrades programme, despite concerns over climate impacts
The government is pressing forward with its controversial £27.4bn road building and repair programme despite fears over the impact of rising private car use on the climate, reigniting calls for the money to be diverted towards greener transport initiatives and boradband upgrades in the wake of Covid-19 crisis.
On Friday Highways England set out the latest stage in its roads strategy, confirming plans to deliver £14bn of projects to repair, replace, and increase the capacity of motorways and major A roads across the country. The agency said the move would support 64,000 construction industry jobs, providing a major boost to the government's economic recovery plans.
The government-owned company - which is responsible for maintaining and improving England's major roads - said some of the investment would also go towards boosting biodiversity, tackling noise pollution, and improving flood resilience, while also saving "millions of hours by improving journey times".
"Over the next five years we will increase capacity where it is most needed and continue to upgrade more of the network which has suffered from decades of under-investment," said Highways England chief executive Jim O'Sullivan. "The plan we're launching today will protect and create jobs to aid the nation's recovery, and make journeys faster and more reliable for freight and road users."
But the government faced immediate criticism from green groups for ploughing on with the £27.4bn roads plan, which was first announced at the Spring Budget just before before the UK went into lockdown in March. With the response to the pandemic leading to a surge in home-working, government advisors and green campaign groups have called on Ministers to divert some of the road's programme funding to instead support broadband connectivity and transport projects that can accelerate the UK's transition towards net zero emissions.
Road transport alone makes up around a fifth of total UK greenhouse gas emissions and its share of the country's carbon footprint has climbed in recent years as traffic levels have continued to increase and emissions from the energy sector have fallen. Meanwhile, a study published in June estimated that as much as 80 per cent of the CO2 savings from shifting to low emission and electric vehicles would be cancelled out by the government's roads building programme.
Growing calls have also come for a shift in thinking on transport in the wake of Covid-19, which has seen millions of workers avoid their daily commutes and carry out their jobs from home, alongside a surge in interest in alternative forms of transport such as cycling and e-scooters.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has even questioned whether some of the £27.4bn budget for road building should be redirected elsewhere, such as for supporting the rollout of fast broadband to better aid home working.
In April, campaign group Transport Action Network threatened to take legal action over the £27.4bn road plan, arguing it breaches the UK's climate and air quality obligations and alleging that policymakers failed to adequately take into account the impact of the roads investment on the UK's 2050 net zero target. The approach mirrors the successful legal action against the government's approval for Heathrow expansion, which saw the High Court rule that Ministers failed to adequately account for the UK's obligations under the Paris Agreement and the Climate Change Act when granting approval for a third runway.
Transport Action Network today also accused the government of overestimating the economic benefits of its road building plan while underestimating its climate impacts - claims the Treasury fiercely denies, according to the BBC.
Richard George, head of transport for Greenpeace UK, decried the multi-billion pound road building and upgrades programme as "a colossal waste of public money that will "make our country's problems worse, not better".
"The biggest road building programme the UK has ever seen is not a green recovery," he said. "Instead of splurging cash on roads that will just create more traffic and lock in more pollution, we need to invest in healthier and more sustainable transport that's accessible to everyone, such as decent cycle routes and better bus and train services."
The move comes ahead of the Department for Transport's hotly anticipated Transport Decarbonisation Plan later this year, which the government has signalled will set out a strategy to reduce private car use in favour of making public transport, walking and cycling "the natural first choice for our daily activities".
Last month Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the impacts of the coronavirus presented the chance for "a green transport revolution" arguing that "some of the transformational improvements are literally within touching distance".
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