HomeLow carbon futureThe government is heading down the wrong road on transport

The government is heading down the wrong road on transport

This post is by Chris Todd, director of the Transport Action Network (TAN)

Transport has always inspired strong and conflicting opinions. Yet, never has there been such a large disconnect between reality, government policy and investment decisions. Despite being in a climate and ecological emergency and struggling to deliver in other policy areas, on transport the government is carrying on with business as usual.

It was bad enough that it announced the “largest ever roads programme” in March 2020, ahead of hosting the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Since then, things have got worse. Despite legal pressure from us at TAN, ministers refused to change direction. It wasn’t until the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) was published in July 2021, that they agreed to review their roads policy (the National Networks National Policy Statement – NNNPS). This dated from 2014, before the 2015 Paris climate agreement and 2019’s legal net zero target. The review should have been completed already, but it will be well over four years since the net zero target was set before we see this important policy updated.

The government is ditching transport decarbonisation policies
Given the many things that have happened since, both in terms of government policy and extreme weather events, both here and abroad, you might expect some radical changes in approach. Unfortunately, the new draft policy is barely any different from the 2014 version, and still argues that carbon emissions from new roads can be ignored. It claims, rather unbelievably, that this will conform with the UK’s obligations under the Paris agreement. The government is saying this, despite having acknowledged in its recent Carbon Budget Delivery Plan that it has not identified the necessary emissions savings to meet its Paris obligations.

None of this is news for anyone involved with transport. While the TDP was much criticised for its lack of firm commitments, it is the closest England has come to having a national transport strategy. Looking back, it would now appear to represent the peak of government engagement in tackling transport’s stubbornly unchanging carbon emissions and social inequality impacts. However, even then, the figures didn’t add up. This prompted Professor Greg Marsden to submit a freedom of information request for the data underpinning the TDP. The Department for Transport was less than keen, only releasing the data after it was taken to the Information Commissioner’s Office and lost, finally publishing the information in January 2023.

Analysis of this data by Professor Marsden has shown how unrealistic many of the claims made in the TDP were, and that up to 72 per cent of its policy ambition appears to have been ditched since then. Yet the TDP is still being used to underpin the government’s planned roads policy and as justification for it being able to carry on building roads.

Public transport’s being cut while road building carries on
The consultation on the NNNPS review runs until 6 June. Whether the government will change tack remains to be seen. However, recent history suggests it is likely to plough on with road building, despite its own projections showing this is not a solution as congestion will continue to get worse. Meanwhile, the wider road network continues to crumble due to a £20 billion roads and bridge maintenance backlog.

Earlier this year, in the face of escalating costs, Mark Harper, the current transport secretary, delayed many schemes in the current roads programme (the second Road Investment Strategy, RIS2), pushing much of it into RIS3 (2025-30). At the same time he quietly cut spending on active travel like walking and cycling by over £200 million. These reductions, alongside cuts to bus and rail services, are allowing him to maintain the road building budget.

England now looks rather isolated in its approach to transport. Wales, Scotland and Ireland, have committed to traffic reduction measures and roads reviews. They recognise the need to change the way they do things for economic, social and environmental reasons.

Road plans should be reviewed against climate objectives
Unphased, the government has now launched a consultation on RIS3, ending on 13 July. This very much represents business as usual, despite spin about focusing on smaller schemes, maintenance and renewal of the network and achieving better environmental outcomes. Instead, many expensive and damaging schemes leftover from RIS2, such as the £10 billion Lower Thames Crossing, a smart motorway in all but name, and the A303 at Stonehenge (neither of which make economic sense or do anything for levelling up) will be a major element of RIS3.

There is still time before a general election for the government to get back on track to meet its target to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 by making transport play its part. However, it must review all road schemes against its decarbonisation objectives, as the Welsh government has done and invest heavily in public transport and greener freight. And it should also reinstate active travel funding. While it continues to ignore its own evidence, showing that current priorities will mean increasing congestion and a worsening impact on the economy, we will continue to head down the wrong road.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.