Multimillion-pound UK road scheme facing legal action on climate grounds

Campaigners say DfT was wrong to only assess emissions against national carbon budget

A legal challenge has been launched against a road scheme that opponents say clashes with climate goals.

Changes aimed at improving car journeys between Milton Keynes and Cambridge by upgrading junctions and building a 10-mile dual carriageway on the A428 between Black Cat and Caxton Gibbet were approved in the summer. The scheme, estimated to cost £810m-£950m, is listed in the government’s growth plan for accelerated delivery.

But Transport Action Network (TAN) filed for judicial review at the end of September, arguing the Department for Transport (DfT) was wrong to only assess emissions from the scheme against the national carbon budget.

Instead, the climate campaign group points to professional guidance from the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, which recommends using sectoral, regional and local carbon budgets to contextualise a project’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Regional targets set by England’s Economic Heartland, a subnational transport body, are to reach net zero by 2040 and achieve a 5% cut in car traffic by 2030. These are tighter than any national ambition.

“If you look at local carbon budgets, very often you see the increases caused by the roads consumes quite a substantial proportion,” said TAN’s founder, Chris Todd. “And that shows that these roads are not sustainable.”

National Highways’ figures submitted during examination of the A428 scheme show it would generate 3.5m tonnes of extra carbon emissions during construction and from the extra traffic. That makes it the third most polluting of the 50 planned road schemes.

TAN is also challenging the broader need for the project. Todd said it was “madness” to be investing in roads that increase traffic in a climate emergency. “What we are trying to get the government to accept by challenging these sorts of schemes is that you can’t just keep deferring making the changes to a future date. In an emergency, you have got to tackle things now.”

It is not the only roads project under scrutiny. Andrew Boswell, a retired computer scientist and climate activist, has filed two lawsuits against road-building schemes in his home county of Norfolk over the past two months.

They relate to existing stretches of the A47 that are being turned into dual carriageways: North Tuddenham to Easton, and Blofield to North Burlingham. The works are part of four road projects planned within 10 miles of Norwich over the next four years.

Boswell says the government should not have given consent to National Highways for either project, because it failed to properly assess the cumulative impact on carbon emissions they would have in combination with other nearby road schemes.

“When you take individual schemes in isolation, you’re only looking at the incremental increases in traffic that that scheme makes,” Boswell said. “You’ve got an ideal situation here where you should do a cumulative [carbon] assessment … but they have gone to every length to salami-slice it and look at each scheme’s emissions separately.”

Boswell is being represented by some of the lawyers who successfully took the government to court on its net zero strategy this year. He sees his lawsuit as a test case for other places where multiple road schemes are being developed in the same area.

Last year, development consent for expansion of the A38 in Derby was quashed by the high court after campaigners made a similar legal challenge. The transport secretary at the time, Grant Shapps, was forced to admit that his decision to approve the scheme failed to provide a reasoned conclusion on its cumulative climate impacts with other road schemes in meeting the UK’s national climate targets. The government is now redetermining the scheme.

TAN also previously challenged the government over RIS2, its “largest ever” road investment strategy to date, arguing it did not take national climate goals into account. Although unsuccessful, the court judgment said there was “no reason” the impact of individual schemes on the latest and most ambitious carbon budgets “may not be taken into account”.

Another lawsuit challenging the government’s national policy statement on roads revealed Shapps overrode official advice to review it on environmental grounds. That statement is under review.

The DfT would not comment on ongoing legal proceedings but a spokesperson said the department had made ambitious pledges to achieve net zero transport and better connect communities. “This includes plans to decarbonise road vehicles, boost public transport and active travel and cut carbon from road construction, maintenance and operations.”

Stephen Elderkin, the director of environmental sustainability at National Highways, said the organisation believed its net zero highways plans were “ambitious and credible”. He added: “It charts a detailed pathway to net zero, given the influence National Highways has and the national context.”

However, these are unlikely to be the last legal challenges. Approval for changes to the A303, including a tunnel near Stonehenge, was successfully challenged in the high court last year but campaigners say they are willing to return to court if and when the scheme is resurrected.


Isabella Kaminski

The GuardianTramp

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