Campaigners fail in legal challenge to road scheme including Stonehenge Tunnel

  • James Dunham reports from Arundel

Campaigners challenging a £27 billion road development scheme have lost their High Court bid against the Department for Transport (DfT).

In March 2020, the DfT set out its Road Investment Strategy 2 (RIS2) for major roads in England from April 2020 to March 2025.

The strategy is made up of 50 major road schemes, including controversial plans for the A303 Stonehenge tunnel and the Lower Thames Crossing linking Kent and Essex.

The Roads Investment Strategy

What is the Road Investment Strategy 2?

The project was announced by the Department for Transport in March 2020. It sets out what the government calls 'a vision for the UK's strategic road network (SRN)' by 2050.

It includes £27 billion of funding for Highways England, the public body tasked with bringing the plan to life.

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What projects does it include?

The RIS2 includes a number of huge projects across the South and South East.

  • A27 Arundel Bypass

This project will focus on replacing the existing single carriageway road with a dualcarriageway bypass, linking together the two existing dual carriageway sections of theroad.

  • Lower Thames Crossing

This will provide a new crossing of the River Thames between Kent and Essex, together with supporting roads linking to the M25, A13 and M2. The DfT says that this will 'almost double the capacity' for people to cross the river east of the Blackwall Tunnel.

  • Stonehenge Tunnel

A tunnel for the A303 has long been discussed as an option for easing traffic congestion around the ancient site. The government says this will consist of construction of a twin-bored tunnel as the road passes Stonehenge, coupled with a dual carriageway bypass for Winterborne Stoke to link the existing dual carriageway at Berwick Down.

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Why is it neccessary?

The government argues that these projects are all vital to keeping the country moving into the middle of the 21st century.

Research by the DfT indicates that although the SRN makes up just 2% of the total road network, it accounts for more than 30% of the traffic. Their research suggests that traffic on the SRN could rise by between 29% and 59% by 2050.

But environmental campaigners argue that this much investment in the road network is at odds with the government's commitment to net-zero carbon.

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The Transport Action Network (Tan), which supports sustainable transport campaigns, accused Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and the DfT of unlawfully failing to take account of the “obviously material” impact of RIS2 on achieving climate change objectives.

At a hearing in June, Tan argued the scheme was unlawful as the Government failed to consider commitments to tackle climate change, made up of the use of carbon budgets and the legally binding target to cut emissions to net-zero by 2050.

The group also said the scheme had an inevitably “undesirable” impact on the climate which was ignored by Mr Shapps.

  • Net-zero target 'plainly been taken in account', judge rules

Undated handout artists impression issued by Highways England of how the southern portal of the Lower Thames Crossing, in Kent will look Credit: Highways England/PA

DfT had defended the claim, arguing it had “full and proper regard” to the environment when setting the plan, including considering climate change-related impacts on the environment and carbon emissions.

In a ruling on Monday, Mr Justice Holgate rejected Tan’s bid, finding the net-zero target had “plainly been taken into account” when setting RIS2.

He said: “The (Secretary of State) was advised of the impact of the programme on the net-zero target.

“He did not need to be shown the supporting numerical analysis.

“Some people might think that it would have been better if (he) had been supplied with at least some of that analysis and that that would not have involved overburdening the minister.

“But… that is not the test for a public law challenge.”

  • Campaigners 'shocked' by ruling

The judge said the legislation requires a transport secretary setting an investment strategy such as RIS2 to “have regard to its effect on the environment, without any specific reference to climate change”.

Royal Courts of Justice Credit: Nick Ansell/PA

He added that the DfT’s barrister had offered evidence that the Government is “taking a range of steps to tackle the need for urgency in addressing carbon production in the transport sector”.

Mr Justice Holgate continued: “Whether they are enough is not a matter for the court, but the evidence is plain that the Government is seeking to deal with the need for urgency.”

Tan said it was “shocked” by the ruling and intends to appeal.

Director Chris Todd said: “In a month of unprecedented fires and floods, the effect of this judgment is to prioritise the ‘stability and certainty’ of the roads over that of our climate.

“The judgment has failed to grapple with the clear requirement created by Parliament that ministers must carefully consider environmental impacts.”

He continued: “Even if rising waters were lapping at the steps of the courts and Whitehall, it appears scrutiny of government climate decisions would still be side-stepped.

“As the quickening pace of global heating threatens the rule of law, we need legislation upheld rather than ministers let off the hook.”