The Government's promised review of its national roads strategy will begin later this year and is scheduled to be completed no later than spring 2023.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps made a written statement to Parliament outlining the plans, which are set in context of ongoing efforts to reach net zero carbon emissions.
The review of the current National policy statement (NPS) on national networks will make sure it is 'fit for purpose in supporting the Government’s commitments for appropriate development of infrastructure for road, rail, and strategic rail freight interchanges'.
The commitment was first announced in the Department for Transport's recently published decarbonisation strategy.
Mr Shapps said the review 'will include a thorough examination of the modelling and forecasts that support the statement of need for development and the environmental, safety, resilience and local community considerations that planning decisions must take into account'.
He highlighted that the current NPS was written in 2014 'before the government’s legal commitment to net zero, the 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution, the new sixth carbon budget and most directly the new, more ambitious policies outlined in the transport decarbonisation plan'.
'While the NPS continues to remain in force, it is right that we review it in the light of these developments and update forecasts on which it is based to reflect more recent, post-pandemic conditions, once they are known.'
In his statement, Mr Shapps seemed to forestall the hopes of campaigners that the review could derail Highways England's £27bn second road investment strategy (RIS 2 - which covers funding for 2020-2025).
'In 2019, our roads handled 88% of all passenger travel by distance, the vast majority of it by car or van. Even doubling rail use across the country would only reduce this proportion to 75%, assuming that overall demand did not rise. The roads also carry more than three-quarters of freight traffic, and of course nearly all pedestrian, cycling, bus and coach journeys,' he said.
'Continued high investment in our roads is, therefore, and will remain, as necessary as ever to ensure the functioning of the nation and to reduce the congestion which is a major source of carbon.
'Almost half of our £27 billion programme for England’s strategic roads, though often described as for road-building or capacity expansion is, in fact, for renewing, maintaining and operating the existing network or for funds to improve safety and biodiversity, deliver active travel schemes and tackle noise or pollution.'
He also addressed the issue of post-pandemic trends underway in homeworking, online shopping and videoconferencing, which he accepted reduced road trips even before the pandemic and look set to increasingly do so after it.
However he said: 'Against that, though, must be set the effects on road demand of the hopefully temporary move away from public transport during the crisis; of increases in delivery traffic; and potentially of increases in driving when electric and autonomous vehicles become common.'
The DfT also stressed that while the review is undertaken, the NPS remains relevant government policy and has effect for the purposes of the Planning Act 2008.
This means it will continue to provide the basis on which the Planning Inspectorate can examine, and the secretary of state for transport can make decisions on, applications for development consent.
Chris Todd, director of Transport Action Network, which has brought a legal cases against RIS 2, said: 'As our roads melt and places around the world face record temperatures and floods, the words "climate emergency" appear to have no meaning within the Department for Transport. Instead, all we seem to get are delay, delay and yet more delay. We’ve been calling on Grant Shapps to reset national roads policy for nearly a year and a half, during which time he’s twice refused to take action. Having now finally accepted the inevitable, he is still fiddling while the planet burns.
'For the next two years, existing policy that "any increase in carbon emissions is not a reason to refuse development consent" will remain in force. It is simply unacceptable to refuse to suspend that. Especially after Grant Shapps has wasted so much time already. We need a moratorium on all road-building until such a review is completed. Quite simply, we need the Department for Transport to stop making things worse.'