In March 2023 the Department for Transport (DfT) published a draft revised national policy statement for national networks (NNNPS) – its statement of strategic planning policy for nationally significant road and rail schemes. DfT said the review was needed to account for policy commitments on net zero made since the designation of the existing NNNPS in 2015 and to ensure that networks meet current and future demand.
By incorporating these into the new national policy statement, it expects to reduce delays in obtaining development consent caused by legal challenges.
However, the House of Commons transport committee – a cross-party committee of backbench MPs – wants it redrafted.
“The guidance the document provides on assessing, mitigating and approving the greenhouse gas emissions of schemes could be stronger to align with the pathway to net zero,” the MPs’ report says.
The transport committee also calls for more openness from the Department for Transport on how it comes up with its traffic forecasts that are used to justify road building schemes.
Its report says: “There is concern that the statement of need which underpins the draft revised NNNPS does not consider a wide enough range of traffic demand scenarios and that congestion forecasts cannot be thoroughly scrutinised. There is also a lack of faith in the options appraisal process for major schemes and concern that the major infrastructure regime perpetuates a “predict and provide” approach to planning. Greater transparency is needed to promote confidence in the robustness of the regime.
“The Department for Transport should publish the national transport model so that it can be independently tested and verified, or report on a wider range of future demand scenarios and publish its own estimated congestion forecasts for the strategic road network. The department must also be more transparent when considering the potential alternatives to schemes. The department should also provide examples of how the draft revised NNNPS supports a move away from a ‘predict and provide’ approach.”
Transport committee chair Iain Stewart MP said: “Flaws in the current NNNPS are partly to blame for the perennial problem of why major infrastructure projects become delayed by legal challenges, so there is a lot riding on this work to produce a new set of planning policies.
“But a number of witnesses, including some who themselves launched legal challenges against such projects, told us the current draft won’t provide the legal certainty that DfT needs. One of the government’s objectives in revising the NNNPS is to balance the Net Zero goals with infrastructure projects that could increase greenhouse gas emissions. Given the concerns we heard, we urge the government to amend the draft NNNPS to provide a definition of ‘residual’ emissions and to state explicitly its understanding of the legal precedent for permitting major infrastructure schemes which result in increases in emissions.
“The draft NNNPS should also promote more scrutiny of the way the government examines the options for building new road or rail schemes, and shows the evidence behind its forecasts that more congestion is inevitable if we don’t build more motorways and A roads.”
Meanwhile former Norfolk councillor Andrew Boswell has been granted permission by the Court of Appeal to challenge the granting of development consent for three road schemes in the county. Dr Boswell argues that the Department for Transport and National Highways should have considered the cumulative climate impact of the three A47 widening projects, rather than treating them as three separate schemes.
Dr Boswell unsuccessfully challenged the granting of development consent for the three schemes in the High Court in May 2023 in July 2023, but the Court of Appeal has now granted him permission to appeal that decision. Dr Boswell said: “I feel vindicated today that the Court of Appeal has decided that my cases should proceed. We are not seeing a reduction in carbon emissions from UK roads. My cases have a real prospect of success in the Appeal court, and this would have wider implications for the government’s failing climate strategy, especially on transport. National Highways and the secretary of state for transport have never properly assessed the combined impact of the three schemes on climate change as I have consistently argued.”