Grant Shapps said it was right to look again at the strategy to expand the road network – arguing that the rise in homeworking and online shopping was unlikely to be “fully reversed” even as the economy recovers from lockdowns.
“In the last eighteen months, fundamental changes have occurred in commuting, shopping, and business travel,” the minister said in a written statement on Thursday.
Mr Shapps added: “Trends already underway in homeworking, online shopping, and videoconferencing, all of which had reduced trip rates even before the pandemic, have dramatically increased, and seem unlikely to be fully reversed.”
The government will now review its national policy statement (NPS) for major road schemes “in the light” of these trends in commuting and shopping, said Mr Shapps.
The move was given a cautious welcome by the climate campaigners who had demanded the government’s “outdated” roads strategy was updated to reflect commitments to tackle climate change.
Transport Action Network had accused the Department for Transport (DfT) of failing to take account of the Paris Agreement, which commits the UK to take measures to limit global warming to well below 2C.
But the group is angry that the policy for major road schemes will not be suspended while the rethink announced by Mr Shapps takes place. The transport secretary said the review would be completed “no later than spring 2023”.
Chris Todd, director of Transport Network Action, said: “We’ve been calling on Grant Shapps to reset national roads policy for nearly a year and a half. Having now finally accepted the inevitable, he is still fiddling while the planet burns.”
Mr Todd added: “For the next two years, existing policy … will remain in force. It is simply unacceptable to refuse to suspend that.
“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.”
Caroline Russell, the Green Party’s transport spokesperson, said: “The pandemic has changed working, shopping and travel patterns and it is good the government has recognised this in their decision to review the £27bn road building plans – but they should pause the plans immediately rather than wait to complete their review.”
Despite the announced review, the government has made clear it has not committed to cutting the £27bn budgeted for road building and road renewal as part of its Road Investment Strategy 2 (RIS2), set out in 2020.
Transport Action Network recently launched a legal challenge against the RIS2 spending commitment on climate grounds. After a High Court hearing in June, the judgment is expected within weeks.