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Exclusive: Campaigners say move bypasses legal process and puts at risk climate and pollution pledges
The government faces a legal challenge to its decision to cut investment in walking and cycling in England, over claims that the move bypassed legal processes and risks scuppering commitments over the climate emergency and air pollution.
Lawyers acting for the Transport Action Network (TAN), a campaign group, have written to the Department for Transport (DfT) to formally seek a judicial review of the cuts announced in March by Mark Harper, the transport secretary.
The action comes at a perilous time for Harper and his team, who are expected to face heavy criticism later this week when the National Audit Office publishes a report on the DfT’s wider strategy for walking and cycling.
Although Rishi Sunak’s government remains officially committed to a target established under Boris Johnson that half of all urban journeys should be walked or cycled by 2030, Harper announced a 50% reduction in the money for active travel in England in March.
According to TAN, whose lawyers at Leigh Day, have sent a pre-action legal letter to Harper, outside London the funding dedicated to active travel in England will be only £1 a head per year over the rest of the current parliament, against equivalent figures of £23 for Wales and £58 in Scotland.
Harper’s announcement in March, justified on the basis of the turbulent economic situation, said that of £710m pledged for active travel in the 2021 spending review, only £100m more would be spent, amounting to a £380m reduction.
While the DfT says more than £3bn is being spent on active travel overall during this parliament, TAN argues this figure includes budgets from other departments that will benefit active travel, without proper evidence as to how this will happen.
The group notes that even if £3bn is being spent, this is still much less than the estimates for what is needed to meet the 2030 target, with some experts arguing that up to £18bn would be required. Even before the cuts, official estimates were that the 2030 target would be missed.
The legal letter argues that Harper’s move to cut spending even further contravenes his obligations under the government’s walking and cycling strategy, and that a shift towards more active travel is an integral part of net zero targets.
Other grounds for the challenge are that failure to shift more people out of cars will mean ministers miss targets for improved air quality, and that active travel is an important element of equalities obligations.
Chris Todd, TAN’s director, said the cuts to active travel risked being “the Jenga block that makes climate, air quality, levelling up and health plans all come tumbling down”.
He said: “Legally binding targets to cut carbon and air pollution rely on big increases in walking and cycling by 2030. But official forecasts predict we’ll miss this ambition by a mile. Rather than increasing effort, ministers seem to be deliberately sabotaging these efforts.”
TAN is trying to crowdfund £40,000 to pay for the case.
The challenge comes amid more general concern among active travel groups that Harper and Sunak have minimal commitment to the issue, and prefer instead to court culture war-related headlines criticising a supposed “war against drivers”.
When a tranche of active travel schemes were unveiled in May, anonymous government sources briefed newspapers that Harper had committed to not funding any low-traffic neighbourhoods and road filtering schemes that make walking and cycling safer.
A DfT spokesperson said: “We cannot comment on possible legal proceedings. We are committed to delivering active travel infrastructure that enables everyone to build healthier journeys into their daily lives. That is why we are investing over £3bn into active travel – more than any other government.”
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