TAPAS.network | 14 November 2022 | Commentary | Greg Marsden

No Safe Space for Decarbonisation: why we all need to know the tough changes transport must make

Greg Marsden

A significant decision just made by the Information Commissioner requires the Department for Transport to publish the assumptions behind the trajectories towards Net Zero that appeared in its Transport Decarbonisation Plan. The Freedom of Information request that led to the decision was made by Professor Greg Marsden. LTT invited him to explain his concerns, and the importance of the data now going to be released.

THE PROTEST ACTION this week of Just Stop Oil on the M25 motorway have once again highlighted the chasm that exists in society between those who understand the significance of the climate crisis and the threat of irreversible change, and those who prefer to prioritise ‘business as usual’. Whilst the population will always be divided on what the right policies are, I fear that this chasm is fuelled by a lack of transparency about the true scale of the challenge, particularly here in England. Transparency and peer review are the bedrocks of academic life, and we play an important role in bringing that to wider public life. This week, I was greatly encouraged when my appeal against non-disclosure of information by the Department for Transport relating to the Government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan was upheld by the Information Commissioner. With the same disclosure principle in mind, I’m pleased in this article to set out why this information really matters and just how important its release should be.

Publication of the 2021 Transport Decarbonisation Plan was in itself a big step forward. It unlocked some surprisingly aggressive stated commitment shifts to phase out fossil fuelled vehicles, and other proposals for improving alternatives to the car. It was encouraging to see the then Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, state in the foreword to the plan that “We want to reduce urban road traffic overall...”, and that the pandemic offered “the opportunity for a reduction or at least a stabilisation, in traffic more widely”. The report offered a band of potential policy trajectories which would be compliant with these intentions, shown in this key image from the document.

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It is important to note, however, that whilst the plan contained lots of different policy commitments, it was not possible to understand what was behind those lines projected forward on the graph, and the ‘envelope of progress’ they predicated. Obviously that data existed, or the chart could not have been plotted.

The Department for Transport is, in my view, generally very transparent with its data, so the decision not to provide that fundamental information seems clearly deliberate. Given its importance, I asked the department whether the information could be shared, and was told it could not. So, for the first time in my life, I submitted a Freedom of Information Request for the following (summarised in brief here):

  • The assumed levels of road traffic (split by cars, LGVs and HGVs) for the upper and lower boundaries of both the Baseline and Decarbonising Transport Projection

  • The proportion of the miles driven in zero emission vehicles (again by car, LGV and HGV) and how this changes over time

  • The full set of assumptions used in separating out the high and low projection lines as a result of “Short-term COVID-19 Uncertainty”

My FOI was submitted in early March this year and declined by the Department in early April on the grounds that this could reveal internal discussions, would impact on the ‘safe space’ that policy makers need to take decisions, and could impact on private investment decisions. The public had sufficient information, the Department argued, and the potential damage to the public interest of releasing the information could outweigh any benefits of further disclosure.

Wow, I thought. I was really just looking for the kind of information that has been released in the past (for example in the National Road Traffic Forecasts (NRTF) 2018, and the 10 Year Plan in 2000). This made the data release even more important in my mind.

The next steps in an FOI request are an appeal to the DfT’s internal team (early May) – which unsurprisingly led to the conclusion that the initial decision not to release information was correct (early June). And then on to the Information Commissioner. You can follow the full to and fro here: http://bit.ly/3hFUioG

I think both the profession and the staff in the Department for Transport all understand just how difficult the transition pathways will be if we are to be on track. It thus seems plausible to me that the barrier to release sits with the politicians, who do not want to have the difficult discussions in public about what this all really means for transport and travel behaviour. This felt wrong. It might not be ‘direct action’, but sometimes the pen (or keyboard) is mightier than the sword, so I pressed on with my claim.

The end of this part of the story is that the Information Commissioner, this week, upheld my appeal. The release of the chart in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, the decision states, means that this is not ‘internal thinking’. The time since publication means the ‘safe space’ argument is not applicable. The Commissioner put it thus

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“there is a very strong public interest in publication of data that will assist the public in understanding policy decisions – especially those designed to be as far-reaching and long-lasting as the transport decarbonisation strategy. Disclosure will help the public to understand where the Government’s proposals are too ambitious, not ambitious enough or about right.”

The Information Commissioner’s judgement on why the requested data should be released by the Department for Transport.

The full details of the decision will be published on the ICO website in the next 10 days.

For the Department for Transport there are up to 35 days to publish the requested data.

This is a hugely significant moment for the profession. We simply cannot afford to lose any more time with there being one set of assumptions on the future of travel demand underpinning progress towards the Decarbonisation Plan, and another set used to justify expanding transport infrastructure.

Local transport authorities are about to be asked to be quantify and explain their carbon target setting through the new Local Transport Plan process and have this assessed by the DfT. They can only do that with clarity on the national position and the DfT can only claim legitimacy in requiring this if it is prepared to be just as transparent. The Committee on Climate Change needs to be able to see whether the Government’s technology transition and behaviour change assumptions are credible, and whether we are tracking to those. The public needs to be levelled with about the scale of the challenge we face.

Of course, there remain opportunities for the Department to obfuscate - make the data difficult to interpret, or even submit a pernicious appeal to kick the can down the road. I really hope none of those strategies are deployed.

I undertook the FOI request and wrote this article because we are in the last chance saloon. The only way we are going to get anywhere close to the carbon budgets we need to meet is by being transparent, working together, and for those in positions of power and leadership being upfront with the public and industry about what this all really means. I shall return to that major assessment in Part 2 when the data is released. I hope we won’t have too long to wait ...

There is a very strong public interest in publication of data that will assist the public in understanding policy decisions – especially those designed to be as far-reaching and long-lasting as the transport decarbonisation strategy. Disclosure will help the public to understand where the Government’s proposals are too ambitious, not ambitious enough or about right.” 

Greg Marsden is Professor of Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds. He has researched issues surrounding the design and implementation of new policies for over 20 years covering a range of issues. He is an expert in climate and energy policy in the transport sector. He is the Principal Investigator on the DecarboN8 network where he is responsible for integrating a new place-based approach to decarbonising transport.

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT857, 14 November 2022.

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