TAPAS.network | 20 March 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Compromises and contradictions, but always room for debate

Peter Stonham

THOUGH, IN SOME PEOPLE’S MINDS, the need to put in place a genuinely sustainable transport policy framework is an overriding objective, there is little evidence that anyone close to the Government, and not many in Parliament, who take that single-minded view.

Last week’s budget, for example, was not notable for its environmental content. And where the issue of sustainable development cropped up, mixed messages were sent. A big bet seems to be being made on carbon capture as a way of mitigating unwanted climate change emissions, whereas any thoughts of sending market signals to reduce the consequences of burning fossil fuels were rather over-ridden by the decision to once again freeze the level of road vehicle fuel duty and even maintain the reduction on it introduced last year during the energy crisis.

The Government has not been challenged in that approach by the Labour opposition, and has been expressly supported in it by the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, a sequence of complex and often arcane legal and regulatory instruments continue to be tabled to address, directly or indirectly, international obligations and new professional needs associated with the field of sustainable development. These have included: the revised Transport Appraisal Guidance (now with English, Welsh and Scottish versions); new National Traffic Projections and the eight scenarios from the TAG framework which they embody; the Understanding Biodiversity Net Gain guidance; Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) reforms action plan; and, most recently, the new Draft Revised National Networks National Policy Statement and Appraisal of Sustainability we cover in this issue. Still awaited is the Second National Infrastructure Assessment by the National Infrastructure Commission due to be published later this year.

All of the above frameworks include strategic themes affecting transport directly, but put them in the context of a range of other, more general, Government objectives, including economic growth, fostering new technologies, supporting levelling up, energy security, and an overall programme of decarbonisation.

The draft Revised National Networks National Policy Statement sets out the need for development of NSIPs on the national road and rail networks in England (including Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges), and provides planning guidance for promoters of NSIPs, and the basis for their examination by the Examining Authority and decisions by the Secretary of State.

The accompanying Appraisal of Sustainability (AoS), issued for consultation with the draft NNNPS acknowledges that the Government has selected the approach it has taken to the development of the NNNPS in recognition that different issues will need to be balanced, at different locations on the National Networks, and an approach which seeks to support this flexibility is the approach that will help to promote sustainable growth. A separate Habitats Regulations Assessment report (HRA report) has also been produced.

The appraisal statement includes an encouraging acknowledgement that the Government is committed to a vision-led approach to transport development, which moves away from unconstrained traffic growth and towards using investment to tackle specific issues. But these ‘specific issues’ are not just related to achieving Net Zero. Such visions address a range of variations with regard to the way different issues (and therefore investment) are prioritised.

Under the Planning Act 2008, National Policy Statements (NPSs) are required to provide guidance for decision-makers on the application of Government policy when determining development consent for major infrastructure. The function of NPSs is to outline how existing policy applies to development consent for those projects defined as a “Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project” (NSIP) in the Planning Act 2008.

The current NNNPS was published in December 2014, since when a great deal of new water has flowed under the bridge, including the Government commitment to net zero, carbon budget 6 and the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, with all of which the NNNPS needs to align.

The NNNPS is a high-level document which sets out the need for, and Government’s policies to deliver, development of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects on the national road and rail networks in England. It also provides planning guidance for promoters of NSIPs.

Once the NNNPS is designated, it will be used by the Secretary of State as the primary basis for making decisions on any development consent application for major road and rail projects.

The Planning Act 2008 requires that an Appraisal of Sustainability is carried out before an NPS can be designated and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 also requires that a Sustainability Appraisal be carried out during plan preparation. In addition, Strategic Environmental Assessments are a requirement of the European Directive EC/2001/42 (SEA Directive), which was transposed into UK law by the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004 (SEA Regulations). Central Government guidance has since merged these processes to allow for a single joint sustainability assessment to be carried out.

In preparing all these documents, the Government – of whatever complexion – has to balance a number of considerations. And that is a challenging requirement, both practically and politically.

It is not apparent that any government, anywhere in the world, or one in waiting in the UK, has taken a position in which the overriding factor is all its deliberations and decisions is either climate change or decarbonisation. Even in Wales now, generally seen as the UK leader in this field, the difficult political trade-offs are playing out in the wake of the adoption of the radical recommendations of the pioneering and ambitious Roads Review.

In the UK generally we are probably ahead of many other nations in this territory, not quite at the cutting edge maybe, but arguably at a point where the sceptics and opponents are unlikely to materially reverse the more climate-conscious approaches now underway. But, equally, there are many arguments to be had about whether the current commitments are both sufficient and robust enough to truly address the climate change and carbon challenges, and if they strike an acceptable balance between those imperatives and other economic and social aspirations.

In this context perhaps the role of the raft of policy statements, guidance documents and practice-defining regulations is to crystallise the relevant issues in a range of situations where difficult decisions are having to be made, and at least ensure there are clear paradigms against which such decisions be examined and challenged.

A worst scenario would be one where the right to challenge was over-ridden, either legally or practically, on the basis that ‘the right decision has already been made’, or that any project or scheme was regarded as intrinsically sacrosanct.

Only this week scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meeting in Switzerland have just tabled their latest report which calls for rapid cuts to fossil fuels to help avert the worst effects of climate change, whilst the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says that all countries should bring forward their net zero plans by a decade.

Clean energy and technology can be exploited to avoid the growing climate disaster, the report says, but it warns that the key global temperature rise limit of 1.5 per cent will likely be missed.

“There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all,” the report warns.

The UK government responded that the report makes it clear that countries must “work towards far more ambitious climate commitments” ahead of the UN climate summit COP28 in November. “The UK is a world leader in working towards net zero, but we need to go further and faster.”

It is just this challenge that requires a healthy, difficult and continuing debate to ensure that changing circumstances, better information and new ideas are always relevant and acceptable parts of the discussion on the path to sustainability. With all these matters under ongoing review, at least those who believe we are going too slow will always have a number of professional platforms to present their views on.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT865, 20 March 2023.

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