Cuts to England’s cycling and walking budget challenged in court | Transport policy

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Swingeing cuts to public spending on cycling and walking in England should be overturned as government expenditure was already insufficient to meet legally binding climate targets, the high court has been told.

Campaigners are challenging a decision in 2023 to cut more than £200m from Department for Transport’s active travel budget for the following two years.

In a judicial review hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday, lawyers for Transport Action Network (Tan) argued that the cuts threatened a key plank of the UK’s carbon reduction strategy.

The DfT’s budget for cycling and walking was cut by more than 50% in March last year in a move that was overshadowed by accompanying cuts to the HS2 high-speed rail scheme, announced the same day.

Lawyers for Tan argued that the decision was incompatible with the government’s net zero strategy and transport decarbonisation plan, which set out proposals and policies required to meet carbon budgets. The first of the strategic priorities outlined in the plan was to accelerate “modal shift” from car use to sustainable travel.

Accompanying targets included doubling cycling journeys and ensuring more than half of primary school age children walked to school by the middle of this decade.

David Forsdick KC, representing Tan, said in written arguments that the DfT had decided not to cut funding which was “central to achieving the objectives for active travel, was important for equality ambitions, for air quality targets and for delivery confidence in meeting carbon targets, and had a very high cost-benefit ratio”.

The barrister said that “immediately prior” to the March 2023 decision, the Treasury and No 10 required the transport secretary, Mark Harper, “to impose ‘additional savings’”. Forsdick said: “This appears to explain, at least in part, the illegalities in the decision.”

In November 2023, a critical Public Accounts Committee report found that the DfT had made little progress against its objectives to increase active travel, and was not on track to meet its 2025 targets.

Although Dame Bernadette Kelly, the DfT’s permanent secretary, told the committee hearings that she “would not identify funding as the key issue” in missing targets, TAN claims that the money allocated was already inadequate to meet the climate pledges.

Tan’s lawyers also claim that the funding decision last March was only made after an 11th-hour intervention from the Treasury that did not allow time for proper consideration. They also argue that the move failed to take into account air quality considerations.

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The DfT has told the court that none of the grounds has any substantive merit and that the claim should be dismissed. The government said it had invested more than £850m in active travel in 2020-21 and 2022-23.

A judgment is expected to be delivered in the weeks following Tuesday’s hearing.

A DfT spokesperson said: “This government is doing more than any other to promote walking and cycling, investing over £3bn into active travel during this parliament up to 2025. We await the verdict and will respond fully once received.”

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