Last night Bristol’s Labour cabinet passed a regional transport plan that Greens warned is incompatible with the climate emergency and may be illegal under the UK’s climate commitments.
Greens, environmentalists and transport experts had previously lobbied West of England Councils to amend the new Joint Local Transport Plan (JLTP) as it committed millions of pounds to roadbuilding and widening projects but did not reserve funding for public transport, walking and cycling. Yesterday Green councillors warned that the plans may even be illegal after a legal precedent set by the High Court’s decision to reject a third runway at Heathrow. North Somerset council had pledged to amend plans before they were approved at the regional authority but Bristol’s Labour cabinet ignored calls from activists to do the same.
Green Councillor Steve Clarke chairs WECA’s Overview and Scrutiny committee, which on January 31 called for the authority to reassess major schemes in the light of the Climate Emergency. Before the meeting he warned of the legal risk, saying:
“The decision by high court judges to rule out Heathrow’s planned third runway has set a legal precedent – the ‘Paris Agreement’ on climate change that the UK signed up to in 2016 must be taken into account in major infrastructure decisions. Therefore the Joint Local Transport Plan, which is coming before Cabinet this evening, may now be illegal if it is not amended or updated before being approved. This is because it contains major road building provisions but it does not appear to have taken into account the legally binding provisions of the Paris Agreement.”
During the meeting Labour’s transport lead Kye Dudd acknowledged the concerns of campaigners, suggesting the plan would be “reviewed straight away” after it had been approved by the West of England Combined Authority (WECA). However he did not provide further information as to what that review would target or when it might take place. Once approved the plan will have statutory force and reviewing or changing it would be a lengthy and complicated process.
Referring to the Heathrow decision, an Extinction Rebellion (XR) representative in the public gallery stated that XR “reserves the right to call a judicial review” on the plans if they proceed, threatening legal action under the precedent set by the Heathrow decision.
Labour’s former Transport lead Cllr Mhairi Threlfall agreed with Greens and other opponents to the plan. She said that as a document the JLTP was “a little bit meaningless” and that once approved it would be a statutory document – her recommendation was to strip out the problems in the document before it was agreed.
Green Councillor Carla Denyer had lobbied the Mayor to amend the plan two weeks before the meeting. At Cabinet she asked the Cabinet Transport lead to commit to scrap climate-damaging road projects in the plan before approving it but did not receive a direct answer. Responding to the outcome outside the meeting, Councillor Denyer said:
“Just last week the Mayor tweeted his support for Greta Thunberg – but today his cabinet refused to commit to removing new road building from the regional plan. Cabinet member Kye Dudd’s comments initially seemed positive, saying that Bristol City Council would push for a review of the plan in light of the Climate Emergency. However, when I asked if he would explicitly commit to scrap the road building and widening plans in the Joint Local Transport Plan before it is approved by WECA on 20th March, he declined to answer. When pressed, he tried to deflect the question by pointing out that the new roads planned are outside the Bristol City Council area. This is true, but beside the point.
Bristol’s Mayor has substantial power, as one of the four members of WECA, to make the decision on the JLTP for the whole region. When WECA declared a climate emergency last July, Marvin Rees said that it must focus on the “less glamorous” details of how the region’s carbon emissions could be reduced – this report is the perfect example of that. But Mayor Rees and his Cabinet have chosen to stick with business as usual instead of using their power to tackle the Climate Emergency – not just for Bristol but the whole of the West of England.
The plans noted at Cabinet this evening will increase congestion on local roads, increase carbon emissions, and may even be illegal as they’re out of step with the UK’s Climate Commitments. In good faith, I emailed Marvin Rees last month about the report, ahead of cabinet deadlines, so that he would be best able to prepare for it. No amount of spin or PR from the Mayor can hide the gap between his words and his cabinet’s actions on climate change.”