A High Court judge rejects a legal challenge to government cuts to cycling funding

A High Court judge has ruled against campaigners who brought a legal challenge after the government cut the budget for active travel programs by two-thirds last year.

Transport Action Network (TAN) says it hopes to appeal but is “bitterly disappointed” to find cuts of around 65 per cent – made by the Conservative government to the active travel budget in March 2023 – were inconsistent with the law and “outside the prescribed framework” by the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) developed under the Infrastructure Act 2015.

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In October, the campaign group was granted permission to apply for a High Court judicial review, but in the judgment approved by Mr Justice Kerr today, the High Court judge ruled that “the claim must fail and I dismiss it”.

The judge repeatedly rejected TAN’s arguments and found that Transportation Secretary Mark Harper “was entitled, but not obliged, to consider PM2.5 (particulate matter) levels or air quality more broadly.” He also accepted the argument that Harper had “appropriately taken into account the impact on carbon budgets”.

Chris Todd, director of TAN, told us this afternoon that he wants to raise funds for the appeal “to sort out the law and get the next government on the right track to promote healthy travel.”

“When Parliament included active travel in the 2015 Infrastructure Bill, it did so with the clear intention of ensuring stable funding and greater ambition,” he explained. “We are therefore bitterly disappointed by today’s judgment, which appears to set an unhelpful precedent.

“TAN is extremely grateful for the generosity shown by individuals and local campaign groups in crowdfunding this legal challenge. This has already revealed how ministers relied on evidence that their plans and budgets were completely inadequate.

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“While the party’s published manifestos to date present a positive view of walking and cycling, they lack strong commitments on funding, infrastructure or outcomes. Now we urgently need to raise funds for the appeal, sort out the law and put the next government on the right track to promoting healthy travel.”

What does the verdict tell us?

At one point in the 22-page document, which was made public today, Judge Kerr refers to a “twisting and technical narrative of documents, policies, objectives and decisions” requiring understanding in order to provide full context for TAN’s legal challenge.

Forsdick KC, instructed by Leigh Day in relation to the TAN application, argued that “where Parliament has conferred powers or duties to do a particular thing, it must be done in accordance with and in accordance with the statutory scheme” and that in this case the government had “unlawfully departed ” from this.

The judgment continued the legal analysis and highlighted arguments put forward by Hugh Flanagan, representing the government’s legal department, in particular that the cuts to the active travel budget represented “a small part of the total £3 billion of savings from the DfT budget” and that it was “impossible and unrealistic” the expectation that available financing will remain unchanged.

He also argued that “there is no inconsistency between the ministerial statement of March 9, 2023.” and CWIS and the legal framework.

The legal representative’s argument was paraphrased as follows: “It is impossible and unrealistic to assume that available funding levels will not change during the CWIS period.”

Ultimately, after much technical legal debate, the judge ruled that “in the expression ‘financial resources to be made available’ to achieve the purposes of the CWIS, the words ‘to be made available’ have the meaning of ‘intended to be made available’; instead of ‘which must be made available as a minimum’.”

The judge concluded: “Even if TAN was correct in describing the allocation of funds as a ring-fenced spending commitment, that commitment could still be met by the end of March 2025 if (which seems unlikely but is in principle possible) an amount of £225 million will be restored to the active travel budget by a future decision made in, say, August 2024, a decision that TAN would undoubtedly welcome but that others (e.g. supporters of projects from which funds are diverted) might complain about.”

He then added that the Secretary of State had not agreed to the cut because he had “overlooked what the funds were for”, but rather because he had “accepted the Treasury’s suggestion, made in the autumn 2022 statement, that something had to give”. and “analyzed the DfT budget as a whole, including its other components, and also included, as part of the overall budget for local transport and decarbonisation measures, a budget for active travel.”

The judge also rejected TAN’s claims about the Equality Act and air quality targets, finding in the latter that PM2.5 (particulate matter levels which Mr Forsdick said was not taken into account) “is not a mandatory relevant factor” and the Secretary for .The state “had the authority but not the obligation to consider PM2.5 levels or air quality more broadly.”

“The DfT had to cut around £3 billion from its overall budget for the two financial years ending March 2025. The £200 million cut in active travel funding was a small part of this action and had no obvious, immediate or likely impact at PM2 level, 5 “No quantitative relationship was found between active travel projects and PM2.5 levels,” the judgment states.

TAN also argued that the reduction failed to take into account the risk of an adverse impact on carbon emissions levels, however the judge accepted Mr Flanagan’s “claim that the Secretary of State had adequately considered the impact of the now contested decision on carbon budgets”.

“For all these reasons, the claim must be dismissed and I therefore dismiss it,” the judgment states. “I am grateful for their very complete and informed conclusions.”

When Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced the cuts last spring, the government faced widespread criticism from active travel groups, with the Walking & Cycling Alliance (WACA) calling it a “regressive move” and “disproportionate” compared to the cuts introduced for other modes of transport .

“It is heartbreaking to see vital active travel budgets disappear in England at precisely the moment when they are most vital to the UK’s economic, social and environmental prospects,” WACA said. “At this point, withdrawing investment in active travel simply does not make sense.

“Equivalent to cuts of two-thirds of promised capital investment in walking, cycling and wheeling, these cuts represent a step back for active travel and counteract the huge progress we have seen in recent years. These cuts are disproportionate compared to those on road and rail and will leave England far behind other UK countries and London at a time when we need to raise the bar everywhere.

“The government’s promised targets of 50% of all journeys in English cities being made by walking or cycling by 2030, and the UK reaching net zero by 2050, are becoming increasingly difficult due to these cuts. impossible. People walking, wheeling and cycling take 14.6 million cars off the road, which will save 2.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

“More than ever, people want and need support to walk, cycle or cycle, and these cuts will hit those who would benefit most by limiting our choices for healthy, cheap and zero-emissions travel.”

Similarly, the cross-party All-Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking (APPGCW) reacted with dismay.

APPGCW co-chairs Ruth Cadbury, Labor MP for Brentford & Isleworth, and Selaine Saxby, Conservative MP for North Devon, said in a statement: “It is extremely disappointing that significant cuts have been made to the active travel budget at a time when we really progress needs to be made on decarbonisation and where people need cheap transport options.

“We have seen the rise of active travel in the capital, but other parts of England will not now benefit from the same quality transport system. London currently has three times more funding per year for active travel than the rest of England combined.

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“We understand that public budgets are under pressure, but active travel programs often deliver much greater benefits: cost rationalization than road building programs, many of which continue to run despite declining value for money for taxpayers.

“No other mode of transport will deliver the same health benefits and actually save the NHS money,” the statement continued. “If we are serious about decarbonizing and giving people real choice in how they move, active travel must be adequately and consistently funded.”