AN ACTIVIST who is a retired priest, and who lives less than a mile from the M62, has successfully pressured Highways England to reassess the environmental affects of its planned M62 upgrade.
The Revd Mark Coleman was Rector and Dean of Rochdale, in the diocese of Manchester, until his retirement last year. He threatened legal action after Highways England planned to convert a section of motorway between Rochdale and Huddersfield into a smart road without a full environmental-impact assessment.
Smart motorways convert the hard shoulder into an active traffic lane and limit speeds or close lanes using overhead electronic signs.
Mr Coleman, who has a law degree, became involved with the Transport Action Network, who provided him with a solicitor to campaign against the motorway. In May, his legal team sent Highways England a pre-action letter saying that he was willing to launch formal legal action, which resulted in the U-turn on 1 June. The legality of other smart motorways has also been brought into question.
Mr Coleman told the Church Times last week: “I think we have given Highways England bit of a headache. I hope this makes them think. It would be great to see the Government stop the so-called smart-motorway expansion.
“I am concerned that in the longer term these carbon-intensive motorway-expansion schemes may still go ahead. We shall have to keep our eyes on the situation.
“It is astonishing that on one hand we have our leaders talking about their commitment to climate goals and on the other we have government agencies seemingly reckless in measuring the environmental impact.”
It is estimated that the scheme to convert the 18-mile stretch of motorway through the Pennines could cost up to £392.3 million. Construction is set to be completed in March 2023.
Highways England does not need planning permission or to carry out a legal environmental assessment, as all smart motorways use permitted development. Only the smart motorway between London and Reading on the M4 has needed planning permission, because it requires extra land.
Critics fear, however, that this system has allowed the Government to develop smart motorways without proper scrutiny, including scrutiny of their impact on carbon-dioxide emissions. Mr Coleman said: “As well as carbon emissions, there are big concerns about safety. In the last few weeks of campaigning, I’ve not come across anybody defending smart motorways.”
Mr Coleman has caused controversy with his activism in the past. During a climate-change protest on 20 March, he wrote on the external wall of the office of Chris Clarkson, MP for Heywood and Middleton: “I Mark Coleman am fed up with empty words and demand action on the climate.”
In October 2019, he was charged, alongside two other clerics, with obstruction of the highway during an Extinction Rebellion protest (News, 4 October 2019; Comment, 1 April).