Delay to air quality strategy slammed by MPs and campaigners

24th April 2017

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Politics & Economics ,
  • England ,
  • EU ,
  • Northern Ireland ,
  • Scotland


Michael Flannigan

The government has been accused of putting politics before health in its attempt to further delay publication of its air quality plan until after the election.

The draft air quality plan was ordered by the High Court in November after successful legal action by environmental law group ClientEarth over the government’s lack of action.

However, the announcement last week of a general election, government lawyers applied to the High Court to delay the publication of the plan until the end of June. The High Court has ordered a hearing on the government's application, to be held on Thursday morning.

James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, criticised the last-minute application, which was made after the courts had closed on Friday. The organisation’s lawyers spent the weekend considering its response. ‘We are still examining our next steps. This is a question of public health and not of politics and for that reason we believe that the plans should be put in place without delay.

‘Whichever party ends up in power after 8 June will need this air quality plan to begin finally to tackle our illegal levels of pollution and prevent further illness and early deaths from poisonous toxins in the air we breathe. The government has had five months to draft this plan and it should be published.’

Shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Sue Hayman, tabled an urgent parliamentary question on the delay to publishing the government’s air quality strategy.

Speaking to MPs in the House of Commons, environment secretary Andrea Leadsom said that the propriety and ethics team at the Cabinet Office had advised her that it would be wrong to publish the strategy during purdah, the pre-election period which began at midnight on Friday. Purdah rules constrain the government from publishing or discussing policy issues ahead of elections.

However, some flexibility is allowed in certain circumstances, such as public health issues, critics of the government pointed out.

Leadsom insisted that the plan was ready for publication, but also admitted that the government had already applied for a delay to publication due to the local elections on 4 May and because councils will be responsible for implementing some of the proposed actions. The government had made its application in order to ‘safeguard democracy’, she added.

‘What we are trying to do is a very short extension that we do not believe will make a difference to the implementation of our plans,’ she said, adding that it been to develop the plan because the emissions from diesel vehicles exceed what was expected and that the EU regulatory regime did not effectively show what the real level of emissions were.

‘This government pushed for improvements to that assessment and we have been planning for this draft plan for a considerable length of time,’ she said.

Hayman said that Labour would legislate for a new clean air act within 30 days if it wins the election. Conservative MP Neil Parrish called for a diesel scrappage scheme for cars, buses and taxis.

Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder tabled an urgent question to the European Commission asking what action would be taken against the government for delaying the vital plans. Bearder said: ‘It is disgraceful that the Tories are delaying vital plans to tackle the air pollution crisis.

‘Calling an election cannot be an excuse to ignore the effects on health nor the added costs to the health service.’

Tony Lewis, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, called the government’s action ‘an absolute nonsense’: ‘They’ve had months to get their air quality plans ready and using purdah as an excuse is pure political expediency.

‘Air quality is a major public health issue and the government’s actions show that they are putting politics before our health. We hope that the courts throw out the government’s application and whoever is in power after 8 June, puts a stop to all these delaying tactics and gets on with the job in hand, for the benefit of everyone.’

John Sauven, chief executive of Greenpeace, said: ‘Leadsom’s excuses just don’t cut it. Delaying publication of this desperately-needed air pollution plan is an unacceptable move by this government. They would clearly rather pretend this health crisis doesn’t exist and they aren’t responsible for dealing with it.’

Meanwhile, a joint inquiry on air pollution by four select committees has been cancelled due to the election. The Environmental Audit Committee, Health Committee, Transport Committee and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee were to examine the new air quality plan as part of the inquiry.

Dr Claire Holman, chair of the Institute of Air Quality Management said: 'The government has known about this deadline for months and if they were serious about protecting public health they would have either published the plan before the election announcement, or delayed the announcement.'

Questions will now inevitably be raised about whether this is a genuine delay, or whether this decision was made on political grounds because the suggested measures, such as banning diesel cars in city centres, would be electorally unpopular, she added.

This story was updated on 25 April to include news of Thursday's court hearing.


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

UK public wants more involvement in planning process, IEMA research finds

Three in five British adults want more public involvement in the planning system, which could be at odds with Labour’s plans to boost economic growth, IEMA research has found.

3rd July 2024

Read more

Ahead of the UK general election next month, IEMA has analysed the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Green Party manifestos in relation to the sustainability agenda.

19th June 2024

Read more

Disinformation about the impossibility of averting the climate crisis is part of an alarming turn in denialist tactics, writes David Burrows

6th June 2024

Read more

Rivers and waterways across England and Wales are increasingly polluted by sewage spills. What is causing the crisis and what is being done to tackle it? Huw Morris reports

31st May 2024

Read more

IEMA submits response to the Future Homes Standard consultation

31st May 2024

Read more

In January, the Welsh government consulted on a proposed white paper, 'Securing a Sustainable Future: Environmental Principles, Governance and Biodiversity Targets for a Greener Wales'.

31st May 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close