Delay to air quality strategy slammed by MPs and campaigners

24th April 2017


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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.

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