Government places onus on councils to curb air pollution

8th May 2017


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The environment and transport departments have finally published their draft proposals to tackle poor air quality in urban areas.

The plan includes local authorities in England establishing clean air zones and possibly charging drivers of older, higher-polluting vehicles to travel in pollution hotspots.

‘It is for local authorities to develop local proposals likely to achieve the air quality limits within the shortest time possible,’ says the consultation. It states that the technical framework published alongside the consultation provides local authorities flexibility to develop schemes that work for their local areas.

The document concedes that more towns and cities may need to implement a zone than those set out in the UK Air Quality Plan, which was published in December 2015.

This is because data for ‘real world’ vehicle emissions taken after Volkswagen scandal to cheat emissions tests showed that Euro standards are failing to curb NO2, particularly from diesel vehicles.

Defra had sought to delay publication, claiming that meeting the 24 April deadline set by the High Court following legal action by campaign group ClientEarth would breach the purdah rules ahead of the general election on 8 June.

These constrain the government from publishing policy documents ahead of elections. But the court told the government to publish its plans after the local elections and not wait until the end of June.

The proposals relate specifically to nitrogen dioxide pollution, which is produced mostly by diesel engines and is linked to respiratory diseases including asthma. Some 37 of the 43 regions of the UK are in breach of the EU limits for NO2.

The plan also includes suggestions for targeted infrastructure investments councils could make to improve air quality. These might involve: the redesign of local roads to improve traffic flow and reduce idling traffic; the creation of park and ride services; the promotion of infrastructure for electric vehicles; bus and rail improvement measures; the promotion of car clubs; and infrastructure improvements for cycling and walking.

It says further support could be provided to local authorities to cut air pollution from local bus, taxi or HGV fleets by helping owners retrofit vehicles.

It also asks for feedback on introducing scrappage schemes for cars and vans.

The proposals received a largely negative reaction. ClientEarth, which won two court cases against the government over its lack of action on air pollution, said it was studying the detail of the plan.

‘On the face of it, it looks much weaker than we had hoped for. The court ordered the government to take this public health issue seriously and while the government says that pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health, we will still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under these proposals,’ said James Thornton, chief executive of the legal campaign group.

Matthew Trevaskis, head of electric vehicles at the Renewable Energy Association, said: ‘This plan is disappointing, it essentially represents a roundup of existing policies and lays out woolly language around how local authorities should encourage better behaviour, such as clean air zones.’

Tony Lewis, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said the plan was simply not good enough. ‘Despite standing on the cliff-edge of a national public health emergency, it looks like they would prefer not to upset the apple cart before an election rather than give us a plan that really tackles air pollution,’ he said.

Friends of the Earth slammed the plan, calling it ‘woefully inadequate’ and criticised the government for putting the onus on local authorities to implement schemes to clean up air quality without any extra resources. Manufacturers should foot the bill, since they knowingly produced cars that emitted lower emissions under test conditions, said the campaign group’s air quality campaign Oliver Hayes.

Chief scientist at Greenpeace Doug Parr called the plan a ‘hodge podge of vague proposals’. ‘The only real winners are the car makers who despite misleading customers about their cars' real emissions and causing this mess in the first place are getting off scot-free,’ he said.

But the vehicle manufacturing industry welcomed the fact that the plan states that the newest Euro 6 diesel vehicles will not face any penalty charges, and that the plan discourages councils from charging drivers unless it cannot find more effective policies.

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said: ‘Industry is committed to improving air quality across our towns and cities and has spent billions developing new low emission cars, vans, trucks and buses and getting these new cleaner vehicles onto our roads quickly is part of the solution.’

Consultation on the draft ends on 15 June and the government said it expects to finalise the plan by 31 July. The government has also published a series of documents related to the plan, including a technical report and principles for creating clean air zones. All documents can be viewed here.

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