Ministers accused of ‘passing the buck’ on air quality

The government has been accused of ‘passing the buck’ after ministers finally published the details of its new air quality plan.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has revealed the details of its plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide levels following a lengthy legal battle with the campaigning group ClientEarth.

Under the proposals, local authorities will be required to produce local air quality plans to cut nitrogen dioxide levels in the ‘fastest time possible’.

According to the report, as air quality improves at a national level ‘hotspots are going to become even more localised’ and ‘the importance of action at a local level will increase’.

It also states ministers will provide a ‘clear national framework’ with the steps that local authorities need to take.

And it will make £255m available to towns and cities to help implement their plans.

The report lists a series of potential measures, including encouraging the uptake of electric and low emission vehicles, restricting access to more polluting cars and charging schemes.

The government also announced it will ban the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 and promised a comprehensive clean air strategy will be published next year.

‘Today’s plans sets out how we will work with local authorities to tackle the effects of roadside pollution caused by dirty diesels, in particular nitrogen dioxide,’ said environment secretary, Michael Gove.

The Local Government Association’s environment spokesperson, Martin Tett, welcomed the extra funding and the recognition of the ‘vital role councils have to play in achieving this’.

‘Councils’ ability to understand the causes behind air quality issues in their areas is unique, because it is rooted in their unique understanding of their communities,’ said Tett.

‘That is why it is important that councils will have the flexibility to deliver their own plans to improve air quality in their areas, particularly with regard to clean air zones as well as expanded road and traffic measures.’

But the chair of the House of Commons’ environmental audit committee, Mary Creagh, accused the government of ‘kicking the can down the road once more’.

‘This plan passes the buck to councils to deal with diesel cars, lacks detail on how the government will replace ancient diesel buses and trains now electrification has been scrapped, and is silent on who will set and enforce air pollution targets after we leave the EU,’ added Creagh.

And the chief executive of ClientEarth, James Thornton said it appears to be ‘little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans and is underwhelming and lacking in urgency’.

‘Having promised to make air quality a top priority, Michael Gove appears to have fallen at the first hurdle,’ said Thornton.

‘The government is passing the buck to local authorities to come up with their own schemes as an alternative to clean air zones which charge the most polluting vehicles to enter our towns and cities. Yet Defra’s own evidence shows that charging clean air zones would be the swiftest way to tackle illegal levels of pollution,’ he added.

‘We are still looking at December 2018 before local authorities need to come up with their proposals, but we have no idea when those plans would then be put in place or whether they’d be effective.’

Last month, Oxford City Council demanded more funding and powers for local authorities to help tackle air pollution.

The local authority also called on the government to set up a network for councils to share information and best practice, as well as introduce a scrappage scheme to encourage drivers to take high-emitting vehicles off the road.

West Midlands mayor Andy Street said the proposals make it even more important that ‘we continue to invest in rail, Metro, buses and cycling to give a clean, reliable alternative to cars’.

‘The emergence of the West Midlands as the UK’s leader for the development and manufacture of autonomous and electric vehicles means we are well placed to capitalise on this market shift and long before 2040,’ added Street.

Jamie Hailstone

Jamie Hailstone

journalist

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