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Gove must not pass the buck on air quality, to the EU or councils

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LGC’s essential daily briefing on the government’s air quality strategy

This morning’s reannouncement by environment secretary Michael Gove that new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned in the UK by 2040 may have grabbed headlines, but the government’s response to its consultation on improving air quality had few new weapons in the battle to bring down dangerous nitrogen dioxide levels more immediately.

Responses to the Tackling Nitrogen Dioxide in Our Towns and Cities proposals, which were reluctantly published by the government in May and handed responsibility for tackling the problem to those councils with high levels of NO2, appear to have been near united in stating that councils could not tackle this issue without central government support. A summary of responses, published by the Department for Environment, Framing and Rural Affairs today, said a “key theme” was that “central government should take a greater degree of leadership”.

As LGC’s analysis found last month, though there is no shortage of will to tackle the problem among councils, they have a limited and disparate collection of powers available to them to deal with it. These include control of pollutants emitted by factories, restricting vehicles from idling and installing charging points to encourage use of electric vehicles.

This point was well made by Leicester City Council assistant mayor for energy and sustainability Adam Clarke (Lab) when he wrote for LGC recently.

Today’s UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations states that the government recognises the “need for strong national leadership”. However, this seems to consist of shortening the timescale in which the 40 NO2 hotspots have to produce their plans and setting a framework which the government will use to judge them and decide if the council will receive any funding to support it.

The May proposals gave councils three years to produce and implement these plans. Today’s document said they must produce an initial plan by March 2018 for a chance to get a share of the £255m ‘implementation fund’.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has called the fund a “drop in the ocean” and said eight months to produce a plan is “simply not enough time”.

The government says the plans could include measures such as changing road layouts at congestion hotspots, encouraging take-up of electric cars, encouraging the use of public transport and using innovative retrofitting technologies, presumably on their own vehicles.

If these measures are not sufficient then councils could consider introducing charges for vehicles with high emissions or banning them altogether from certain roads at certain times. However, the plan is clear this should be a last resort and not a permanent solution.

On top of the implementation fund, further funding will be available to support the work through a clean air fund of an as yet unspecified value while there is also £100m, originally announced by the chancellor in the Autumn Statement, for retrofitting of buses.

There was promise of more plans from central government including a clean growth plan from the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, due in the autumn, and a clean air strategy setting out how the government will meet its international commitments on air pollution next year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly today’s plan, emanating as it does from the department of arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove, does not miss the opportunity to blame the “failure of the European regulatory system to deliver expected improvements in vehicle emissions” for continuing high levels of NO2 in the air. If vehicle emissions tests, which have since been found to have been defrauded by major car manufacturers, had worked “we would by now have most of the UK within the legal air quality limits,” the document states.

Readers will have their own views on whether the EU is part of the problem or the solution to the air quality crisis. Whatever the case may be, with 40,000 deaths a year attributed to harmful air quality, ministers cannot pass the buck on this one.

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