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City could face gov payback for delaying clean air plans

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Bristol City Council may have to pay back £1.65m to the government if it doesn’t meet the government’s clean air targets in the shortest time possible.

The council is legally obligated to reduce dangerous levels of NO2 in the city as quickly as possible, and has previously been threatened with legal action from central government for dragging its heels on the issue.

Bristol, along with 23 other local authorities, was ordered by central government to produce a plan to bring its levels of NO2 to below legal limits in 2017. While most of the other councils have since submitted their final plans to the government, Bristol missed its December 2018 deadline to do so.

In a letter sent to city mayor Marvin Rees (Lab) in January, Thérèse Coffey MP Under Secretary for the Environment, said she was “alarmed” about the delay, accusing him of “unlawfully” failing to comply with the direction.

Initially, Bristol drew up five clean air proposals, but following concern by Mr Rees about the impact on low income households, these have been whittled down to two options which are set to be rubber stamped by cabinet on Tuesday before going to public consultation on July 1. After that, a full business case will be signed off by December – a year overdue from the government deadline.

Under the first option for a clean air zone, polluting buses, taxis and HGVs will be charged to drive in part of the city centre but not private cars. The option also includes a bus lane on the M32 and a targeted diesel ban on a section of road near to the Bristol Royal Infirmary. 

Under the second option, all diesel cars would be banned from entering a specific central area from 7am to 3pm.

Both options include non-charging measures such as banning heavy goods vehicles from some highly polluted roads and bus priority measures, alongside a scrappage scheme and cleaner buses and taxis.

Mr Rees claimed these proposals could “strike a balance”, adding: “We cannot and will not sacrifice our low income households by introducing widespread charges which will have a detrimental impact on them.”

The council was offered £2m by government to work on its clean air plans, and has so far been given £1,648,600, with £934,000 spent on developing the options and £751,000 remaining in the kitty.

But because of the delays, a new cabinet report states that the council is “at risk of having to pay back central government funding of £1.65m if the council is not in a position to implement a solution that will deliver the government targets in the earliest possible time”.

Bristol has declared a climate emergency and as part of this, has pledged that it will become carbon neutral by 2030. It is one of more than 70 principal councils across the UK that have declared climate emergencies, according to Campaign against Climate Change.

But Katie Nield, an environmental lawyer for Client Earth which has successfully taken the government to court three times over its lack of action over clean air, warned that the act of declaring climate emergencies has not made some councils, including Bristol, more ambitious in tackling their clear air issues. “In fact, they are doing the opposite,” she said. “Southampton and Derby have also both rowed back on their clean air zone plans. But Leeds have stuck to their guns, and Birmingham too, which is great.”

Ms Nield says the issue of clean air zones has become a “political football” and there are “real gaps” in the government’s approach to councils.

“We are still seeing the government not doing anything on local authorities like Bristol dragging their feet. The government is legally obliged to do things to make sure the council has put in place effective measures. It is its duty to make sure councils do the right thing.”

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