Campaigners have criticised the Government’s new draft plan to tackle toxic air pollution, which puts the onus on councils to consider Clean Air Zones and take action to deal with high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) outside towns and cities.
The new plan was published on Friday (5 May) after the High Court rejected a Government attempt to delay publication. It does not include a predicted diesel scrappage scheme as a proposal, although such a scheme remains a possibility.
Environment department Defra said the ‘options’ set out in a consultation paper ‘are designed to reduce the impact of diesel vehicles, and accelerate the move to cleaner transport’.
It stressed that: ‘Local authorities are already responsible for improving air quality in their area, but will now be expected to develop new and creative solutions to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, while avoiding undue impact on the motorist.’
Campaign group ClientEarth brought successive court cases requiring ministers to draw up – and then rewrite – a national air quality plan. Its CEO, James Thornton, said: ‘We are continuing to study the government's latest air quality plan, but on the face of it it looks much weaker than we had hoped for.’
He added: ‘There needs to be a national network of clean air zones which prevent the most polluting vehicles from entering the most illegally polluted streets in our towns and cities. We fail to see how the non-charging clean air zones, proposed by the government, will be effective if they don't persuade motorists to stay out of those areas. The government seems to be passing the buck to local authorities rather than taking responsibility for this public health emergency.’
Stephen Joseph, chief executive at the Campaign for Better Transport, said: ‘While we welcome the government’s long awaited plan, its proposals on transport are wholly inadequate in tackling the dangerous levels of pollution across our most polluted cities.
‘The various proposed measures in the strategy will not be enough and some, like more roads, may actually make things worse. Cleaning up our air means reducing the numbers of cars and lorries on our roads.
'Councils in the new clean air zones need real powers and funding to invest in modern public transport, walking and cycling facilities to give people real alternatives, with charges and taxes where necessary, not silly Government suggestions to scrap road humps.’
The document states that its aim is to achieve the statutory limit values for NO2 the whole of the UK ‘within the shortest possible time’ – a requirement of European regulations.
While some proposals cover the UK as a whole, the consultation document includes some possible measures for England only.
It notes that five cities – Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton – as well as London, air required to implement Clean Air Zones that charge owners of some vehicles, but not private cars, by the end of 2019.
In addition, it lists local authorities with roads with NO2 levels above legal limits and states: ‘Local authorities will undertake local assessments to consider the best option to achieve statutory NO2 limit values within the shortest possible time.’
It adds: ‘If local authorities adopt a charging scheme, the UK Government believes that local authorities could achieve statutory NO2 limit values in most cases by 2021.’
However, the document warns that ‘the Government believes that if a local authority can identify measures other than charging zones that are at least as effective at reducing NO2, those measures should be preferred’.
The document also states: ‘New evidence indicates that in addition to the urban locations [already listed], there are sections of the local road network outside towns and cities, where NO2 levels exceed statutory limits, adding ‘the UK Government will work with local authorities responsible for these roads to identify specific local solutions’.
RAC chief engineer David Bizley said: 'We welcome many of the proposals which have been included in the air quality strategy published today – namely encouraging local authorities to improve traffic flow, giving consideration to replacing speed humps with other means to safely slow vehicles down, a very clear focus on those most polluting vehicles such as buses and taxis, and encouraging the cutting of unnecessary engine idling.
'However, it is deeply worrying that local authorities have an option of introducing chargeable Clean Air Zones which would affect owners of relatively new diesel and some petrol vehicles. This potentially could impact millions of motorists and while the Government has said it wants to discourage authorities from going down this route, the strategy does not give a clear steer on how and when local authorities should implement which type of clean air zone.'