The 103-page Plan, which has been at the centre of a lengthy high court legal battle, is effectively the start of the end of the internal combustion engine, with consumers and businesses being encouraged to switch to electric vehicles. (Scroll down to read the full Plan overview).

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) received 743 responses to a consultation on the Air Quality Plan, which sets out the actions required to meet air quality standards within the shortest possible time.

Poor air quality is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK and this Government is determined to take strong action in the shortest time possible,” a Government spokesman said today. “That is why we are providing councils with new funding to accelerate development of local plans, as part of an ambitious £3bn programme to clean up dirty air around our roads.”

Ministers have identified 81 major roads in 17 towns and cities where urgent action is required to tackle air pollution – 33 of which are outside of London.

The £2.7bn Air Quality Plan includes £255m which has been set aside as an ‘implementation fund’ for local councils in areas where emissions have breached EU thresholds. Retrofitting buses, changing road layouts and reprogramming traffic lights are among the key actions to be taken by the councils, which will be required to layout their plans by March 2018 and finalise them by the end of the year.

Funding allocation

The Air Quality Plan also puts £1bn towards the development of ultra-low-emission vehicles, as well as almost £100m to support the UK’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure and to fund the ‘plug-in car’ and ‘plug-in grant’ subsidy schemes.

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Around £1.2bn will support cycling and walking intiatives across the country, while £290m will be allocated to a national productivity investment fund – made up of £60m for new buses, £40m for bus retrofits, £50m for a Plug In Taxi programme and £80m for ultra low emission vehicle charging infrastructure.

Today’s Air Quality Plan does also give mention of a potential tax hike for new diesel cars to fund measures to tackle air pollution.

“The Government is clear that we must maintain discipline on public spending,” the document states. “Measures to improve air quality will therefore be funded through changes to the tax treatment for new diesel vehicles, or through reprioritisation within existing departmental budgets. Further details on changes to the tax regime will be announced later in the year.”

It has been reported that the Government will also be consulting on a scrappage scheme to encourage people to switch to cleaner vehicles later this year, but there has been no firm commitment on this as yet.

Details of the Plan have initially been welcomed by environmental law firm ClientEarth, which has been leading legal action against the Government over the UK’s air pollution crisis.

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said: “The Government has trumpeted some promising measures with its air quality plans, but we need to see the detail. A clear policy to move people towards cleaner vehicles by banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans after 2040 is welcome, as is more funding for local authorities.

“However, the law says ministers must bring down illegal levels of air pollution as soon as possible, so any measures announced in this plan must be focused on doing that.”

London’s calling

ClientEarth will now be studying the Plan in detail and will ultimately decide whether further legal action should be pursued. Previous versions of the document received widespread condemnation for being “toothless” and “woefully adequate”.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has taken a proactive stance on tackling illegal levels of air pollution in the capital, said this latest version of the Air Quality Plan is strong in principle, but does not exert the level of urgency required to get a grip on Britain’s air pollution crisis.

Khan said: “The commitment to phase out sales of new diesel cars is welcome, but Londoners suffering right now simply can’t afford to wait until 2040. We need a fully-funded diesel scrappage fund now to get polluting vehicles off our streets immediately, as well as new powers so that cities across the UK can take the action needed to clean up our air.

“I’m doing all I can in London, but we need help from the Government. The health of millions of people across the UK is dependent on the Government showing more ambition in tackling one of the most pressing issues of our time.”

Labour MP Mary Creagh, who chairs of the Environmental Audit Committee, has condenmed the Air Quality Plan for “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,” said Creagh. 

Demand response

The Renewable Energy Association’s (REA) head of policy and external affairs James Court stressed the importance of scaling up low-carbon power and smart charging systems to support the anticipated rise in electric vehicles. 

“We need smart-vehicle charging and price-reflective tariffs if the future electric fleet is to be a huge benefit and not a hindrance to our grid,” Court said. “There is talk of the need for additional power stations to deal with the increase of EVs, yet they could actually optimise the generation we already have.

“By using electricity at night or less busy periods during the day EVs can smooth out peaks in demand, but this is reliant on Government policy and regulators.”

The Energy Networks Association, which represents electricity distribution network operators, has released a statement today reiterating that Britain’s energy networks will be “crucial to achieving decarbonisation of the transport sector and the air quality improvements the Government is aiming for”.

The Air Quality Plan adds that the Government will be developing further measures on tackling air quality through the Clean Growth Plan which it says will be published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in the autumn.

Landmark week

The release of the Air Quality Plan comes in what has been a landmark week for the electric vehicle market. On Monday, the Government announced details of the first phase of a four-year £246m investment into battery technology as part of the Government’s drive towards a low-carbon industrial strategy.

Yesterday, carmaker BMW announced that a fully electric version of the iconic Mini will be built at its Cowley plant in Oxford.

And on Friday, Elon Musk’s Tesla is set to launch of the first ‘mass market’ EV – the Tesla Model 3 – which has received an estimated half a million reservations. 

Read a full break-down of the electric vehicles market and the busines benefits of making the switch to a greener fleet here

Air Quality Plan: Overview document

Luke Nicholls

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