Air quality plan: Why is the Government’s strategy ‘woefully inadequate’?

The Government's proposals to clean up the UK's toxic levels of air pollution have been received with widespread condemnation for being both "toothless" and "woefully adequate". Here's the industry response in full...

The countdown to the general election began in earnest this afternoon with results flooding in from the local council elections. While the Conservatives prospered and the national media sounded the death knell for UKIP’s presence in the domestic political arena, background news quietly filtered through about the surfacing of Defra’s long-awaited air quality plan.

The two previous major Government announcements on air pollution were released on the same day as Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, and on the Saturday before Christmas. The more cynical among the green community might therefore be forgiven for raising an eyebrow over the timing of this latest document.

So why the covert release? It seems almost certain that Prime Minister Theresa May appreciated that, with the votes of more than 10 million diesel vehicle drivers at stake, a policy that alienates a large chunk of the general public could prove extremely costly on polling day.

The latest research shows that these diesel vehicles are now responsible for almost 40% of all NO2 emissions in the UK’s major cities. In light of mounting evidence which points towards the harmful effects of diesel cars, the Government has faced intense pressure to introduce a scrappage scheme from various sections of civil society.

Today’s document, however, plays down the potential to impose tax charges on diesel motorists who bought the vehicles in good faith, instead asking local authorities explore the “appropriate tax treatment” for the vehicles over the next 12 months.

Indeed, much of the strain appears to now fall on the shoulders of local authorities, which face the task of implementing Clean Air Zones across the country, and making an individual decision whether or not each Zone should include a vehicle cost charge system.

With no formal strategy to end illegal pollution in the foreseeable future, and an absence of plans to introduce a road tax to deter diesel use, the immediate industry response to the Government’s air quality plan has been, by and large, overwhelmingly negative, as you’ll read below.

Air Quality Plan: Political and industry reaction

Ed Davey, former Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary: “This is not a plan, it’s a cop-out. he Conservative government is shamefully failing in its duty to tackle deadly pollution that is claiming thousands of lives a year.”

Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party: “The government is standing idly by while Britain chokes. This feeble plan won’t go anywhere near far enough in tackling this public health emergency. We’ve dragged the government kicking and screaming through the courts to produce these belated proposals – but they are toothless and woefully inadequate.”

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London said: “We’ve dragged the government kicking and screaming through the courts to produce these belated proposals – but they are toothless and woefully inadequate.”

James Thornton, ClientEarth chief executive 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. The court ordered the government to take this public health issue seriously and while the government says that pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health, we will still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under these proposals.

“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.”

Matthew Farrow, Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) executive director: “Air pollution is a real political and policy challenge – many actors, large technical and scientific uncertainties, complex interactions and a public who want the problem solved urgently but hope someone else will pick up the cost.  But these are the very problems where political leadership is most needed, and today’s draft plan show’s little.

“The commitment to expanding the network of Clean Air Zones is something EIC has long called for and the emphasis on the role of retrofitting, alternative fuels and innovation more widely is also valuable.  But despite the Defra analysis showing that only a significant and rapid drop in use of existing diesel vehicles in urban areas is likely to make a meaningful difference to NOx levels, the plan does nothing to build support for the hard decisions that follow from this: charging polluting vehicles, delivering a scrappage scheme, aligning vehicle tax with NOx and PM emissions  and providing support for additional retrofitting, low emission fuel use and the transition to Ultra Low Emission vehicles.

Oliver Hayes, Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner: “The government has produced a plan that is woefully inadequate, with a breath-taking lack of detail. If reports are true and these plans have been watered down because of the general election, ministers will have shown a shocking disregard for protecting people’s health.

“Every day of inaction on air pollution costs lives. This is an exceptionally poor plan. The government must not put politics above people. The most effective way to protect people from toxic fumes would be to have robust Clean Air Zones everywhere where there is illegal levels of pollution. Tasking local authorities to implement these zones only after exploring a range of other measures is spectacularly wrong-headed.”

Tony Lewis, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) head of policy: “The Government’s long awaited plans simply aren’t good enough. Despite standing on the cliff-edge of a national public health emergency, it looks like they would prefer not to upset the apple cart before an election rather than give us a plan that really tackles air pollution.

“While we welcome measures to invest in sustainable vehicles, retrofitting schemes and providing more information to consumers, there is so much more the Government should have done. Clean Air Zones are being hailed as a solution and yet the trials of these zones in five cities have barely started and there are no outcomes to evaluate their effectiveness. Furthermore, there is no clarity on provisions for a diesel scrappage scheme and without a new clean air act, where is the regulatory framework to enforce standards?”

James Beard, WWF climate specialist: “This draft plan does not add up to the transformational approach that we need to tackle this public health crisis. A balanced mix of both charges on pollution and incentives for cleaner transport is the way forward, helping people out of their gas guzzlers and into electric cars, better public transport and safer space for cycling and walking.

“A plan that actually solves this problem needs to take action at a national level – including helping drivers switch from fossil fuels to electric vehicles – as well as encouraging and supporting local authorities. At the moment, this consultation is a list of suggestions, ideas and exhortations to others to take action. It needs to be a clear and ambitious plan that tackles air pollution and climate change together – failure on either count will cost lives and the economy.”

Philip Sellwood, Energy Saving Trust chief executive: “Improving air quality in our towns and cities is one of the biggest environmental challenges we face today. We welcome Government’s air quality plan which shows a commitment to addressing the issue. Clearly there needs to be detailed proposals in the final plan with policies followed through.

“The key thing is that this isn’t all about punitive measures for the so-called offenders. If we are to successfully realise the benefits of clean air zones then both businesses and private drivers need advice and support to transition to ultra-low emission vehicles. We’ll be working in Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton to help make clean air zones a reality.”

Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive: “SMMT welcomes the publication of government’s proposals for improving air quality across the UK, which clearly states that the new Euro 6 diesels which have been on sale for the past two years will not face any penalty charges anywhere in the UK. Furthermore, the government is keen that local authorities avoid charging consumers and businesses for driving their vehicles if other more effective policies can be found.

“We’re encouraged that plans to improve traffic flow and congestion, as well as increase uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles, will be prioritised in towns and cities. We look forward to working with government to encourage the uptake of the latest, low emission vehicles, regardless of fuel type.”

George Ogleby

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