UK Government air quality consultation: our response

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The UK Government’s consultation on its draft plans to improve air quality closed on 6 November 2015. Published under the title ‘tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities’, it did much to disappoint.

From the start it was clear that not even the UK Government itself was proud of its work. The consultation was quietly released on a Saturday morning, around the same time that the Labour leadership contest was expected to be announced. Reading through the plans showed why they might have been a bit shy about letting people know about them.

The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) had said in July 2014, following the European Court of Justice hearing, that it was already working with local authorities to revise the old plans. However, there is very little to show for this, as the draft national plan mostly outlines existing measures by a few government departments – a far cry from the much needed cross-departmental approach. Many of these measures are not actually directly aimed at tackling air pollution and their actual impact on air quality has not been quantified. The plans for the different zones are largely a cut and paste of existing Local Authority air quality action plans, some of which will already be out of date.

In fact, the UK Government seems to be shifting its responsibility for ensuring that the UK meets legal limits of air pollution onto Local Authorities. However, the plans did not include provision to give Local Authorities additional funding or resources, or even new powers to deal with the root causes of air pollution in their areas.

The only new national measure was a commitment to develop a national framework for Clean Air Zones. The Healthy Air Campaign has been calling for a network of Low Emission Zones, to get the most polluting vehicles out of our town and city centres, and this could potentially be a step towards that. In addition, Clean Air Zones might also take into consideration other sources of air pollution such as the construction and energy sector. However, for now we just have a commitment that Defra will set out the full framework in early 2016, which is reminiscent of their unfulfilled promise to do this back in 2011.

Despite the lack of new measures, the Government seems to think the UK will comply much earlier with legal limits than their previous projections from 2014. The reason for this seems to be the introduction of the latest standards limiting vehicle emissions from new cars (known as ‘Euro 6’). However, as has been widely publicised through the Volkswagen scandal, Euro 6 cars are actually emitting a lot more nitrogen oxides (NOx – which include harmful nitrogen dioxide) in the real world than the standards allow. Defra acknowledges that there is uncertainty in just relying on cars getting cleaner but still retains this as its main strategy to reducing air pollution.

Overall, the general consensus seems to be that the UK Government could do better, with many respondents agreeing with our initial analysis. In fact, ClientEarth has concluded that the UK Government is breaching the Supreme Court order by failing to come up with a proper plan to clean up air pollution.

The consultation may be over but this is not the end. We will have to wait to see what Defra makes of the consultation responses, and how the Spending Review due on 25 November affects the final plans to be submitted by the end of the year. However, it is clear that there is still sadly a need to make the UK Government understand the urgent need to protect our health from illegal and harmful levels of air pollution.

Below are some consultation responses that may be of interest:

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