A government plan to meet European air quality limits by letting councils ban diesel vehicles and charge drivers more for parking polluting cars and vans is “disappointing” and could result in further court cases and tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, critics say.
The plan, drawn up by the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) in response to a supreme court ruling, proposes individual emission limits for four different vehicle types.
Local authorities would be responsible for policing the pollution in urban areas and would be told to incentivise electric, hydrogen and other ultra low-emission vehicles.
Critics say the plan offers no extra money or new powers and defers discussion on how the clean air zones might work in practice until next year. It also dodges the issue of a new runway in south-east England that could considerably increase air pollution.
The consultation document, launched by the environment secretary, Elizabeth Truss, at the same time as the announcement of the new Labour party leader on Saturday, accepts for the first time that more than 50,000 people a year die from air pollution in the UK.
This includes around 29,000 who die prematurely as a result of inhaling minute particles of oily, unburnt soot emitted by all petrol engines, and an estimated 23,500 people who die from the invisible but toxic gas NO2 emitted by diesel engines.
The document says: “About 80% of the NOx emissions which are exceeding the law are due to transport. The largest source of emissions is from diesel cars and vans where there has been significant growth in numbers over the last 10 years.”
Defra, which has long resisted the idea of setting up a national system of clean air zones, had expected seven UK urban areas – including London, the West Midlands, south Wales and Nottingham – still to be breaking EU law in 2020. In April the supreme court ruled that this was unacceptable and said the government should come up with new plans urgently.
If the clean air zones and other measures outlined in the plan are all introduced, Defra now expects that all areas except Greater London will comply with EU pollution laws by 2020. In London the targets will be met by 2025, five years earlier than previously expected, it says.
”London has a particular set of issues due to the scale of its population and the level of challenge presented by current levels of NO2 concentrations,” the document says. “Many measures have already been put in place and we consider that the measures in these plans will improve air quality sufficiently to achieve compliance with the directive in London before 2025.”
Truss said tackling air pollution was a priority. “We want local authorities and members of the public to come forward and share ideas on action to be taken at national and local level to make our nation cleaner. From improving bus and taxi fleets to investing in cycling infrastructure and upgrading roads so they run more smoothly, we want to work with our great cities and help them make changes to become better still.”
Alan Andrews, director of Client Earth, a group of environmental lawyers who took government to the European and UK courts to force action on air pollution, said: “The first reaction is disappointment. We are heading in the right direction but we are not seeing anything like a clear commitment to doing anything.
“The government seems to be passing the buck to local authorities. There has to be a clear legal commitment to act, otherwise the plans will be rejected by Europe. If we are not convinced [that the plans will work], we will go back to court.”
Simon Birkett, director of Clean Air for London, said: “Defra is passing all responsibility, without money or new powers, to local authorities. It is flouting the supreme court ruling to submit proper plans to the European commission by 31 December by intending instead to submit a ‘plan for plans by others’.
“It is making little or no effort to comply with NO2 limit values in at least 28 UK zones before 2020, seven more before 2025 and London before 2030 unless others choose to adopt its ‘plan for a plan’ of clean air zones.”
Friends of the Earth said: “Defra claims plans would mean legal limits are met five or more years earlier than currently forecast, but even then London’s children would still suffer with illegally filthy air for 10 more years. Plans for a framework for clean air zones are welcome but there is no detail on how these could work.”
Critics also accused the government of trying to bury the document by releasing it on a Saturday morning just as the Labour leadership result was being announced.
A government spokesman said: “Well, it’s out there now. I suppose every announcement is timed in a certain way.”