The government’s new proposals on air quality have been roundly condemned by virtually everyone. They are almost certain to land them back in court, but it is clear that the government is desperate to keep the more controversial proposals out of the current election process.
In this way, it can be said to have ‘taken one for the team’. Just as a footballer commits a deliberate foul to stop an opposing player rushing forwards and giving his team an advantage that might lead to a goal, but by doing so knows that a yellow card will follow, so has the government published a wholly inadequate document just to buy it some time. If it wins the election, it will no doubt consider this to have been worth the price.
But why has it done this? Air quality has been an issue for some time. Despite improvements over the years, as legislation has been tightened and recording improved, it is still higher than is safe for health in some areas. Action therefore needs to be taken.
There are numerous problems though. Primary amongst them is the seething anger of motorists who were openly encouraged in the past to buy diesel cars, which are now the major part of the problem. Action required includes Clean Air Zones but to be truly effective, also needs charging schemes that would levy a fee on those driving older diesel cars to enter city centres. This is, of course, political dynamite.
Government inaction in the past has led to court cases by the environmental group ClientEarth, the latest of which recently resulted in the government being forced to publish its proposals, in order to comply with legal duties, despite there being an election Purdah in force. The judge rightly concluded that public health was more important than politics. The fact that the government brought the case seeking to delay publication in the first place was a clear indication that it did not think so.
So it had to publish its proposals for consultation in a hurry and in the middle of the election campaign. The resultant document – Tackling Nitrogen Dioxide in Our Towns and Cities - A Consultation (DEFRA/ DOT May 2017) is little more than a box ticking exercise that will almost certainly fail to match its legal duties.
Its main thrust is to put the obligation on to the shoulders of local authorities up and down the country. They should try hard to introduce measures to improve the air quality in their areas, but should introduce charging schemes only as a last resort. Of course, these other measures are well worn and have been in operation for some time. Clearly they are not enough. But charging schemes will be politically controversial and the government clearly wants the local council to take the flak, rather than itself, as the body with ultimate responsibility.
So this latest consultation can be largely dismissed as a time waster, just to get the government off the hook of having to defend charging zones in an election campaign.
Once the election is over, it will take the yellow card (in this analogy more court action over the inadequacy of the proposals) and then provide more serious proposals. With the potential of a new five year term and a greatly increased majority, I am sure the government will consider this to be worth the pain.
Where it leaves air quality in the interim is anyone’s guess.