Government to remove councils’ obligation to carry out further air quality assessments after declaring AQMAs
Local authorities will no longer need to produce air quality assessments after designating Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) under plans announced in the Queen’s speech today (May 8).
However, there were no provisions mentioned in the Queen’s speech for introducing plain packaging for tobacco products in order to discourage smoking.
The plans to change requirements for local authority air quality assessments were announced as part of the Deregulation Bill, which the government intends introduce to parliament this year after it is published in draft form for pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Queen said in her speech that the Bill was being introduced to “reduce the burden of excessive regulation on businessesâ€?.
It is currently unclear exactly what this will mean for local authority air quality assessment, as details of the Bill have not yet been published, but it is thought that the Queen’s speech refers to stipulations that local authorities must carry out a ‘further assessment’ of air quality within 12 months of declaring an AQMA.
Currently, when a local authority finds an area in its jurisdiction in breach of national legal air quality objectives it can declare an AQMA, which enables the authority to apply for special funding to monitor and tackle the air pollution problem.
And, under section 84 of the Environment Act 1995, after an AQMA is declared, the council is obliged to produce an Air Quality Action Plan for submission to Defra. The Act stipulates that councils then have 12 months to carry out a ‘Further Assessment’ of air quality in the designated zone.
As a result, Steve Moorcroft, director of environmental consultancy firm Air Quality Consultants, told AirQualityNews.com that if changes were made to local authority requirements to carry out ‘further assessments’, the government would likely have to amend the 1995 Environment Act.
However, he said that getting rid of further assessment requirements could well be a positive change for local authorities.
He said: “This legislation is perhaps unnecessary, as councils will have already just performed an air quality assessment in order to declare an AQMA in the first place, and work can easily be done to carry out further assessments if the council wishes to.â€?
Maria Arnold of ClientEarth and the Healthy Air campaign said: “In line with the Supreme Court declaration that the government is failing in its legal duty to protect people from the harmful effects of air pollution, it is vital that any new system genuinely drives dramatic improvements to air quality; and is adequately supported by national measures. At the moment Defra is trying to ‘pass the buck’ to local authorities, passing down all the responsibility yet withholding much needed national support.”
However, Simon Birkett, founder and director of campaign group Clean Air in London, said by not obliging councils to produce further air quality assessments of AQMAs, the government was trying to “hide the facts about air pollutionâ€?.
He said: “The government admits annual assessments of air quality have been required for over 15 years ‘to make sure that the national air quality objectives will be achieved throughout the UK by the relevant deadlines’. With these laws breached in many places across the UK, the government’s response is not good governance, transparency and action but the systematic covering-up of information needed by the public to hold the government and local authorities to account. The government should put its efforts into complying with the law not flouting it.â€?
He added: “Worse, this proposed change makes it likely those areas that have once complied with legal limits or failed to declare properly an AQMA would forever be able to hide future problems e.g. due to over-development.â€?
The Queen’s speech has also caused controversy among anti-smoking campaigners for failing to include provisions to introduce compulsory plain packaging for tobacco products in the UK.
Similar laws already exist in Australia and the Scottish Government has previously announced its intention to introduce compulsory plain packaging as part of its five-year strategy to be “tobacco-freeâ€? in the country by 2034 (see airqualitynews.com story).
The UK government had been expected to follow suit, but provisions for the legislation were omitted from today’s speech in order to focus on other policies and such regulations are now unlikely to be on the government’s agenda for the coming year.
The government has also yet to respond to a consultation on the possible introduction of plain tobacco packaging legislation which it carried out between April and August 2012.
Commenting on the government’s decision to delay the introduction of standardised tobacco product packaging, executive director of charity Cancer Research UK, Sarah Woolnough, said that recent research carried out by the charity highlighted “just how powerful packaging can beâ€?.
She said: “We are still waiting for the UK government to respond to the public consultation on tobacco packaging. Every day we wait more children will be lured into the lethal addiction. We urge the UK government to show their commitment to health and give millions of children one less reason to start.â€?
The Queen’s 2013 speech is available to read in full on the Number 10 website.