Government backtracks on local air quality proposals

The government appears to have backtracked on its proposals to scrap obligations for local authorities in England to regularly monitor air quality after it considered around 18,000 consultation responses.

Opposition to scrapping the obligations was revealed in the summary of responses to the recently closed consultation on options to modify Local Air Quality Management legislation in England. The summary was prepared by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) which organised the consultation.

Defra's Nobel House headquarters in London

Defra’s Nobel House headquarters in London

The six-week consultation on the ‘shortcomings’ of the legislation, which ended in September 2013, concerns regulations on the Environment Act 1995, which established the requirement for local authorities to regularly review and assess air quality in the areas against national objectives (see airqualitynews.com story).

The government had mooted scrapping requirements for regular monitoring and for the establishment of Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) in pollution hotspots as part of a drive to cut red tape, which brought criticism from some local authorities, scientists, campaigners and even Labour MPs (see airqualitynews.com story).

Now, following the consultation, Defra appears to have backtracked slightly on its previous stance, stating that it will ‘make proposals to introduce regular annual reporting on air quality for local authorities’.

Furthermore, Defra also highlights in its consultation review the ‘overwhelming support for retaining AQMAs’ but with more flexibility in applying them. It said it would ‘take account’ of this support and review guidance on the declaration/revocation procedures of AQMAs.

According to Defra, the consultation was also flooded with approximately 17,500 emails from members of online campaign group 38 Degrees and around 600 from the group Biofuelwatch, all of which stated support for AQMAs and regular air quality monitoring.

Additionally, it said there were 232 ‘substantive responses’ to the consultation, including 133 from local authorities, 82 from organisations and environmental groups and 17 from individuals.

Also highlighted in these responses was the support for measures to tackle particulate matter PM2.5 – a potentially harmful pollutant for which there are currently no national guidelines or limits – as well as discouraging the use of diesel vehicles.

Defra said it now intends to revise official guidance to coincide with the implementation of changes to the LAQM system in mid-2015. Ahead of this, a second consultation on regulatory changes and guidance is now slated to take place in ‘mid-late 2014’.

Healthy Air Campaign

Commenting on the government’s response to its consultation, Maria Arnold of the Healthy Air Campaign said: “Overwhelming public pressure has forced the government to rethink plans to scrap local authorities’ duties to monitor air quality. Their original proposal would have had devastating impacts on air quality and health, but a backlash from thousands of members of the public and local authorities has sent a strong message that they can’t solve our air quality crisis by turning a blind eye.

“We will have to wait for the next set of proposals to see whether the message has really sunk in, but for now they appear to be listening.”