The government could force local authorities in areas of poor air quality to pay ‘all or part’ of any potential EU infraction fines against the UK for breaching nitrogen dioxide limits, according to a Defra letter.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote to councils in areas that breach EU limits for nitrogen dioxide, calling for cooperation on tackling the problem but reminding them of governmental powers that could require local authorities to pay any future EU fines.
A copy of the letter sent to local authorities was published on the Defra website today (May 15) following a request for information under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIRs).
The letter states that local authorities have “already done much to help improve air quality” but adds that “we also know that achieving further NO2 reductions will not be easy and will need us to work together and to take action by central government and its agencies as well as local authorities”.
It states: “We will use existing channels of communication to tell authorities how the case is progressing and to discuss steps for meeting the NO2 limit values.”
However, the letter from Defra adds: “For completeness, we feel we ought to remind you of the discretionary power in Part 2 of the Localism Act under which the government could require responsible authorities to pay all or part of an infraction fine. The procedures are set out in a policy statement published by DCLG.
“We strongly hope though, that through cooperative working between government and local authorities, the GLA and the Highways Agency and through engaging with the Commission we will be able to avoid the infraction reaching the European court, with the prospect of fines.”
The European Commission began infraction proceedings against the UK in February 2014 for being in breach of obligations to comply with limit values for nitrogen dioxide in the EU Air Quality Directive (see airqualitynews.com story).
16 of 43 zones in the UK are in breach of limits for the pollutant and the government potentially faces multi-million pound fines from the Commission as a result, although the infraction proceedings could take several years to complete.
The Commission has stated that it would like the UK to achieve full compliance by 2020 at the latest, but forecasts suggest that London alone may not reach compliance until 2030.
However, European Commissioner for the environment, Janez Potočnik told airqualitynews.com that the UK could still avoid air quality fines from the EU (see airqualitynews.com story).