Defra minister Rory Stewart last week (June 17) deflected calls for the government to acknowledge its responsibility for paying any potential EU fines for the UK failing to meet air pollution limits in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling.
The minister with responsibility for air quality at Defra was taking questions in the House of Commons last Wednesday, and was asked whether he would be writing to all local authorities in England and Wales outlining central government’s responsibility – rather than councils – for paying potential infraction fines.
The UK is currently in breach of European legal limits for nitrogen dioxide and potentially faces being fined by the EU for its failure to meet the regulations.
And as a result, the government last year sent out a letter to local authorities suggesting that councils would be liable to pay ‘all or part’ of any such infraction fines from the EU, while also calling for cooperation to tackle the pollution problem (see AirQualityNews.com story).
The letter highlighted the relevant section in part 2 of the Localism Act, which gives the government discretionary powers to force councils to pay the fines, although it added that Defra still hoped to avoid the fines.
However, Labour MP for Brent North, Barry Gardiner, said that the Supreme Court ruling in May 2015 in a case brought by environmental organisation ClientEarth – which has set a deadline of December 31 for the production of a new UK air quality plan – showed that “it is the government who are solely responsible for compliance and any fines arisingâ€?.
Mr Gardiner then asked the Defra minister: “will the Secretary of State [Liz Truss] write again to all local authorities to accept her responsibility and overturn her previous threatening letter?â€?
Under-secretary of state at Defra, Rory Stewart, responded that he was “very happy to discuss that matter in detailâ€? but added that “we need to tackle this issue in partnership with local authoritiesâ€?.
Mr Stewart said: “The prime responsibility needs to reside there because the sources of the emissions are quite different from one local authority to another, and therefore the solutions will be different from one local authority to another.â€?