Ministers grilled over Air Quality Plan

Defra minister Thérèse Coffey and minister of state for transport John Hayes were questioned about the government’s new Air Quality plan at a hearing yesterday (13 December).

l-r: John Hayes and Therese Coffey were questioned on the government's new Air Quality Plan

l-r: John Hayes and Therese Coffey were questioned on the government’s new Air Quality Plan

The hearing was conducted by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Air Quality in the House of Commons, and saw the ministers grilled on how they will develop a new plan to tackle pollution, after the initial version was quashed in a High Court case last month (see AirQualityNews.com story).

The High Court ruling stated that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had ‘fallen into error’ by adopting ‘too optimistic’ models for future emissions, and had failed to incorporate measures to ensure the exceedance of emissions limits be kept ‘as short as possible’.

However, at the Efra hearing, Dr Coffey said the government has “always been clear that we would update our plans to the best available evidence,” and that she has been “reliably informed that our models were based on the best evidence we had at the time.”

Mr Hayes added: “We should see the court case as a wake-up call.”

Last week, Defra announced it will consult on a revised Air Quality Plan by 24 April 2017 and publish a final plan by 31 July 2017 (see AirQualityNews.com story).

Questioned by Kerry McCarthy, Bristol West MP and former Shadow Environment Secretary, as to the government’s commitment to tackling air pollution in the UK, Dr Coffey said: “I can assure you it’s my top priority.”

Dr Coffey highlighted the recent progress in the European Directive to set national targets to reduce emissions (see AirQualityNews.com story) as “an indication of how we continue to be ambitious about air quality.”

Clean Air Zones

However, some uncertainties remain concerning the new plan, including which authorities will take the lead and what measures will be adopted.

In terms of Clean Air Zones, Dr Coffey said that “nothing is off the table” and various options are being worked up. The previous plan’s scope of five UK cities chosen to be made into Clean Air Zones by 2020 – Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton – was criticised by the High court as doing the ‘minimum’ in order to comply with the EU Directive on NO2 emissions.

Commenting on the new plan, Mr Hayes said that the government wants “more Zones and more [measures] to put in them.”

Dr Coffey confirmed that new proposals for Clean Air Zones are focussed on commercial vehicles. It is unclear as to whether this will involve charging schemes, such as in London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, where the most polluting vehicles will have to pay a charge.

Funding

Pressed on how the Air Quality Plan will be funded, Dr Coffey said “it will be about local targeted interventions where needed, but we are already investing.”

A £3 million Air Quality Grant to help improve air quality in local areas has already been made available to local authorities, although chair of the Committee, Neil Parish, questioned whether this was “anywhere near enough.”

Dr Coffey said: “I don’t think the government is able to write a blank cheque on every single action.”

However, Mr Hayes highlighted that extra funding was released in last month’s Autumn Statement (see AirQualityNews.com story), reflecting the concerns that have been expressed about air quality.

Chancellor Philip Hammond announced £390 million in funding for ultra-low emission vehicles and renewable fuels as part of his Autumn Statement, including £80 million for ULEV charging infrastructure, £150 million in support for low emission buses and taxis, £20 million for the development of alternative aviation and heavy goods vehicle fuels, and £100 million for new UK CAV testing infrastructure.