Government could face questions over the allocation of funding to local authorities for measures to tackle air pollution as part of a Parliamentary Committee inquiry commencing next week.
The inquiry, which is being led by the Commons’ Health, Environmental Audit, EFRA and Transport Committees will jointly examine government policy to bring the UK into compliance with EU limit values for nitrogen dioxide as well as wider issues around air pollution.
Ahead of the inquiry’s first evidence sessions the National Audit Office (NAO) has published a report highlighting a number of areas upon which the Committees may wish to probe the government over its proposals to address air pollution through its NO2 plan published in July.
The report notes that a key component of the plan is the expectation for 28 local authorities to implement new air quality measures to achieve compliance ‘in the shortest possible time’
However, it adds that the new expectations come at a time when councils are already facing “funding pressuresâ€? due to a reduction in funding from central government, adding: “Government needs to assure itself that local authorities have sufficient capacity and resource to manage the actions needed.â€?
As part of the air quality plan, government has announced a £255 million implementation fund to 2021, for the 28 local authorities expected to ‘accelerate’ action on air quality, as well as offering support and guidance to those councils.
Government has also promised a clean air fund, which will be open for bids from local authorities, although the size and scope of this has yet to be announced.
This is expected to cover costs for local authority feasibility studies, implementation of Clean Air Zones or other measures selected by councils as well as improvements in modelling and monitoring of air quality.
Ahead of the commencement of the inquiry next week, the National Audit Office has recommended questioning the government over the management of risk that local authorities may not have sufficient resources and expertise to meet air quality requirements.
The report adds that ‘strong leadership and coordination’ within government is important for achieving improvements in air quality, highlighting the establishment of the Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) within government in 2016.
JAQU is jointly staffed by officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport (DfT) and took the lead on the planning and delivery of the 2017 air quality plan.
However, according to the Audit Office, the unit’s Board does not include local authorities or the Local Government Association, “despite the key role that local government is expected to play in improving air quality.â€?
As a result, the NAO has questioned whether local authorities should be “better representedâ€? at national strategic level.
Commenting ahead of the first Committee evidence hearing next week, Lillian Greenwood MP, chair of the Transport Select Committee, said: “It’s clear that action on air quality is needed now. Waiting for almost another decade for all parts of the UK to reach acceptable levels of air quality is a deeply disappointing prospect, and simply not good enough.
“Road transport contributes some 80% of nitrogen dioxide emissions at the roadside, which is where the UK exceeds the legal limits. Motor manufacturers are producing cleaner cars but this alone will not be enough. I look forward to hearing what local government representatives have to say to us next week, particularly in relation to the kinds of policies that are needed to accelerate the take up of new vehicles and technologies.
“I am also interested to hear how to bring about the changes in behaviour that are needed if we are to reduce the number of polluting vehicles on our roads. I suspect that many of these measures could have the added benefit of also reducing urban congestion.â€?
National Audit Office – Air Quality Report