Environment Minister Therese Coffey has demanded an urgent update on progress from Birmingham city council over its plans to improve air quality in the city.
The minister wrote to Birmingham council leader Councillor Ian Ward yesterday (19 February) suggesting the council had not given the matter ‘the urgency it requires’ as well as suggesting that decision making had been held up due to ‘nervousness’ ahead of local elections later this year.
The authority was one of five ordered within the government’s 2015 air quality plan to establish a clean air zone by 2020 to help bring the UK into compliance with the Air Quality Directive target on nitrogen dioxide emissions.
Other cities included in the 2015 were Derby, Nottingham, Southampton and Leeds, which outlined a proposal for a clean air zone in the city in December – which includes the introduction of charges for some vehicles (see airqualitynews.com story). Proposals are expected to be finalised later this year.
Dr Coffey’s letter follows a visit to the city in January at which she met Cllr Lisa Trickett, the council’s lead member for environment, interim chief executive Stella Manzie and Dr Adrian Phillips, the council’s director of public health.
During the meeting, Dr Coffey said she was ‘reassured’ of the council’s commitment to deliver a local scheme by the end of 2019, but said she had been ‘disappointed’ by the council’s failure to provide a preferred option as to how it would approach its requirements by the end of 2017.
A further deadline of 28 February for a draft proposal has since been issued by Defra, although the minister has expressed concern that this may not be met.
In her letter, she wrote: “As you are aware, your local authority received a ministerial direction requiring it to provide a Full Business Case for its plans by 15 September 2018. Cllr Trickett undertook to provide us with a timeline that would give us reassurance that this legal deadline will be met. I understand from officials that this information has not yet been provided.
“I find this very concerning, especially considering the level of funding and support the government is giving to Birmingham city council to accelerate your plans to improve air quality. It would appear that the council is not giving this matter the urgency it requires and is delaying making the decisions necessary to ensure action can be taken as quickly as possible.â€?
Dr Coffey claimed that the council may be experiencing a “sense of nervousness about proposals being laid outâ€? ahead of forthcoming local council elections in May, but claimed that proposals outlined by Leeds city council late last year had been met with a ‘positive reaction’.
“I ask that you ensure that this revised timeline is provided to Defra before the end of February,â€? she added.
The council has carried out studies to assess the potential size and scope of a clean air zone in the city, as well as gathering data on the likely impact that the measure could have on businesses (see airqualitynews.com story). However, firm proposals have yet to be brought forward by the local authority with a consultation on plans expected at some point in 2018.
Responding to the comments, Councillor Trickett, sought to offer assurance that the council will meet its deadlines for compliance.
She said: “We can assure the minister of our absolute commitment to tackling this issue and meeting the 2020 requirement for compliance. We will develop our policy response when we have the full evidence base before us. We now have the Government data and need to understand what that means for our city and citizens.
“We have always been very clear that air pollution is a major public health crisis and is responsible for up to 900 early deaths a year in Birmingham, which is completely unacceptable. We remain committed to working with the Government to tackle that crisis.â€?
In December, Dr Coffey questioned Derby city council’s ‘urgency’ in developing measures to tackle air quality limit breaches in the city – concerns that were dismissed by the local authority (see airqualitynews.com story).
Birmingham city council