The government’s minister for air quality has outlined some of the steps being taken in light of yesterday’s High Court ruling demanding greater action to address illegal levels of air pollution in towns and cities.
However, questions still remain over the levels of funding likely to be available to councils who now fall within the scope of the air quality plan, as a result of yesterday’s ruling.
The High Court ruled that the government’s July 2017 NO2 plan is insufficient to bring the UK into compliance with EU air quality objectives – and ordered that ministers publish a supplementary plan mandating action by 33 additional local authorities who are expected to breach NO2 limits (see airqualitynews.com story).
These 33 will be required to scope out whether they could implement measures to improve air quality within the soonest possible timeframe, on top of 23 councils already mandated through the July plan to carry out similar scoping work.
Therese Coffey, the Defra minister responsible for air quality, faced an urgent question on the issue from MPs in the House of Commons today, and confirmed that the government has invited the affected councils to a meeting to discuss issues arising from the ruling in London next week.
She said: “We will follow up in March by making legally binding instructions requiring those councils to undertake the studies to identify any such measures and as required by the court we will publish a supplement to the 2017 plan by the 5 October drawing on the outcome of the authorities’ feasibility studies.â€?
The minister has confirmed that the government will not appeal the decision, and repeated comments made by the Prime Minister in the Commons chamber yesterday, suggesting that the Court had ‘dismissed two of the claims put forward against the government’ – a fact that is disputed by the claimants, ClientEarth.
Responding to a question from Labour’s shadow Defra minister, Holly Lynch, on whether government would contest the decision, and what support would be made available to councils, she said: “We are not intending to appeal because in essence the judgement turns on a narrow issue where the areas with short term exceedances will be mandated to take action. We are more than happy to say we will now issue legally binding directions that they need to take action on those and we will work with them.
“That is why we are asking them to come to London next week to go through the detail and talk through the kinds of resources they need in order to make sure that we have better air quality for the citizens we all represent.â€?
Up to £255 million in support has been made available to councils mandated to carry out feasibility studies within the July 2017 plan, alongside a £220 million Clean Air Fund announced by the Chancellor in November.
However, remains unclear whether additional funding will be released to support the councils now mandated under the Air Quality Plan.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was among the high profile figures to aim criticism at the government in light of yesterday’s High Court ruling, describing the previous drafts of the government’s plan as ‘mediocre’ and ‘not fit for purpose’.
He said: “It is no surprise that the government have been defeated again in the courts. The Government’s air quality plans are mediocre. They are not fit for purpose, the courts have rightly overruled their plans for the third time. Michael Gove must now urgently get a grip on this national public health crisis.
“The only way the government will be able to fulfil its legal and moral duty is by matching my ambition and adopting bold measures including a national scrappage fund, and giving me the powers I urgently need to tackle all forms of toxic pollution including from construction, buildings and the river.
“Ministers also need to stop discriminating against Londoners by giving us access to national air quality funding.â€?
Environmental health officers, represented by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) also welcomed the ruling, which it was claimed ‘highlights a growing anger at a refusal to properly address the situation.
CIEH Head of Policy, Tony Lewis, said: “The Government’s approach to the important issue of air quality in our country has been nothing short of exasperating. Their previous attempts to formulate plans to tackle this crisis have been half-baked and wholly inadequate.
“It is about time that they get a grip and start taking air quality seriously. We need to ask where we would be if Client Earth had not been able to bring this to court and hold the government’s feet to the fire.
“This ruling is very welcome and highlights the growing anger at a refusal to properly address the situation. Giving the courts greater oversight of plans for air quality is a necessary measure as the Government has so far proven that it cannot be left to its own devices on this.â€?