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Exclusive: Highways England ‘sitting on money’ as just 7m of 75m toxic air fund spent

AirQualityNews has learnt that Highways England has spent just £7.7m of a £75m fund given to them by government to reduce illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from its roads, with less than a year to go until the fund closes.

In 2015 the public body was given £100m to improve air quality on its road network between 2015 and 2021, with £75m having to be spent before March 2020 on measures that cut air pollution.

Highways England manages 1865 miles of motorway and 2571 miles of major A roads in England, with previous monitoring showing over a third of its roads have illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.

It’s also estimated they carry four times as many vehicles per day per mile than local authority-managed roads, who have been put under increased financial pressure from central government to implement measures such as Clean Air Zones.

However, other than the £100m clean air fund, the government has issued no directives to Highways England or asked them to come up with any firm plan to tackle roadside emissions.

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth, who have won several legal cases against the government on air pollution, told AirQualityNews that Highways England is ‘sitting on money’ and their approach to tackling air pollution is ‘unacceptable, given what’s at stake.’

‘Money has been given to a public body which seems to have no idea how to spend it effectively,’ said their public affairs and campaigns officer, Maudie Spurrier.

‘Children are being made sick by the air they are breathing in our towns and cities. This is a public health crisis and a consumer scandal but the government is showing no urgency whatsoever in taking the action necessary to tackle it.’

A Highways England spokesperson said the £7.7m spent has been spent on measures including support for a new electric van demonstration centre in Leeds.

They also said they are ‘progressing the rollout’ of a national air quality barrier programme, which will provide barriers up to 9.5 metres high in a number of locations along their road network.

However, they were unable to give details on where the barriers will be placed and how much they will cost, with less than ten months until the fund’s deadline closes.

In November 2018, then Transport Minister Jesse Norman revealed during parliamentary questions that from April 2015 until November 2018 just £2.82m of the fund had been spent.

In December, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan even called on the Department for Transport to use some of the unspent money to fund London’s proposed diesel scrappage scheme.

Last week, ClientEarth wrote to the government saying that Highways England has ‘unlawfully’ ignored air pollution on its road network.

ClientEarth also said that the government’s latest directives towards local authorities, which includes the implementation of different classes of Clean Air Zones (CAZs), has ‘dumped the problem’ on local authorities, resulting in missed deadlines and a patchwork of measures.

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