After almost five years and with just months to go until it closes, Highways England has spent only £12.8m of a £75m fund handed to them by government to reduce air pollution on its road network, Air Quality News can reveal.
We submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the public body, who manages 1865 miles of motorway and 2571 miles of major A roads in England, asking how much of the fund they had spent up until September 30, 2019.
In 2015 they were given £100m by central government to improve air quality between 2015 and 2021, with a direction that £75m must be spent before March 2020.
Air pollution is only monitored on a small number of Highways England roads but the most recent available data has suggested that over a third of Highways England roads have illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
It’s also estimated their roads carry four times as many vehicles per day per mile than council-managed roads, who have been put under increased pressure from central government to implement measures such as Clean Air Zones (CAZs).
However, unlike local authorities, Highways England has received no legal directives from government to reduce air pollution.
The £75m given to the public body is more than the combined £68m that Leeds and Birmingham city councils received from government to implement their respective CAZs and pay for their scrappage schemes.
According to the environmental lawyers ClientEarth, the government had promised to produce a plan of action for Highways England by the end of October.
Highways England said the £12.8m has been spent on research into potential air quality interventions, including better monitoring, as well studies into how they can better understand where poor quality has the largest impact.
They said this research has led to a ‘pipeline of activities’ regarding air quality.
They added that a reason why so much of the fund has not been spent is that many of the measures considered as part of their research would not ‘make any difference to the quality of the air.’
Highways England declined to comment when asked by Air Quality News what these measures were.
In 2018, Highways England 2020-2025 budget for new roads and improvements was increased by 40% to £25.3bn, which was confirmed by current Chancellor Sajid Javid at the Conservative Party conference in September.
ClientEarth clean air lawyer Katie Nield accused Highways England of not taking air pollution seriously.
She said: ‘It is deeply concerning to see more evidence that Highways England is yet to take this issue seriously, given the urgency required by law. It cannot be right to leave the health of those who live, work and travel on or alongside our major roads to suffer as a result of this continued failure to act.’
Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates called on the government to replace Highways England with a new, greener transport body.
‘With people up and down the country suffering the effects of the current air pollution health crisis it’s astonishing that Highway’s England has spent so little of its clean air fund,’ she said.
‘Meanwhile, billions of pounds are being earmarked for new road-building that will create more traffic, more climate-wrecking emissions and even more air pollution.
‘It’s time to replace Highway’s England with a new organisation fit for the challenges of the 21st century, with a mission to deliver high-quality, low-carbon and clean transport infrastructure and services for us all.’