Clearing the air

The Government sees Clean Air Zones as a key element in improving air quality and health, accelerating the transition to a low carbon economy and breaking the link between growth and pollution. But a recent High Court ruling sent the plans back to the drawing board.

Air pollution contributes to between 40,000 and 50,000 early deaths in the UK every year. The links between pollution and cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and lung cancer are well recognised but there is evidence that it also contributes to a much wider range of problems, including diabetes, neurological disease and low birth weights. In April, MPs warned that air pollution is nothing short of a "public health emergency".

The scale of air pollution, particularly in major cities, is striking. The UK has been in breach of European NO2 limits for five years. London's Oxford Street breached its hourly legal limit for nitrogen dioxide for the whole of 2016 in just eight days.

But the problem is by no means confined to the capital - 38 out of 43 areas in the UK are in breach of legal air pollution limits. Compliance was supposed to be achieved by 2015, but most English cities still need another five years. Five - Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Derby and Nottingham - will not comply until 2025 without additional measures. It will take London until 2030.

The Government published its plan to tackle NO2 in December 2015, setting out what it called "targeted local, regional and national measures to ensure that UK air will be cleaner than ever before". This included measures for all 38 zones in breach of pollution limits, along with plans to help the five cities comply by 2020 and London by 2025. 

With around 80 per cent of NO2 in areas exceeding the limits coming from road traffic, the Government proposed five Clean Air Zones to discourage the use of older, more polluting buses, taxis, coaches and lorries by charging them to access certain areas. Defra would set national vehicle emissions standards but individual councils would be responsible for the detail of each scheme, including its geographic reach.

From the start, Clean Air Zones proved controversial. Friends of the Earth said the zones should include charges for petrol and diesel cars, while many critics complained that the plans did not devolve enough power to councils. The Environment, Food & Rural Affairs select committee said the proposals would give councils "insufficient control over implementation" and warned that "'one size fits all' zones must not be imposed on cities from Southampton to Leeds".

"Clean Air Zones may have a role in some places but on their own they are not the answer to tackling air pollution," said Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA's environment spokesman. "Councils need a range of powers and devolved funding to allow them to further tackle poor air quality. This includes the ability to combat congestion hotspots - through enforcing moving traffic violations outside London, including illegal U-turns and box junction offences - and to promote alternative travel, such as cycling, walking and public transport."

The future of Clean Air Zones has now become more unclear after a recent High Court ruling.

In November, a legal challenge by NGO ClientEarth successfully argued that the Government had failed to take measures that would bring the UK into compliance with air pollution limits "as soon as possible" as required, and that ministers knew they had used over-optimistic pollution forecasts based on flawed lab tests rather than real-world emissions.

The compliance dates of 2020, and 2025 for London, were chosen because ministers thought that was when they would face fines from the European Commission, rather than because it was the soonest pollution could be brought under control, ClientEarth claimed.

Furthermore, it said Defra's plans for a much more extensive network of Clean Air Zones had been watered down because of Treasury concerns about costs and worries about the possible political impact of introducing charges for polluting vehicles.

Alan Andrews, an air quality lawyer for ClientEarth, said: "We need a national network of Clean Air Zones to be in place by 2018 in cities across the UK, not just in a handful of cities.

"The Government also needs to stop these inaccurate modelling forecasts. Future projections of compliance need to be based on what is really coming out of the exhausts of diesel cars when driving on the road, not just the results of discredited laboratory tests."

Following the ruling, Neil Parish MP, chair of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee, said he would be "demanding answers" from Whitehall.

"We published a report in April demanding that the Government publishes a comprehensive air quality strategy. The Government rejected our recommendation. Defra said that it had already set out a comprehensive plan for reducing nitrogen dioxide levels across the UK, but the High Court's latest ruling shows that its plans are inadequate," he said.

Defra said its plans had followed the "best available evidence" but it accepted the ruling. The Government will now issue an updated air quality strategy in 2017.

For now, though, exactly how the UK will tackle air pollution - and its dire consequences for health, wellbeing and the economy - remains up in the air.