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Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 22 February 2018

Clean air is one of the most basic requirements of a healthy environment for us all to live, work, and bring up families. Air pollution has improved significantly since 2010 but we recognise that there is more to do, particularly to improve pollution hotspots in our towns and cities.

Present problems with air quality in the UK are the direct result of the EU’s failed emissions testing regime, the actions of certain irresponsible car manufacturers, and the rapid increase in the number of diesel cars on the road since 2001. Twenty-one other EU member states are also breaching legal air quality limits.

In July 2017 we published the UK plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide concentrations, and said that we will end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. We are investing £3.5 billion to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions.

Yesterday the High Court handed down judgment on the judicial review of the 2017 plan.

The judge dismissed two of the three complaints considered during the case in relation to England. Specifically he found that there is no error in the Government’s approach to tackling NO2 concentration exceedances in areas with some of the worst air quality problems, and that the national air quality modelling and monitoring that underpin the plan are compliant with our legal requirements.

In relation to five cities identified in 2015 as having particularly marked air quality challenges, Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby, Southampton and Leeds, the judge found that the Government’s approach to tackling their exceedances was “sensible, rational and lawful”.

We welcome the fact that the Court has dismissed the complaint relating to these areas with major air quality problems and has found that we are taking appropriate action. We are also pleased that the Court agrees that our evidence in support of the 2017 plan is sound.

In relation to local authority areas which are expected to achieve compliance between 2018 and 2021, Ministers have already offered significant support, and as recognised in the judgment have “urged and encouraged” them to come up with proposals to improve air quality. However, the Court found that the Government should have legally required the local authorities to take such steps, but acknowledged that further action will not be required in 12 areas where compliance will be achieved this year.

We had previously considered that it was sufficient to take a pragmatic, less formal approach to such areas. However, in view of the Court’s judgment, we are prepared to take a more formal line with the other 33 local authorities.

We have already been corresponding with the relevant local authorities to offer them support in identifying measures to improve local air quality. These authorities had already been asked to provide initial information by 28 February on the action they are taking. They have now been asked to attend a meeting on 28 February to discuss their plans, and whether there are any additional actions they can take to accelerate achieving compliance with legal limits for N02 concentrations. We also now intend in March to issue legally binding directions requiring these areas to undertake studies to identify any such measures.

As required by the Court order, we will publish a supplement to the 2017 plan by 5 October, drawing on the findings from local authorities’ feasibility studies.

The Welsh Government were also a defendant in the judicial review. Air quality is a devolved policy area in the UK; each devolved Administration has responsibility for meeting its own obligations under the ambient air quality directive.

The Welsh Ministers indicated that they recognise that the Welsh element of the air quality plan does not satisfy legal requirements. They have undertaken to publish a supplemental plan, following consultation, by 31 July 2018.

As we set out in the 2017 plan, this Government are committed to improving air quality, and we have pledged to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it. Later this year we will be publishing a comprehensive clean air strategy which will set out further steps to tackle air pollution.