May 10th, 2017

Air cover: politics and the air quality plan

7 minute read

by Dominic Hogg


The Government finally published its long awaited revised air quality plan, albeit in draft form, last Friday. Many have expressed disappointment with its lack of ambition, but less has been written about the signs of some key last minute ‘tweaks’. The apparent aim of the late changes was to minimise the risk of a potential political backlash against the plan from angry diesel drivers – but their effect could well be to delay the effective action on air quality that is so urgently needed.

The plan is the third version the Government has produced, the first two having been found wanting as a result of legal challenges by Client Earth in 2015 and 2016. The High Court required the Government to publish a revised draft plan for consultation by 24th April 2017; but following the decision to hold an early general election, the Government went back to the court to seek a further delay, arguing that the plan should not be launched during the purdah period.

The High Court, however, demurred. In a judgement issued on 27th April, it decided that the plan should be published after the 4th May local and mayoral elections, but before 9th May, with a view to issuing the final policy by 31st July. Thus, on 5th May, the strategy was released, alongside a consultation document, a technical report (TR), and a range of other informational documents.


Heavy meddle

It seems safe to assume that the documents had already been prepared ready for publication in April. Given its potential to affect the drivers of the UK’s 10m diesel cars, the plan was always likely to attract significant attention. Inserting it into a general election campaign suddenly raised the political stakes quite considerably: it would not be surprising if an initial draft had been hastily revisited once the court had decided it could not be delayed.

Defra isn’t exactly the most powerful Ministry within the hierarchy of government. Last minute interventions by ‘higher beings’ have occurred before, and haven’t always been negative. The Defra waste strategy in 2000, for example, was changed just before publication because it demonstrated no ambition, and contained no targets, on recycling. Such last minute changes are difficult to conceal: it’s easy to alter a brief strategy document, but much harder to change any underpinning analysis so that the two are aligned.

In the case of the air quality plan, a key inconsistency stands out. The thrust of the TR is quite clear: accepting that changes in taxes and duties are a reserved matter for Treasury (something we really need to change where environmental taxes and charges are concerned), Clean Air Zones (CAZs) offer the best way of closing the gap between current concentrations of NOx, and those we need to achieve in future. CAZs also feature heavily in the draft strategy, but in a way that is radically inconsistent with the TR’s analysis.


Guilty as charged

In the TR, the bulk (possibly all – it’s not entirely clear) of ‘the heavy lifting’ in terms of NOx reduction comes through ‘charging CAZs’. These are CAZs whose effect is supported through the use of incentive-based charging to reduce the use of more polluting vehicles in the designated zones. The TR indicates how the charge is assumed to affect ownership and use of different vehicles.


Westminster Traffic

Can the Government square the circle on air pollution? Photo: PaulSh (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via Flickr.


There appear to have been some attempts to diminish the TR’s emphasis on these charging CAZs. One passage reads:

“Charging CAZs are just one of a number of tools local authorities could consider using in the development of their plans and charging is not a required element of CAZs. Charging would only be expected where equally effective alternatives are not identified. For this assessment of CAZs, it has been assumed that charging CAZs are implemented at the level required to bring the affected roads into compliance.”

The TR, though, has itself been through a process of long-listing, and then short-listing options, and the charging CAZ comes out best. Nothing in it indicates that any alternative to charging CAZs would achieve the required NOx reductions. Of course, there might still be “equally effective alternatives” but the report itself fails to identify any, despite clearly trying to do so.


Air brained

In short, the main reason the CAZs score well in the TR appears to be related to the assumption that charging will be used, and no alternative measure considered performs anything like so well. Why, then, is the consultation document so lukewarm on charging CAZs, and why – having made clear that charging CAZs are fundamental to achieving the Plan’s objectives – does it put such barriers in the way of councils introducing them?

“25. Clean Air Zone proposals are not required to include a charging zone. The Government believes that charging zones should only be used where local authorities fail to identify equally effective alternatives. If local authorities do conclude that charging is the only way to achieve compliance in the shortest possible time, they will be required to set out the detail of where and when charges would apply, and the vehicle types to which they would apply. They will also be required to engage with local people and fully assess the impact of such an approach and how it could be mitigated. In all cases, charging zones would apply only to older, higher-polluting models of the vehicle types, so as to have a targeted impact on pollution. Any revenues collected by local authorities will be reinvested to support local transport policies, which could cover public health projects or better town and city planning, promoting cleaner air.

The plan’s proposal that, before a local authority can introduce a charging CAZ it must first try to “identify measures other than charging zones that are at least as effective at reducing NO2” and that such alternatives should be preferred is absurd. The Technical Report is clear that charging is the only effective measure, and will, at some level, be required.

The reason for barring the path to charging CAZs is apparent in the language of the document:

“We must deliver our legal obligations on air quality as quickly as possible. We are clear, however, that this must not be done in a way that unfairly penalises ordinary working families who bought diesel vehicles in good faith as a direct result of tax changes made by previous governments that focused on fuel economy and CO2 emissions.”

This is the sort of language normally reserved for manifestos and electioneering, not for plans designed to achieve compliance with legislation. (You will not have to listen long to Theresa May over the coming days to hear how strongly she feels about ‘ordinary working families’).


Dirty politics

It seems clear that the consultation package was altered to minimise the politically unpalatable consequences of discussing, in the midst of a general election campaign, charging users of more polluting vehicles entering CAZs. It might seem sensible, on the face of it, to call charging ‘a last resort’, but not when the TR tells us that charging is actually part and parcel of the first choice instrument. This can hardly come as a surprise: the shift from petrol to diesel vehicles was motivated by vehicle duty differentials, so it would be strange if economic incentives were deemed to have no role to play in reversing the situation. Indeed, for policy makers to treat economic instruments as the option of last resort flies in the face of just about every principle of sound policy making we have.

It would be a cruel irony indeed if Client Earth’s latest legal victory had resulted in a weakened air quality plan, which sacrifices effective action for the sake of keeping up appearances during an election campaign. Of course, once the election is over and the consultation completed, Defra’s final plan might revert back to something more like the probable original draft. Certainly, the likely tenor of the consultation responses will offer no shortage of prompts to do so. Failing that, there remains the prospect of further litigation to try to seek improvements.

It seems logical that any credible air quality strategy must involve polluters paying. This should not just include vehicles. Financial incentives – including taxes, which, as usual, are pushed aside as a reserved matter for Treasury – should be given the billing they deserve to ensure that ‘ordinary working people’ don’t continue to have their lives blighted by air pollution.


Dominic Hogg



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