By leaving out the single best means of tackling air pollution, today's clean air strategy is a court-forced cop-out.
Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary – yes, we still can’t believe it either – will ban new diesel and petrol cars from 2040 (i.e. in 23 years’ time).
On top of that is money – £255m – for other measures, alongside letting councils pitch diesel scrappage schemes to the government now. And yet, and yet.
Behind the glitzy spin are some uncomfortable truths.
The first thing you have to remember is that the government had to be forced kicking and screaming to the table on this. They lost a court case brought by ClientEarth over illegal levels of air pollution in our cities. Not just deadly, but illegal under EU law.
So Ministers had to come up with something.
Yet even with this, they may still be in breach of the law. As the BBC’s Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin reports:
“Compulsory clean-air charging zones were identified by the government’s own experts as the best way to tackle pollution.
“…The decision not to include them in the policy leaves the government in breach of a court order to produce a comprehensive clean air strategy by the end of this month.”
We can go straight to the horse’s mouth on this. The government’s own technical report they show that Clean Air Zones will by far have the biggest impact on reducing pollution:
Listening to its own advice would be a game-changer for our health, our environment – and the Tories’ reputation on green issues.
Yet instead of mandating clean air zones in our polluted cities, the government are leaving it at the whim of local authorities. While localism is a good thing, this is not it.
It is a matter of public health and our environment. We can’t leave clean air to the whim of struggling local authorities.
Now, by all means, mandate them and let them choose how to implement them. But to effectively have on the cards zero expansion of Clean Air Zones – low emissions zones where high-polluting vehicles are charged to drive around city centres. That is an astonishing dereliction of responsibility.
As Oliver Hayes, Friends of the Earth’s air pollution campaigner, said:
“Ministers know as well as anyone that Clean Air Zones are essential to give us breathable air fast. Their reported omission from the plans is a scandalous response to a health crisis that leads to 40,000 premature deaths annually…
“Lives will continue to be cut short because the government hasn’t got the guts to restrict where the worst polluting vehicles can go.”
It’s that simple. Labour’s environmental campaign, SERA, noted that the rhetoric of being ‘world leading’ on this front, is laughable. Adam Dyster, National Organiser for the group, told Left Foot Forward:
“To claim that the 2040 target is leading the way on electric vehicles is just plain wrong, with countries like the Netherlands and India considering bans by 2030.”
Indeed, Norway is banning the sale of all petrol cars by 2025.
Far from being ‘world leading’, today’s announcement is a reluctant, court-forced cop-out.
Of course, the government may well end up back in court yet. If forced into another defeat, let’s hope this time they come back with proposals worth the gushing press releases.
Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.