The Government’s air quality ‘plan’ isn’t a plan – it’s an abdication of responsibility

Green MEP Molly Scott Cato unpicks the government's clean air commitments.

The most positive thing you can say about the Government’s plan for cleaning up our air is that it’s a masterstroke of misdirection.

The prospect of a ban of new petrol and diesel cars, from 2040, was briefed to journalists ahead of the publication of the full proposals in the hope it would focus attention away from the plan being nothing more than a hasty rewrite of its feeble predecessor. It did.

Not only is the headline measure mentioned only once, in passing, in the entirety of the hefty air quality plan; it’s a cynical proposal that offers far too little action, far too late.

The plan itself notes that the proposal will be “unlikely to be able to provide an effective mechanism” to achieve legal air quality compliance “in the shortest time possible.”

Across the UK, 40,000 premature deaths are attributable to air pollution every year and 340,000 life years are lost. The public health emergency also costs the British taxpayer more than £20bn annually. We can’t afford to wait more than twenty years to take action.

Looking beyond the headlines, it’s clear that Michael Gove’s plan is nothing of the sort; it’s a plan to ask Local Authorities to come up with a plan – by late 2018. It’s an abdication of responsibility.

Not only is the Government offering pitifully little financial support to underfunded councils to achieve this aim it has also attached an absurd condition to its request; Council plans should avoid introducing charging Clean Air Zones (CAZs). The single most cost-effective, and fastest, measure for cleaning up the toxic air in our towns and cities.

Another notable gap in the plan, among many, is the lack of proposed action against those most directly responsible for the toxic air quality crisis: the cheating car companies.

The Dieselgate scandal implicated most major car manufacturers in a concerted, deliberate and criminal effort to commit emissions fraud.

The EU’s Dieselgate inquiry found that member states, including the UK, failed to discover the con because they were too in hock to the car lobby.

In America, where the con was initially picked up, Volkswagen, the most egregious cheat in a crowded field, has been forced to hand over more than $4.3bn in fines for its crimes. The UK has demanded of the manufacturer, nothing.

And, despite promising new laws to penalise any future cheats, the plan makes it clear Ministers’ are still committed to letting the ‘already have cheated’ car manufacturers off scot-free.

In addition to the gaping holes in the plan, there are also some insulting and downright dumb suggestions.

Take, for example, the assertion that electric trains are faster, more reliable, and better for the environment than their diesel counterparts. It is true, of course, but the admission comes just days after the Government cancelled its plans and stepped back from its plans to electrify Britain’s railways.

We’ve also got a suggestion that moving speed bumps and altering traffic lights will “improve congestion” juxtaposed with a promise to put hundreds of thousands of cars on the road with a hugely short-sighted road-building programme.

Every week Ministers fail to act, another 770 lives are cut needlessly short. We urgently need a green transport revolution and an infrastructure plan based not on newer, but on fewer cars.

Truly sustainable mobility means towns and cities that are easily navigable by foot and bike, a fully electric and publicly owned train system that covers the country, and public transport options that are a joy to use – not a chore.

But that’s not the analysis we’re seeing in the mainstream media because the proposed ban on petrol and diesel cars is misdirection at its best.

The real scandal of a hollow plan that commits only to waiting for others to come up with a plan has been largely overlooked – as journalists and commentators fall over themselves to debate the merits of a headline proposal that lacks ambition and urgency.

Molly Scott Cato is the Green MEP for the South West of England. She tweets here.

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