The Government’s revised air quality plan requires councils to draw up initial proposals to tackle toxic air pollution within eight months.
The most polluting cities outside London will also be expected to implement Clean Air Zones (CAZs) to charge drivers of the most polluting vehicles by the end of 2019 but only if other methods, including changing road layouts and traffic light phasing to prevent congestion, will not be enough.
A new £255m fund will help pay for implementation, with £40m to be ‘made available immediately’ to help councils.
The Government also pledged to establish a Clean Air Fund, which will allow local authorities to bid for additional money to support the implementation of measures to improve air quality.
‘This could include interventions such as improvements to local bus fleets, support for concessionary travel and more sustainable modes of transport such as cycling, or infrastructure changes,’ Government documents state.
However the fund was criticised by Simon Neilson, president of council directors’ body ADEPT, who said it ‘will be a competitive process, pitching councils against each other while again spending more time and scarce resource preparing uncertain bids’.
He added: ‘We agree that local authorities are often best placed to take local action, as they know their areas, but it would be more helpful to have a set of nationally agreed options to support councils with technical expertise, time and resource.
‘Charging is one of the most effective and speediest measure open to local authorities but we think the Government should have shown strong, national commitment to implementation, rather than leaving it to local authorities to introduce such politically unpalatable measures.’
Cllr Jack Scott, Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for transport and sustainability, went further and accused the Government of failing in its duty to protect its citizens from harm and ‘unfairly passing the buck on to local councils’.
He said: ‘I’m highly sceptical that the Government’s announcement today even meets their legal duties on air quality, and their response has been woefully inadequate.’
Ministers have identified those local authorities with roads believed to have NO2 levels above legal limits. Documents identify 29 authorities with ‘the greatest problem with exceedances projecting beyond the next 3-4 years’, which will be required to take further action.
The plan states: ‘The UK government continues to expect local authorities in the five cities named above [a reference to Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton] to deliver their Clean Air Zones by the end of 2019’.
A Defra spokesperson told Highways that the Government still intends to mandate the five cities, and possibly other authorities, to implement CAZs.
Although the Government has referred to a ‘£3bn programme to clean up dirty air around our roads’, it appears that the only new money is the ‘£255m Implementation Fund’. No figure is given for the value of the Clean Air Fund.