Chief medical officer clears the air on road charging and pollution


The chief medical officer for England has called on the Department for Transport (DfT) to agree with local authorities national standards for road charging if it were introduced, as part of her criticisms of the Government’s approach to tackling the issue of toxic air pollution.

The intervention comes shortly after the Government lost a third legal battle over the legality of its plans to tackle pollution, which has been linked to the deaths of 40,000 deaths a year in the UK.

Under an EU directive, the UK would face heavy fines running to hundreds of millions if it fails to bring air quality back within legally prescribed limits as soon as is practicable.

On average around 80% of NOx emissions in areas where the UK is exceeding NO2 limits are due to transport.

In her annual report, Professor Dame Sally Davies joined the choir of voices criticising the Government for putting all the responsibility on local authorities to address the issue.

She said: ‘The Government’s NOx plan is a good overall document but as it is aimed at local authority level, it may a) be implemented inconsistently, b) contribute to inequality, and c) contribute to complexity of local regulation for drivers. I recommend that future UK government national standards for air pollutants, developed within the next five years, should be increasingly stringent and driven by an ambition to protect human health.’

On the issue of road charging, which could present one way of restricting traffic, she said: ‘I recommend that Department for Transport should agree with local authorities standardised mechanisms and protocols for surveillance and road charging (if introduced), such that a) health data and local authority data may be better integrated; and b) vehicle drivers experience a simple system with consistency across England.’

In its joint submission to the Government’s consultation on its latest failed air quality strategy, the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Local Government Technical Advisers Group (TAG) said the strategy continued ‘to fall short with disjointed interventions and the lack of clear policy’.

It added that ‘recent government initiatives and approaches are making it more difficult to improve air quality’.

TAG spokesman John Elliott said: ‘We don’t want to just get away with not paying a fine. This is a serious health issue and even if the levels of toxic NO2 are within the legal limits they are still dangerous levels.

‘It is unfair to place all the blame and fines on councils for this situation, especially as traffic on government’s strategic road network [managed by Highways England] creates these toxic emissions, particularly where extra traffic hits urban areas, which also creates urban congestion.’

Central government is responsible for the traffic on 2.3% of the road network but this accounts for more than 30% of the vehicle based pollution, the LGA said.

Mr Elliott said the pollution level on the SRN could actually be as high as 40% of NO2 due to haulage and diesel vehicles on the network and added that the Government was carrying out a major investment into adding extra capacity to the SRN

‘This policy is something that should be done for the country as a whole; It is for national government to do the strategy but they must listen as well as well as dictate. My concern is that joint working between technical officers and politicians is something that is being lost as a whole.’

A Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson said: ‘We have received the report and are considering its recommendations. We will respond in due course.’

The DfT also aims to continue to press for a comprehensive approach at an EU level on emissions testing and suggested that EU policy on road transport’s contribution to air quality and climate change needs to be more joined up.










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