Comment: How do we address air quality without choking off the economy?

25/08/2017
Highways Reporters

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, gives his analysis of the difficult issues surrounding the nation’s air quality.


How on earth should we tackle our air quality challenge without choking off our economy? That would be a tough enough challenge even without Brexit to add another layer of angst to the situation.



The Government’s latest, revised and expanded air quality strategy tries to tread this tightrope but to date the audience isn’t exactly applauding the 103-page document – accompanied by a 155-page technical report – that together are longer on words than detail.


And therein lies the rub for highways authorities caught up in the breach of EU air quality limits – how much of the remedy should be determined nationally and how much left to local discretion? The answer appears to be that everything is devolved, with councils drawing up ultra-focused plans down to individual street level. Only if these plans don’t add up will national government intervene to impose solutions.


Which makes for a pretty confusing picture for the average motorist. Save for mayor Sadiq Khan’s aggressive plans for London, you’d be hard pressed to find any maps showing where restrictions might apply, any detail of what the restrictions will be, and ongoing confusion about which specific vehicles will be caught.


There is much to be said for taking a ‘surgical’ approach to solving problems, as environment secretary Michael Gove said on the BBC’s Today programme but sometimes the patient would be better off with a single general anaesthetic rather than enduring sixteen different local injections. As transport professionals we might be completely comfortable distinguishing between the implications of an AQMA, an LEZ, a ULEZ and a CAZ. But surely we should be able to simplify things for the road user, in particular fleet operators who might routinely be navigating through multiple schemes?


If only we could sweep the problem away with one swift scrappage scheme. We’ve had scrappage before, after all. At least one of the auto companies is running a scheme currently with, depending on the dealership, up to £3,000 on the table.


Unfortunately that still leaves the buyer with around £10,000 to find, or more if they want a bigger car. Not really tenable for a low-income household running a several-year old diesel that they rely on to drop the kids at the childminder’s on the way to work.


There’s much talk of older, dirtier diesels, and it’s true, the older cars are a bit dirtier. The trouble is, all but the very latest cars aren’t that much cleaner when it comes to NOx. That’s the legacy of an emissions regime that led to some very specific engineering to meet laboratory test thresholds without due regard to what would then happen in real-world driving conditions.


There are diesel cars coming to market now with emissions performance good enough to shame their petrol counterparts, and the new real-world test regime is tantalisingly close. But 11 million-plus diesel cars amounts to quite a legacy to deal with.


That’s why we agree with the Government’s line that we should start with the heavier vehicles and those which do the most miles in the affected areas – trucks and buses. The good news here is that not only are cleaner models with us already but also retrofitting is a practical option, unlike for cars.


Which leaves us with our friend the van. With van traffic continuing to explode and vans making up much of daytime urban-traffic flow, we really do need a push to get cleaner models into circulation.


There’s no point berating our small businesses and tradesmen for driving dirty diesels if diesels are all that’s on offer to them. Perhaps that’s an area where government’s attention should focus, not least because many of those vans are trundling around on various forms of government business.


Don’t miss Steve Gooding’s column in Highways, now appearing every month.


The Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring Limited is a charity registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. Charity Number 1002705. Registered address: 89–91 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5HS

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