Partial reprieve for air quality in cull of local authority plans

"Excellent" local authorities will no longer be required to produce plans on air quality, local transport or home energy conservation under proposals issued by the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister.1 However, the Environment Department has staved off proposals to force other councils to merge air quality action plans into local transport plans.

For some time, the ODPM has been developing proposals for a cull of plans which English local authorities are required to produce.

In July, it confirmed that councils classed as "excellent" by the Audit Commission will be required to produce just two plans - a community strategy and a Best Value performance plan. Other local authorities would be required to greatly reduce the number of plans (ENDS Report 343, p 43 ).

The ODPM has now issued a draft Order under the Local Government Act 2000 which, for excellent authorities, would override existing legislation requiring them to prepare plans. Despite the potentially sweeping nature of the changes, it considers that a full regulatory impact assessment is not required.

Environmental plans affected are:

  • Air quality action plans: Excellent councils will be freed from the duty, set by the Environment Act 1995, to prepare air quality action plans. The Secretary of State's power to direct an authority to produce a plan would also be removed. However, councils would remain under a duty to exercise their powers "in pursuit of the achievement of air quality standards and objectives in the designated area", including reviewing and assessing pollution levels.

  • Local transport plans: The draft Order would remove the duty under the Transport Act 2000 to prepare plans to improve the co-ordination of transport provision and future investment.

  • Home energy conservation: Excellent authorities will no longer need to submit reports to the Secretary of State which are required under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995.

    The practical implications will depend on how many authorities are classed as excellent. The Audit Commission put 22 of the 150 upper tier authorities in this class in 2002, and is now working its way through the district authorities.

    The decision to scrap formal air quality plans is particularly controversial - and DEFRA has made clear its opposition to the move (ENDS Report 340, p 55 ). More than 120 councils have declared air quality management areas, and 49 have already produced action plans. It is not clear how many of these will fall into the "excellent" category.

    The first concern is that excellent authorities may still have pollution problems - and policies on air quality are not among the criteria used in the Audit Commission's assessment.

    Secondly, the UK is required to report annually to the European Commission on progress towards EU air quality standards (see previous article ) - and the submission of action plans to the Secretary of State had been seen as a key part of this reporting process.

    However, DEFRA is understood to have persuaded the ODPM to drop its proposal that non-excellent authorities should subsume air quality plans into local transport plans. Instead, future guidance is likely to promote closer integration of the two plans in areas dominated by traffic pollution - but to retain a strong focus on meeting air quality objectives.

    The situation in the devolved administrations remains unclear. The Welsh Assembly is understood to be considering some rationalisation of local authority planning obligations. The Scottish Executive appears to regard the removal of air quality action plans as a retrograde step.

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