Environment Bill: Clean air rules to be amended after 7 years’ wait

The Environment Bill amends air quality provisions that go back to the 1950s but it does not contain the new target for fine particulates (PM2.5) that had been anticipated.

Provisions concerning the pollutant, linked to dementia and a welter of other health conditions, instead refer to a new target to be set through regulations. Although no date or specific value is mentioned, these would presumably be to meet the World Health Organization’s goal of 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030. But the deadline could be in 15 years or more.

Two independent reports published by DEFRA in the summer concluded that the goal would be tough but achievable by 2030. Former environment secretary Michael Gove backed adopting it in law in his swansong speech this summer.

The bill does not mention if the regulations would enact the objective as a limit value, akin to current rules governing nitrogen dioxide (NO2), or as a weaker target. The EU Ambient Air Quality Directive requires compliance with its 40µg/m3 limit, allowing ClientEarth to pursue the government through the courts to force the enactment of new policies. But it says that the target values for ozone should be met “where possible.”

Katie Nield, clean air lawyer for ClientEarth, said that the conspicuous absence of a limit value for PM2.5 was “worrying”, and risks the UK “going backwards” on air quality. However, it would also place English public authorities under a duty to consider the Clean Air Strategy “when exercising any function of a public nature that could affect the quality of air.” The group had lobbied for such a provision.

Such a strategy would also need to be prepared at least every five years.

Geraint Davies, Labour MP for Swansea and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Quality, has already promised to introduce “real legal limits that cut pollution levels quicker” through an amendment.

“If we are going to save lives then we should limit PM2.5 to 20 micrograms per cubic metre by 2020; 15 by 2025; and 10 by 2030. It would represent technology forcing standards and require large scale transformation of public transport and ultra-low emission vehicles,” he said.

Campaigner Simon Birkett, director of Clean Air in London, criticised the bill for not implementing a human right to clean air, the centrepiece of Davies’ own Clean Air (No 3) Bill. However, Green peer Baroness Jones came 14th of 66 in the Lords’ ballot for private members bills on Monday – her similar Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill will be introduced on Tuesday.

DEFRA admitted that the Clean Air Act, amended little since 1956 and widely considered obsolete, “needs an overhaul” back in 2012. But no amendment had been forthcoming until now.

The bill would allow local authorities in England to issue fixed penalty notices of up to £300 (amendable through regulations) for the emission of dark smoke within a smoke control area. If unpaid, this would be recoverable as a civil debt.

It would also outlaw the acquisition and delivery of any solid fuel for use in a smoke control area – though sales would only have to be accompanied by a warning about their lawful use to continue. It is not the direct ban on the sale of coal and wet wood that Gove promised in January, which would go some way to attaining the WHO target.

Further provisions would streamline the local air quality management (LAQM) regime, while also providing for a new power to control industrial emissions. Where an emitter is responsible, in whole or part, for a breach of an air quality standard, it would be obliged to propose actions to help remedy that breach. If these are insufficient or inappropriate, the secretary of state “may direct an air quality partner to make further proposals” states the law, but does it not state that ignoring such a direction would be considered an offence.

The bill strengthens powers to deal with any repeat of the Dieselgate debacle, as announced in June 2018. It would empower the government to order the recall of any vehicle or machine for where there are reasonable grounds to think it breaches a “relevant environmental standard”. The provision goes beyond emissions to air to embrace vibration, noise and heat too.

Both manufacturers and distributors could be obliged to publicise a recall, stop further products entering the market, take back a minimum proportion of them, and pay compensation to owners. The law also speaks of ordering compensation, destruction, modification and timely return to owners.

The “enforcement authority” – presumably the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency – would also be handed powers to enter premises, take documents and samples of products, where it has reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

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