The government’s air quality stance is out of line with devolution

In a comment piece in the latest issue of Local Government Chronicle, Urban Transport Group Director Jonathan Bray was left feeling underwhelmed by the Government’s draft plan on tackling NOin towns and cities – especially as it relates to the role devolved regional powers could bring to improving air quality.

On the basis of the consultation draft there’s a lot of work to do before urban transport authorities will know whether they will have the necessary clarity, commitment and funding from national government that they will need given the scale of the task on air quality.

This includes key areas like the future funding regime for the greening of freight vehicles, buses and coaches; the future national taxation regime for road vehicles; and the funding that national government will make available to affected areas.

There is also a lack of clarity around the baselines, target dates and areas covered, all of which are clearly key to any effective air quality strategy, as well as to what extent the impacts of different elements of the strategy have been modelled individually or in relation to each other.

These challenges are compounded by the mixed messages in the strategy where the need to meet specific legal air quality targets is set against vague and general references to the need not to impede economic growth, without any clear definition of what the latter might mean and how this might be weighted against specific legal duties.

The ambiguity of the criteria gives national government the scope to second guess, amend and veto a local air quality strategy

In short the government’s overall approach could be summarised as delegating responsibility for tackling the problem to local government while delaying key decisions on the national funding, taxation and policy framework which necessarily create the context for any effective local government air quality strategy.

This puts the two processes (local air quality strategies and national funding and fiscal policy) out of sync. It also means national government retains a de facto veto over local government air quality plans on the basis of criteria, the ambiguity of which gives national government the scope to second guess, amend and veto a local air quality strategy. This is out of line with government’s wider stated commitment to devolution on the basis that local areas are best placed to determine the most appropriate response to specific local public policy issues and challenges.

Overall there needs to be much more of an emphasis on government action and funding given that local authorities do not control all the necessary (and some of the most effective) tools. Compliance can only be achieved as quickly as possible if government uses its own powers, takes action and provides funding as part of a wider partnership and joint enterprise with the affected areas.

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