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01/06/2017

Government plans for reducing NO2 show how little it has learnt

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Government plans for reducing  NOx shows how little it has learnt: Shutterstock

The government's consultaiton on air quality merely highlights the persistently inadequate resonses of policymakers to the challenges of congestion, pollution and their impact on public health, says Daniel Scharf

The government has reluctantly published the consultaiton Improving air quality: national plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities, with responses required by 15 June. It is claimed that this plan is no better than the original that the courts rejected, and would not adequately deal with a problem that causes deaths of UK citizens at an annual rate equivalent to the Battle of the Somme. There is also a special legal duty of care to children whose lungs and brains are being irreversibly harmed.

The government continues to propose the wrong answers to the wrong questions. The harm being caused by diesel and petrol engines (and dust from brakes, roads and tyres) as well as the noise and harm to life and limb, will not be removed by the bid by the Conservative government to place the responsibility on local authorities to reduce NO2 in a few isolated locations and roads through designating clean air zones (marginally less dirty zones).

This challenge is an opportunity to move quickly to a clean, safe, reliable, affordable and fair transport system. Lower maximum speeds in urban areas and on the strategic road network, (the technical report behind the proposals says that 50mph is the optimum speed) would trigger a virtuous circle creating these new conditions.

"Government continues to propose the wrong answers to the wrong questions"

The alternative (as per the plan) would be to continue with a dirty, dangerous, unreliable, expensive and inequitable transport system that becomes an increasing burden on people, business and the environment. The government needs to learn the lesson of the past 45 years during which NGOs have predicted and prevented environmental disasters, and understand that looking after its people involves taking responsibility for the protection of the environment.

Casualties on a wartime scale fully justify a proportionate response in terms of the industrial capacity (repowering of transport and clean power generation) and acceptance of the associated behaviour changes.

The move to a road transport system based on low emission and autonomous vehicles will engage planners in ensuring that the potential benefits are realised and the harm, especially to disadvantaged groups, is minimised. Obvious implications would be less need for road space parking and for residential and commercial developers to be obliged to provide electric vehicles and charging points. Other changes could be associated with maintaining access to facilities and jobs through a transition during which the speed and distance in the movement of people and goods is falling.

Improving air quality: national plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities can be read here.

Daniel Scharf is a planning adviser at Blake Morgan LLP

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