The smog of cynicism?

James Murray
The smog of cynicism?

Andrea Leadsom yesterday insisted the government regards action on air pollution as a priority, but that is hard to tally with yet another delay to its flagship air quality plan

To the House of Commons (well, BBC Parliament channel), for the occasion of an Urgent Question on the government's on-going failure to tackle the UK's toxic air.

Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom is keen as mustard to launch her Air Quality Plan, you understand. It is one of the toppermost of her top priorities, and anyone who suggests if it was a real priority she would not have left it until hours before the deadline to explain said plan could not, in fact, be released is just being mean, if not a little delusional.

The plan is ready, and it is a spiffing plan, as refreshing as the UK's air will be when it finally comes into effect, which will be very soon. Leadsom would just love to tell MPs and the public all about the shiny new plan and would no doubt be delighted to publicise its heavily trailed proposals to charge drivers of the most polluting cars from entering city centres just as the election campaign swings into action. But she can't, you see, because to do so would tarnish the sanctity of democracy, and no one wants that, do they? The government simply can't be allowed to exploit any unfair advantage over Jeremy Corbyn that would result from it doing what it is legally mandated to do.

As Leadsom explains, the government would happily tell everyone about the plan, but for the Propriety and Ethics Team in the Cabinet Office, which has apparently decided publishing a consultation on the court-ordered plan before yesterday's 4pm deadline would have breached purdah rules and would have somehow compromised election guidelines.

The plan is ready, you understand, and would have been published, but for Leadsom's erstwhile leadership rival's entirely justified decision to break her word and call a snap election she had categorically ruled out on the spurious and mildly autocratic grounds that she requires unity in Westminster. Clarity on whether or not the plan was ready before Theresa May called the election comes there none. Discussion on whether it is appropriate to take five months to develop a plan that is designed to save lives when the previous plan had been so lacking it had been deemed illegal never really gets started. 

Of course, some bleeding hearts on the opposition benches are rather concerned that delaying the life-saving plan will mean more people will, y'know, die. But that definitely won't happen, because the delay in consultation is not a delay in implementation apparently, and besides this is all Labour's fault, because they promoted diesel cars back when they were in power - a decade ago. And if it is not Labour's fault, it is the EU's fault for failing to adequately test the level of pollution from diesel cars in the first place - a problem that was only fixed when the UK jolly well got involved and sorted out those Brussels testing procedures. The Eurocrats will miss us when we've gone, that's for certain.

There is a flurry of excitement when someone points out that purdah rules include specific exemptions for issues of public health. But Leadsom quickly dampens down such ridiculous talk by explaining, in the manner of a primary school teacher speaking to a particularly slow-witted child who perhaps has spent too long sucking on exhaust fumes, that exemptions are intended for surprise health emergencies like breaches of food safety standards. If you get poisoned by a turkey twizzler the government will consult on action during purdah apparently; if you get poisoned by the air you breathe, then please wait quietly over there until the campaign is finished - and try not to cough while you do so.

And that's your lot. Nothing to see here. Please move along and let the government get on with the serious business of governing while still protecting the sanctity of democracy.

Of course, while the Kremlinology surrounding the latest delay to this crucial plan is intriguing for green business execs the bigger question surrounds the eventual content and effective implementation of the government's long-awaited new strategy.

We have to take at face value Leadsom's assertions that the delay is the result of electoral propriety, not least because to speculate about alternative motivations would nudge you towards the conclusion the government is capable of some real off the charts cynicism, a Champions League-level master class in not giving a damn, a display of glaring incompetence and arrogant indifference that would be almost as toxic to the body politic as the actual air in SW1 is to your lungs.

Of course, I would love to know precisely when the draft air quality plan was completed and exactly when it became apparent the purdah deadline would not be met. I'd similarly love to know how the privatisation of the Green Investment Bank and the announcement of new funding for a raft of clean tech projects could come in under the wire, but an Air Quality Plan that the Sunday Times was told was virtually complete at the start of the month could not be rushed out before the civil service went into electoral hibernation. I'd love to know why the government didn't make it clear earlier that it had previously applied for an extension due to local government elections, and why purdah for those elections did not apply more widely to the many announcements the government has made in recent days. I'd love to know the precise interpretation of what constitutes a health issue under purdah rules. And I'd really love to know if Theresa May decision to take a break from her most recent Gulf State guns and ammo promotional tour to let it be known the new plan would take account of the concerns of diesel drivers prompted a late reappraisal of the plan.

But what difference would it make? It is impossible at this stage to be 100 per cent certain whether the government is trying to "bully" judges, as Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh surmises, or is simply trying to uphold the fairness of our electoral process. These are questions for the Court and it will be fascinating to see whether it decides to grant the government its requested deadline extension, although it is also worth noting the BBC has reported that any appeal of the eventual decision by either side would likely push the release of the report beyond polling day regardless.

The bigger long term question is how will the government deliver a plan that meets the UK's legal obligations, tackles the scandalous death toll from air pollution, and addresses the concerns of motorists that May has promised to take into account?

The scale of the air pollution crisis cannot be stated often enough. It is estimated to cause 40,000 deaths a year, but that is only the tragic tip of the iceberg. Beneath that headline figure there are hundreds of thousands of lives ruined or restricted by ill-health, communities tarnished, and billions of pounds worth of lost working days. There are the particulates that find their ways into lungs and blood streams and brains. There is the nagging awareness that a still, sunny day will bring with it air that tastes of kerosene and carcinogens.  

The reality is that for all Leadsom's electorally imposed reticence everyone knows what needs to be done to deliver a credible plan that can tackle this crisis.

The UK requires a long term strategy to shift its road transport fleet to ultra-low emission technologies, vastly improve its public transport infrastructure, and tackle other sources of pollutants. At the same time it requires a short term plan to reduce levels of pollution estimated to be killing 40,000 people prematurely each year. To make such a plan credible it will almost certainly have to limit the use of older diesel vehicles in city centres (or come up with a plan literally no one has thought of). The best and simplest way to limit the use of such vehicles is through a combination of incentives and 'polluter pays' levies.

None of this is particularly difficult. In less than a year London Mayor Sadiq Khan has come up with a bold plan to tackle the capital's air pollution, complete with a toxicity-charge or T-Charge for the most polluting vehicles and significant investment in green buses, and has started to put it into action. All that is required is a bit of political nerve and a desire to do the right thing.

In fairness to the government, it has the foundations of the long term component of the new air quality plan in place. As Leadsom was at pains to point out yesterday, millions of pounds of funding has been made available for electric vehicles, investment is flowing in to greener bus fleets, and rail networks are, for all their flaws, being expanded. This investment is being aided by a global trend towards low emission vehicles and electrification, as evidenced only yesterday by Ford's latest trial of plug-in vans and the announcement Source London will soon have 1,000, renewable-powered, EV charge points on the capital's streets.

The only difficult part is the politics of restricting the use of older diesel vehicles. As the recent Sunday Times report suggested, T-charges for cities across the UK were set to feature in the plan and remain the most effective way of restricting air pollution in urban centres. The problem, as Theresa May identified, is that this would penalise those who had bought diesel cars a few years ago in good faith and with no awareness of pollution concerns.

However, there are options for overcoming this challenge. The government could take its previously oft-favoured 'life is sometimes hard, deal with it' approach; after all it worked for people on housing benefit who were hit by a bedroom tax or families on higher incomes who suddenly found their child benefit had disappeared. Or the government could introduce either a nationwide or a carefully targeted scrappage scheme, offering motorists and businesses money to switch to cleaner models. Such an approach would have the dual benefit of removing the dirtiest cars from the road and stimulating the market for greener cars.

The issue is how to fund such a scheme, but again there are options. The Treasury could tweak road tax on diesel vehicles to pay for the scheme, or it could extend the polluter pays principle still further and finally let fuel duty rise slightly, or it could roll back some of the tax breaks handed to the oil industry, or it could level higher fines on any auto firms found to be gaming emissions tests for diesel vehicles.

All of this is entirely feasible, as another politician with high approval ratings and a combative approach has shown in the form of Mayor Sadiq Khan. If you have such complete dominance of the political scene as May currently enjoys, why not employ it to do the right thing?

Regardless of precisely when the air quality plan was completed and the arcane detail of electoral guidelines, the failure to get this draft plan into the public domain before Friday's purdah deadline is a further damning indictment of the government's approach to this crisis. It is also a massive slap in the face for the people, children, and communities living with illegal levels of air pollution. And it is a business issue. The chance to minimise lost working days and stimulate investment in the inevitable transition to cost-effective clean transport technologies has once again been deferred.

Leadsom's performance in the Commons yesterday did not tell us much. But it did tell us that, regardless of the election, this government had five months to deliver a plan to protect British citizens from a severe health risk and waited until the last possible moment to do so. Does that really constitute treating an issue as a priority?

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