Today's air quality plan could provide a welcome boost to low emission technologies, or it could prove a cynical exercise in political positioning
Before we look at the somewhat dispiriting detail of the long-awaited draft air quality plan, it is worth setting the record straight on a few issues.
This plan was forced out of the government through a court order and was then prised out of its clutches into the light of day through another court order. To argue, as a Conservative Party source did this week, that this is a case of a Tory government "cleaning up Labour's mess" is as laughable as it insulting to the public's intelligence.
I hold no torch for the Labour Party in its current self-indulging, self-parodying, self-imploding guise, and it is true the last Labour government made an error in incentivising the take up of diesel vehicles. But it is also true that the last Labour government was elected a dozen years ago. And it is equally true senior Labour figures have acknowledged their mistake. Just as it is also true Labour ministers were told by manufacturers that concerns over air quality could and would be addressed.
It was not Labour apparatchiks who installed defeat devices in diesel vehicles to ensure emissions of pollutants were understated. And it was not Labour ministers who secured a scandalously paltry level of compensation from car companies that broke the law.
More important still, since 2010 the office of Environment Secretary has been held by Caroline Spelman, Owen Paterson, Liz Truss, and Andrea Leadsom; the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer has been held by George Osborne and Philip Hammond; the office of Transport Secretary has been held by Philip Hammond, Justine Greening, Patrick McLoughlin, and Chris Grayling. You will notice these names have a political party in common. Hint: it's not Labour.
It is these cabinet ministers who over the past seven years, as the evidence of air pollution's health impact has mounted, have overseen progress on air quality so slow it would embarrass an asthmatic sloth with a gammy leg. It was this Conservative government that over Christmas 2015 sneaked out an air quality plan so weak ClientEarth managed to get it ruled illegal without even breaking a sweat. It is this government that disgracefully tried to use purdah rules to delay the release of today's plans, arguing it was vital to 'preserve democracy', only for the details of the plan to be leaked on the eve of the local elections. And it is this government that has just released a new draft plan, which on the face of it could easily end up proving almost as weak as its woefully inadequate first attempt.
Cleaning up Labour's mess? That argument might have worked if the original plan had been genuinely ambitious and had been delivered with much funfare and funding in 2012 or even 2014.
The only mess the government is now trying to clear up belongs to Spelman, Paterson, Truss, and Leadsom - and Ministers have only now broken out the brooms because they have been ordered to do so. Labour deserves scant credit in this sorry saga, but let's not pretend the Conservatives are suddenly the champions of smog-free cities. In fact, if Department for Transport sources are to be believed it looks as if Number 10 continues to prioritise the narrow financial interests of diesel drivers over the health of childrens' lungs and the long term competitiveness of an auto industry that is gradually starting to realise that the future is one of zero emission transport.
So, what of the plan itself?
First, the unalloyed good news: there is plenty in this plan for green businesses and air quality campaigners to celebrate. There is significant and on-going funding for electric vehicles (EVs), recharging infrastructure, hydrogen technologies; there is the promise of an update to government procurement policy, which should open up a major new market for low emission vehicles; and there are plans for tighter vehicle emissions reporting rules and better information for the buying public. None of this is to be sniffed at and it will all serve to accelerate a transition towards cleaner transport technologies that is already gathering pace (as evidenced by this week's global EV sales news).
Second, the highly conditional good news: crucially, while the draft plan in its current guise is insufficiently ambitious it leaves the door open for a genuinely bold package of policies that could transform the green car market and bring the UK into line with air quality rules in a relatively short space of time.
The three main differences with the original plan are that the government is a) mandating local authority with the worst air quality challenges to propose and introduce a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) in line with certain criteria, compared to limiting the zones to five sites in the first plan; promising to explore the "appropriate tax treatment" for diesel vehicles within a year; and promising to consider proposals for a targeted scrappage scheme.
If this triumvirate of measures is actually delivered then the foundations of a genuinely ambitious plan will result. Much will be made of the manner in which the government is sending mixed messages to local authorities, telling them to deliver the promised CAZ and air quality improvements as quickly as possible while also instructing them to bend over backwards looking for alternatives to imposing charges on diesel vehicles entering the zones. But this is simply political positioning at its cynical worse. The detail contained in the documents confirms Charging CAZs are far and away the most effective way of improving air quality and with legal pressure unlikely to dissipate it seems inevitable many cities will have to introduce such measures in pretty short order.
Similarly, the modelling indicates the government is at least considering a scrappage scheme that would be closely targeted on those drivers and fleets willing to make the full switch from diesels to the cleanest ultra-low emission alternatives. The prospect of a further major boost to the EV and fuel cell vehicle market is hidden in the fine print, and could be further boosted if the Treasury has the nerve to tweak road tax further in support of the green vehicle transition.
So where's the bad news? It is to be found in the way the cynicism that defined the government's attempt to delay the release of the plan until after the election has seeped into the proposals themselves.
Today's Times report suggesting that Department for Transport officials are "pulling their hair out" in frustration at the watering down of this plan is all too easy to believe. The consultation documents have all the hallmarks of a once ambitious plan where all the modelling and impact assessments point to what is required, only for the necessary measures to hacked back on political grounds.
Ministers have had years to get this right and five months to deliver a draft plan that was unequivocally bolder than their last attempt. Instead all the key changes which are required to bring the UK into line with legally binding air quality standards are again caveated or deferred. Local authorities will once more have to go through the process of proving that charging zones are needed, when all the evidence suggests that in the worst areas they are essential. We will have to wait another 12 months for the Treasury to even consider correcting perverse tax incentives for diesel vehicles. And the commitment to a scrappage scheme contained in the consultation is so lacking detail that it looks like an after thought (which, if you believe previous media reports, it clearly was).
It is hard to disagree with the assessment of Matthew Farrow of the Environmental Industries Commission, who argues air pollution is the kind of complex policy challenge "where political leadership is most needed, and today's draft plan shows little". "Despite the Defra analysis showing that only a significant and rapid drop in use of existing diesel vehicles in urban areas is likely to make a meaningful difference to NOx levels, the plan does nothing to build support for the hard decisions that follow from this: charging polluting vehicles, delivering a scrappage scheme, aligning vehicle tax with NOx and PM emissions and providing support for additional retrofitting, low emission fuel use and the transition to Ultra Low Emission vehicles," he adds.
Farrow is right, there is nothing particularly urgent about this plan. Instead it looks set to simply trigger another round of consultations and policy tinkering at a time when actual action should be being taken.
There is also a worrying political signal to be found in the way in the government has so blatantly prioritised dodging a battle with certain media titles over cleaning up the air we breathe and supporting the development of an exciting new industry.
It is to be hoped that post-election the final version of the government's plan strengthens its proposed measures and fast-tracks the roll out of robust CAZs. If the polls are right, the Conservatives are heading towards a crushing majority - if that is not the time to do the right thing and push through policies that deliver long term benefits for all, then when is?
But at the same time the past few weeks have provided ample evidence of how some within the Conservative Party are willing to prioritise certain parts of their voter base over all others, regardless of the impact on the health of the nation. And with the legal basis for the campaign to get Ministers to clean up their act now resting on the nature of the Brexit deal there are reasons to fear even this insufficiently ambitious plan could become vulnerable to further dilution in the future.
There is potential for this plan to clean up our air, improve the health of the British public, and accelerate the emergence of an exciting new clean transport industry, complete with high value jobs and post-Brexit export potential. But only if the Conservative Party leadership shrugs off the smog of cynicism and recognises once and for all that it is time to clean up its own mess.
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