Sir Howard lands government with Herculean task over Heathrow air pollution

Image by Phillip Capper

Today the Airports Commission published its report, which recommends Heathrow as the preferred site for airport expansion in the UK.

In doing so, the Commission has set the government a Herculean task on air pollution.

In April, ClientEarth achieved a big victory in our long running legal battle to get the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to clean up our air. The Supreme Court ordered the government to come up with new plans to tackle dangerous levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) in 16 parts of the UK, including London, by the end of the year. The plans must achieve these legally binding limits in “the shortest time possible”.

But these legal limits didn’t arrive out of the blue. They were first agreed in 1999 and came into force on 1 January 2010. Having already failed miserably for 5 years to get air pollution in the UK within these legal limits, the government now has the added headache of a major infrastructure development to factor into its plans if it follows the advice of Sir Howard Davies’ Commission.

Current figures show expectations are already very low, with levels of NO2 in London not expected to meet the legal limits until after 2030.

Davies has basically said that it is not Heathrow’s job to fix that problem itself. It merely has to make sure that it doesn’t make the problem any worse and leave it up to the government to cut background levels of pollution as part of its broader strategy to achieve NO2 limits and comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Further, he recommends that any new capacity should not be used if it would delay compliance.

So if Heathrow expansion does go ahead, the government is going to have to take some drastic measures to bring pollution in West London down well below the legal limits in order to create the headroom which would be necessary. None of the measures which are currently on the table come anywhere close to doing this.

The government says it will respond to the report in the Autumn, which is, by coincidence, also when its new air quality plans are due. Successive governments have kicked the issue of both air pollution and airport expansion into the long grass. Number 10 has already said that the report is not legally binding and, given the political actors involved, there will undoubtedly be a furious debate over the next few months.

Regardless of the politics, the fact is that the law makes this decision an acutely difficult one. Whatever happens, the government’s air quality plans will need to be hugely ambitious. If it accepts the advice of the Airports Commission, then its task will become even harder.

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