The Mayor today announced a major new policy to tackle London’s air quality. By 2020, London could have an ultra low emission zone, which would ban all but the cleanest vehicles from central London.
At first glance this sounds like great news. Indeed clean air campaigners have been calling for such a policy for years. However, scratch the surface and this looks more like a clumsy PR stunt than a serious proposal.
This announcement comes four weeks before the UK Supreme Court hears ClientEarth’s air quality case against the UK Government. Is this a coincidence? I doubt it: with four weeks to go until the case is heard, the Government and the Mayor will be desperate to show the Court that they are pulling out all the stops to tackle pollution in London, where current plans show that EU limits will be breached until as late as 2025.
But I doubt the Supreme Court Judges will be so easily fooled. The idea of an ultra low emission zone, while undoubtedly a good one, is just that: an idea. There is very little detail contained in the announcement and it is clear that the hard work of fleshing out these proposals has barely started: “Transport for London will begin work on preparing options for a public consultation on an ultra low emission zone.” And what will the outcome of that public consultation be? We can expect noisy opposition from some taxi drivers, business and the motorist lobby, following which the ultra low emission zone will likely be quietly shelved.
Meanwhile the Mayor has announced he will water down his key policy for tackling nitrogen dioxide pollution – phase 5 of the low emission zone. Phase 5 of the low emission zone was a key part of the Mayor’s 2010 air quality strategy. It would ensure that by 2015, buses, coaches and HGVs driving in London would have to meet certain minimum emission standards. Now we hear phase 5 will only apply to buses – leaving two important sources of pollution to go unchecked.
The law requires compliance with air quality limits by 2015 at the absolute latest. The Government claims that this is impossible and that 2025 is the earliest possible time Londoners can expect legal levels of pollution. This is a difficult argument to make when the Mayor is going backwards on his current commitments and putting off action until 2020.
We will find out what the Supreme Court makes of it on March 7th.