Cash-strapped councils breaking the law on air pollution, documents reveal

It has been described as a “public health emergency” responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every year, but dozens of local councils have been failing to report on air pollution as required by law for years.

The revelation, based on documents obtained under Freedom of Information rules, casts doubt on local authorities’ ability to play their part in the Government’s new draft Air Quality Plan – its third attempt to meet minimum safety standards after repeatedly being taken to court by campaigners.

Ministers had sought to delay publication of the plan until after the general election, with a Government lawyer arguing it would drop a “controversial bomb” on the campaign.

But a judge ordered ministers to comply with a court-ordered deadline and the resultant plan was duly derided as “feeble” and “much weaker” than expected.

Public concern about air pollution has been growing. A new survey for The Independent found the majority of the public is now in favour of banning the most-polluting vehicles from city centres.

Some 51 per cent of respondents agreed with this suggestion, with only 15 per cent against and the remainder not expressing a view, pollsters ORB said.

A majority of Conservative voters (53 per cent) were in favour, suggesting Theresa May could be vulnerable to criticism about air quality. Support was highest among Liberal Democrats (64 per cent) with 54 per cent of Labour supporters also backing the idea.

It comes amid warnings from the World Health Organisation, MPs and doctors’ groups that it is causing an estimated 40,000 premature deaths in the UK and millions worldwide, and is exacerbating a host of conditions including heart disease, asthma and possibly even dementia.

The Government’s latest Air Quality Plan sought to pass the buck to a large degree to councils, saying they were “best placed to take the lead”.

However, the council documents, obtained by the DeSmog UK environmental news website, show that local authorities have already been failing to carry out the current requirements, suggesting they would struggle to cope with further responsibilities without extra funding.

Of the 77 councils contacted, 59 had not made air pollution reports, which must be produced under the 1995 Environment Act, available to the public.

After the website got in touch with the councils, 34 authorities were found to have gaps in their reporting between 2011 and 2016, although some said they were still in the process of producing reports covering last year. If this is a representative sample, it would mean 44 per cent of councils in the country are failing to properly monitor and assess the extent of air pollution.

Mat Hope, deputy editor of DeSmog UK, said: “I think it shows local councils need resources to be able to deal with this problem properly.

“I think the councils themselves are doing what they can, but with the current budget constraints it’s clear they are likely to struggle with the extra obligations under the new Air Quality Plan.

“The Government needs to think very hard about the resources they are putting behind this.”

The draft plan proposes creating 27 clean air zones in places with the highest levels of pollution with Birmingham expected to have one of the largest.

However, the city’s council did not produce an air quality report in 2013, 2014 or 2015.

A spokesperson for Birmingham City Council said an annual status report had been published in 2016, covering the previous year, but “we didn’t send any for the previous three years and this was due to resources”. The relevant staffing levels fell from 3.1 full-time equivalent posts in 2011 to just 1.6 in 2016.

The spokesperson added: “We are currently working on a feasibility study to determine the size and scope of this clean air zone with a view to consulting on our proposals in the autumn, subject to any further announcements from the Government.”

The ORB poll found support for a ban on the most-polluting vehicles was highest in the West Midlands (60 per cent), followed by London (58) and the South-east (55).

Kettering Borough Council did not produce reports in 2011, 2012 and 2015. It told DeSmog UK that this was due to “a lack of specialist staff both internally and also in the wider recruitment field”.

“To counter this, we are now in the process of ‘growing our own’ specialist capacity in house,” the council added.  

High Peak, which covers the west side of the Peak District national park, failed to produce reports in 2015 and 2016 due to “resourcing issues”, the documents obtained under freedom of information law showed.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs referred a request for comment to its online guidance about annual status reports on air quality, which says “every local authority shall review the air quality within its area”.

The draft Air Quality Plan says: “Road transport is still by far the largest contributor to NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) pollution in the local areas where the UK is exceeding limit values.

“Addressing road transport emissions therefore presents the most significant opportunity to tackle this specific exceedance problem.

“However, road transport is a key part of almost everything that we do as individuals or businesses with social and economic impacts which are much wider than air quality.

“This means setting new policies and incentives to promote new technology and innovation, speeding up the move to cleaner vehicles and supporting the industrial strategy to deliver cleaner air for UK towns and cities.”

And it adds: “Local authorities know their areas best and are best placed to take the lead in rectifying the problem.”

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