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07 August 2017

Improving our air quality - an update on the Government's plans

Air quality in the UK has been a contentious topic in recent months, with various legal challenges to the Government’s (draft) air quality plans.  The UK claims to meets EU commitments for overall emissions of air pollutants, but it fails to meet the statutory limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations.  On 26 July 2017, the Government published its final “UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations”, setting out proposed measures to bring our nation in line with the above commitments and to improve air quality across the UK generally. (A draft plan had been published in December 2015 but was successfully challenged by the environmental group ClientEarth due to its failure to ensure timely compliance with Article 23 of the EU Directive on Air Quality and the associated air quality standard regulations.)

The plan continues to focus heavily on vehicles, especially diesels (due to road users apparently contributing 80% of NO2 roadside pollution), and promotes cleaner forms of transport.  One aspect that has hit the headlines is that the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans is to end by 2040.  Still it sees NO2 pollution as a localised problem, so intervention is targeted on problem areas and sources – for example particular roads in an area rather than a whole town.  Much of the final plan therefore focuses on measures to be introduced at the local level.

Additional actions

Many actions already being carried out to improve NO2 standards are incorporated into the plan, including the Wider Clean Air Strategy, ways to ensure existing vehicles are cleaner, methods to accelerate the adoption of cleaner vehicles and actions to improve the emissions from other forms of transport, from buildings and from other stationary sources. Additional actions include the following:

  1. The responsibility for reducing NO2 levels in local areas is to be passed down to local authorities. A consultation on proposals for Clean Air Zone/Low Emissions Frameworks is to be carried out by the Welsh and Scottish Governments. Highways England is to have responsibility for improving air quality on the Strategic Road Network in England. There is to be a call for towns and cities to be revamped through investment in walking and cycling.
  2. Funding will be made available to assist the uptake of low emission buses, taxis and other vehicles.  There will be new driving emissions requirements for light passenger and commercial vehicles.  Roadside checks will take place on lorry emissions, from as soon as August 2017.
  3. Potential changes to taxation on diesel vehicles and to consumer information on environmental performance will be explored. However, the Government appears keen to avoid unfairly disadvantaging those who bought diesel vehicles in good faith.  Previous governments encouraged diesel over petrol vehicles, as they are comparatively more fuel efficient and have lower CO2 emissions.
  4. A reduction in NOx emissions will be required from medium combustion plants and small-scale diesel generators.
  5. There will be a call for evidence on a new Aviation Strategy this summer, in respect of which the impact of the industry on air pollution will be considered.
  6. An Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will require motorway service stations and food retailers to install charging apparatus.

Local area measures

Local authorities in England must produce draft local air quality plans by the end of March 2018 and final plans by the end of December 2018. The following measures are suggested:

  • Changing road layouts at congestion and pollution pinchpoints
  • Encouraging public and private uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles
  • Using innovative retrofitting technologies and new fuels
  • Encouraging the use of public transport

Funding of £40 million has been promised by the Government to kick-start local schemes, partly emanating from a higher tax on diesel vehicles.  If such measures are insufficient, the Government suggests the imposition of Clean Air Zones, charging requirements or other access restrictions. Any such requirements or restrictions would have to be temporary and would need to be removed once compliance with air quality limits is achieved in that area.

The Government promises financial support for the development and implementation of local plans, consisting of:

  • a £255 million implementation fund, to help local authorities to prepare their plans and deliver targeted action to improve air quality
  • a Clean Air Fund, enabling local authorities to bid for additional money eg to avoid imposing charging zones or access restrictions
  • £100 million for retrofitting and new low emission buses

The Government will only approve a local air quality plan (and consider funding for it) if it is likely to achieve compliance with NO2 limits as soon as possible, the local authority has assessed the impacts on local residents and businesses and there are no unintended consequences and the proposals demonstrate value for money.


There is concern that the plan still does not go far enough to address current pollution levels nor require measures to be introduced fast enough.  However, the Government does not want to damage business or harm individuals by changing the landscape too quickly.  Aviation has been acknowledged as a source of pollution, but nothing concrete is offered as yet. Those campaigning for permanent clean air zones in areas of bad pollution, in line with evidence showing that the imposition of such zones is effective, are likely to be disappointed. 

The updated plan will no doubt be heavily scrutinised by interested parties.  The environmental group ClientEarth successfully challenged the initial draft plan in 2015. It persuaded the court to require the Government to publish draft and final forms of the plan at a time when the Government wished to delay matters.  The second draft plan was challenged by ClientEarth as not being ambitious enough, but the challenge failed. It remains to be seen whether any party will challenge the final plan.

This article was written by Helen Hutton. For more information please contact Helen on +44 (0)20 7203 5314 or