The government’s plan to tackle air pollution in some of the worst affected cities in the UK is unravelling into a “shambolic and piecemeal mess”, according to environmental lawyers.
ClientEarth, which has successfully defeated the government three times in court, said the emphasis on local authorities taking action was backfiring with no joined-up strategy, delays and poorly researched proposals.
Two of the first five authorities tasked with tackling dangerous levels of poisonous air missed their targets. ClientEarth said one authority, Derby, was proposing a scheme that would lead to new traffic lights and traffic-calming measures on one road, the removal of a bike lane and “bus infrastructure”, but little else.
Katie Nield, a ClientEarth lawyer, said Derby’s proposals were “deeply concerning”.
“Their preferred option does not seem to be based on any kind of assessment of the possible impacts on air pollution in the city … from our point of view that is totally inadequate and seems to be creating more space for more cars and little else.”
Derby council declined to comment when approached by the Guardian.
In 2015, five local authorities with some of the worst pollution outside London – Derby, Southampton, Leeds, Nottingham and Birmingham – were ordered to produce proposals to tackle air pollution by 15 September.
Scores more councils are being tasked with tackling air pollution in their cities in the coming months, but Nield said the Derby plan would set a dangerous precedent.
She said that unless the national government took more forceful enforcement action and drove through a coordinated plan, the UK’s air pollution crisis would continue.
“What we are concerned about is a lack of government leadership on this. Things are coming out in a piecemeal fashion, different schemes being put forward by different authorities of different quality, with different charging levels with different exemptions. It is creating a very confusing picture and it is coming across as pretty shambolic.”
Air pollution kills tens of thousands of people each year across Britain and affects the health of hundreds of thousands more.
Last month, the UN warned that the UK government was endangering people’s health by denying their right to clean air, and the world’s biggest children’s charity, Unicef, told the Guardian it had refocused its British operation to tackle air pollution because of the scale of the “health crisis” facing young people in the country.
In October, the World Health Organization said air pollution was the “new tobacco”, causing 7 million deaths around the world and harming billions more.
Health experts say that, as well as respiratory conditions such as asthma, emphysema and bronchiectasis, air pollution causes developmental problems for children’s lungs, making them more vulnerable to these conditions in adulthood.
Other effects include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, strokes, dementia and reduced cognitive ability.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Tackling air pollution requires collective action, which is why we are working with towns and cities to improve local air quality. We have published a £3.5bn plan to reduce harmful emissions and our ambitious new clean air strategy has been welcomed by the World Health Organization. Our forthcoming environment bill will also include provisions to improve air quality.
“We have given local authorities technical support in developing their plans and nearly £500m in funding for air quality improvements, but they are best placed to decide how to tackle air quality in their communities.”