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Updated air quality plan insufficient to address Heathrow challenge

12th November, 2015

Air pollution around Heathrow has been in breach of legal limits for many years and could prove a significant barrier to expansion. At the time of the Airports Commission’s recommendation this summer, the Government’s modelling indicated that breaches of the NO2 limit in London would continue until and perhaps beyond 2030. Under the Airports Commission’s plan a new runway could be operational by 2025, and would be likely to further worsen air quality in the Heathrow area.

Defra has, however, now published an updated air quality ‘plan’, drawn up in response to the Supreme Court ruling in April that the Government’s strategy would fail to achieve EU legal limits in the ‘shortest time possible’ and must be improved. Under the revised plan, NO2 would be within legal limits by 2025 throughout London.

But the difference compared with the earlier plan appears to relate almost entirely to new, more optimistic assumptions being made about emissions from diesel vehicles rather than to any new policies or strategies at a national level. The only significant new proposal relates to the formation by local authorities of Clean Air Zones, similar to the London Ultra Low Emission Zone, in which access to the most polluting vehicles could be restricted.

AEF considers both that the plan fails to demonstrate convincingly that the UK is taking sufficient action to meet legal limits, and that they will in any case need to be redrawn to take account of the emissions associated with Heathrow expansion, should Government give the project a green light. A decision on this is expected by the end of the year. We recently signed a joint letter to the Government about Heathrow expansion and air pollution.

We have submitted comments (some by way of the online form and some, given the limitations of this format, directly to the Environment Minister) arguing that Defra should:

  • Set out in detail why its previous forecasts for emissions from diesel vans were wrong and what gives it confidence that the new, much more optimistic, figures are accurate
  • Commit to redrawing the air quality plan to take account of the impact of Heathrow expansion should the Government give the project its approval.
  • Make clear that planning consent should not be granted to a project (a) that will worsen air quality in an area where breaches to either current or likely future air quality limits are already anticipated or (b) where there is a significant risk of it causing breaches to either current or likely future limits.

Download: AEF comments on Defra’s “consultation on draft plans to improve air quality: tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities”