The government has been forced to defend its last-minute decision to delay publication of the draft Air Quality Plan until after the election after critics said it was using the vote as an excuse.
In November 2016 activist group ClientEarth won a High Court case against the government over its failure to tackle the UK’s air pollution crisis. The government was ordered to publish revised plans using more realistic modelling by yesterday (24 April).
But late on Friday (21 April) the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) applied for an extension to the deadline until after the election to “comply with pre-election propriety rules.”
Environment secretary Andrea Leadsom said yesterday the delay was due to purdah rules, which prevent consultations from starting during the pre-election period.
But in Parliament, MPs criticised Leadsom for delaying a decision on what was described as a “public health emergency.” It is understood the government’s plans could include a drive to restrict diesel cars.
“It is unacceptable to hide behind the election to delay publishing her plans. Cabinet office rules are clear that purdah is not an excuse to delay acting on vital public health matters,” said Labour MP Sue Hayman.
Yesterday’s missed deadline means a draft plan will now be published on 30 June, followed by a final plan on 15 September.
“We have now entered a period of time where we are strongly advised not to be publishing consultations, and so what we are trying to do is a very short extension which we do not believe will make a difference to the implementation of our plans, but at the same time we are safeguarding our democracy,” said Leadsom.
If the air quality plan is delayed, the government’s consultation on Heathrow’s third runway will close on 25 May without updated information on air quality limits for expansion.
“The unacceptable last minute nature of the government’s application late on Friday night, after the court had closed, has meant that we have spent the weekend considering our response,” said ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton.
“We are still examining our next steps. This is a question of public health and not of politics and for that reason we believe that the plans should be put in place without delay.
“The government has had five months to draft this plan and it should be published.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport (DfT) said its draft Airports National Policy Statement consultation would be unaffected by the delay despite potential changes to air quality targets.
New Civil Engineer has contacted Heathrow for comment on its own consultation, planned for this summer.