Thousands of people die every year due to air pollution. The European Commission is finally forcing the UK government to tackle the issue. As a first step, the UK must publish a strategy outlining how it will deal with the crisis.

The strategy should have been published two years ago, but the government has dodged and delayed, presumably because it knows that the strategies in the policy will not be popular with drivers. The most recent delay saw the government claiming that purdah rules now applied to the strategy, due to the upcoming general election.

However, the High Court has stepped in and ordered the government to publish its draft strategy by 9 May, with the full strategy published by 31 July.

Exhaust fumes in traffic

Why is tackling air pollution so controversial?

The government seems afraid of the air pollution strategy’s potential impact on votes. However, the High Court judge, Mr Justice Garnham, was clear that,

“The continued failure of the government to comply with directives and regulations constitutes a significant threat to public health.”

So why is the government so worried? Without having seen the draft strategy, we can of course only speculate, but it seems likely that the policy will contain controversial and unpopular measures to cut air pollution.

What we think will be in the pollution plan

We expect the pollution plan to include policies such as clean air zones, which will see motorists who drive heavy polluting vehicles facing city centre access charges. The idea is that the charges will dissuade them from driving into city centres where pollution levels are high. This is likely to apply to several major cities, including Manchester, Southampton and Leeds (amongst others). This measure is likely to be unpopular with small businesses, construction firms and HGV operators, who will see their transport costs increase. This could then be passed on to consumers as higher prices.

These concerns have led to the Freight Transport Association to call for a longer timescale for these changes to be introduced. That would give small businesses time to adapt, as well as time for a market for compliant second hand vehicles to emerge.

In addition to this, there may be incentives such as price and tax subsidies for using public transport and purchasing electric vehicles . We also think it’s highly likely that the government will introduce a diesel scrappage scheme.

Not so long ago, the government told drivers to buy diesel. Thus it’s hardly surprising that the administration that prioritises removing diesels from the nation’s roads will face backlash from drivers. However, the government has reassured motorists that it will help, with recent reports suggesting that the scheme will include paying owners up to £2,000 to scrap older, heavier-polluting vehicles from the most polluted UK cities. The government is yet to confirm any final details.

Such schemes cost money and revenue of this nature is likely to come from drivers themselves. The 2015 Conservative Manifesto pledge not to increase any taxes looks set to be dropped entirely thanks to the snap election. An increase in vehicle excise duty for diesel vehicles and the expansion of charges for diesels to enter city centres across the UK are both distinct possibilities. Neither will go down well with the UK’s 12 million or so diesel drivers.

An unpopular move

There is no avoiding the fact that these policies will be expensive to run. The Guardian reports that for London alone the measures could cost more than £500m.

What makes the situation so difficult to swallow for many diesel drivers is that just ten years ago the government was actively encouraging people to buy diesels. Government policy encouraged the purchase of diesel cars by offering cheaper road tax due to their lower carbon dioxide emissions, which led to the number of diesels on Britain’s roads more than doubling.

Now, those same drivers look set to pay for a system under which they will have to scrap their vehicles and replace them with more environmentally friendly ones. Such an unpopular move could well cost the government votes at exactly the time that it is trying to increase its power.

EDIT: Since publishing this article on Wednesday, the draft plan has come out on Friday and as we predicted it’s been massively watered down. Client Earth has labelled it “woefully inadequate” and “passing the buck to local authorities” in other words a complete avoidance of the main issues causing pollution because a General Election is about to happen. The Government’s draft plan is so poor, they may face more court action because of its inadequacy.

What are your views on pollution targets? Do you think that the health benefits of increasing air quality are worth higher taxes, and policies that pull the heaviest-polluting vehicles off the roads? Let us know in the comments below.

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