The Environment Secretary has insisted that tackling the country’s soaring levels of air pollution remains a “top priority” for the Government, despite seeking permission to delay the publication of her department’s plans until after the election.
Andrea Leadsom was accused by her critics of “hiding behind” election rules in a bid to avoid announcing any controversial policies – such as a levy on diesel cars – before voters go to the polls on June 8.
Ministers had originally been given until 4pm yesterday to publish a new air quality strategy, after the courts ruled that existing plans to meet EU-mandated pollution limits were not sufficient.
But it emerged over the weekend that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs applied for an extension, prompting accusations of “political expediency”.
The application for a delay comes amid growing concern about levels of pollution in Britain’s town and cities, with poor air quality believed to be responsible for up to 50,000 deaths a year.
Leeds, London, Glasgow and Birmingham are among 16 areas where European air standards have repeatedly been breached, and Highways England recently set out proposals to introduce a 60mph limit on the M1 to reduce smog around Sheffield.
The environmental law firm ClientEarth, which brought the original case against the Government, has argued that the new plans “should be put in place without delay”.
Chief executive James Thornton said whichever party ends up in power after June 8 will need the strategy “to prevent further illness and early deaths from poisonous toxins in the air we breathe”.
The Labour Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman also criticised the delay, as she accused ministers of “[hiding] behind the general election”.
Posing an urgent question in the House of Commons yesterday, Ms Hayman claimed the Government was “shirking its legal responsibilities” and putting “the health of millions at risk”.
However, defending her decision, the Mrs Leadsom suggested that publishing the strategy before the election risked “prejudicing... the democratic process”.
She argued that while there are some exceptions to purdah for public health issues “this would generally only apply if there was an unexpected public health emergency”.
The Northamptonshire MP went on to stress that improving air quality was still a “top priority” for the Government and draft plans are ready for publication on June 30.
“We’re taking urgent action and we will ensure that a short delay to the timetable will not result in a delay in the implementation of the plan,” she said.
The Government has already lost two court cases over its approach to improving air quality, and earlier this year it received a final warning to comply with EU standards or face legal action in the European courts.
The main concerns centre around levels of nitrogen dioxide and harmful particulates, which have been linked to respiratory conditions such as asthma, as well as heart disease and cancer.
It has been reported that the new strategy includes plans to introduce a charge on older, more heavily polluting diesel vehicles following revelations about the rate of diesel emissions.
It is understood that the Government’s application for a delay has been passed to a judge for consideration.