The crunch issue at last weeks meeting between the European Commissioner for the Environment and a cross section of London politicians & NGOs, was “what do you do when a Government deliberately tries to mislead the Commission about the poor state of its environment?”
Normally, this isn’t a big deal, as politicians and their civil servants are quite skilled at hiding inconvenient facts, whilst promoting the ones they regard as positive. It is the threat of court action and a £300m fine which makes it more important than the usual headline-chasing spin.
The UK Government needs to bring air pollution down to below the European legal limits this year, having failed to do so in the previous five years.
The Government and Mayor have produced modelling which purports to demonstrate that they will. Many of us feel that we have heard these promises before, however. If the European Commission refuses to grant the UK Government more time, then we move rapidly along from stage three of a complicated legal process and head towards a court case and possible fines.
As The Times recently pointed out, our Government is telling the Commission that the Marylebone Road air quality monitoring station is now below the legal limit for particulate pollution (PM10) and that everything in London will probably be okay.
The idea that one monitoring station can represent a city of over 7 million people is clearly ridiculous. That is why there is a whole network of scientific instruments, linking up London’s local authorities with experts at Kings College who constantly measure the purity of our air.
When the Commission asked the Government to clarify whether Marylebone Road was indeed the worst polluted road for PM10s, the Government responded that it was ‘unaware’ of whether the other monitoring stations met the Commission’s criteria.
After a decade of regular liaison about the subject between DEFRAs civil servants and the experts who run London’s monitoring network, it seems unlikely they were unaware. Indeed, we have heard from the Kings College experts that at least three of the monitoring stations do meet the technical criteria and each of those sites were over the legal limit last year.
Despite these major concerns regarding the Government’s evidence to the EU, the Commissioner told the meeting that he had no choice but to believe what was presented to him. He might ask for clarification, in situations where contrary information was brought to his attention, but that was the extent of his powers to question.
This raises the prospect of an interesting dispute in future year, should the Mayor of London decide to approach the Commissioner directly with evidence contradicting what the UK Government is saying.
Even now, the London Mayor is singing from a slightly different song sheet. He has pointed out that the UK Government models have been wrong in the past and the current calculations include no margin of error. The Mayor’s Air Quality Strategy has a whole set of roads which are in danger of going over the legal limit – running eastwards from Hyde Park Corner to the city of London and including some of the Olympic Route Network.
The Government’s amendment to clause 30 of the localism bill makes a Government vs Mayor dispute inevitable, as it gives Ministers the power to hand the bill for European fines down to local authorities.
If future London mayors wish to avoid massive fines then they will need to set out direct channels of communication with the Commissioner and to publicly challenge all the inadequacies within Government policies and statements. Above all, they will have to do everything they can to reduce pollution in London and to expose any Ministerial roadblocks which are stopping them from taking action.
The current Mayor could start by creating a Very Low Emission Zone in central London, as a matter of urgency. I know he is looking at this, but it has been around two years since the Assembly’s cross party Environment Committee recommended it.
Dither, delay and backward steps are no longer an option.
Darren Johnson AM represents the Green Party on the London Assembly