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The Air Quality Plan is finally here…or is it?

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A ban on new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2040. That’s the part of the Government’s new Air Quality Plan that captured the headlines when it was published on Wednesday.

It’s certainly an eye-catching announcement – especially as Conservative ministers had resisted calls for such a policy in recent years. But the actual impact of the policy may not be as dramatic as the headlines suggest. 2040 is a while off, and electric and hybrid vehicles are growing in popularity anyway. Manufacturers are increasingly focusing on ultra-low emission vehicles - Volvo recently announced that it will not produce pure petrol or diesel vehicles after 2018 - whilst others are rushing diesel cleaning technology, such as SCR, to market to ensure new diesels will be (from a particulate and NOx emissions perspective) as clean as petrol vehicles. The 2040 ban does not change the direction of travel, although it does give manufacturers an extra incentive to accelerate their plans.

CLEAN AIR ZONES ARE COMING

Meanwhile, there are a number of policies in the Air Quality Plan that will have more immediate impacts on motorists and fleets. The centrepiece of the plan is the roll-out of Clean Air Zones in the 29 areas with the worst air pollution problems, including Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. The Government will order local authorities to implement new measures to reduce harmful emissions, but will leave it up to each council to decide the specific mix of policies that will apply in its area.

Those 29 councils will have to set out their own Clean Air Zone plans by the end of 2018. These could include cutting emissions from public transport, such as by retrofitting buses, as well as reducing congestion by improving road layouts, changing speed bumps and reprogramming traffic lights. The Government has announced a new £255 million ‘Implementation Fund’ to help councils draw up and deliver their plans.

WILL DIESELS FACE ‘TOXIN TAXES’?

The Government has rowed back slightly from the ‘toxin tax’ that stirred up controversy back in April. In a change from the draft that was published in May, the Air Quality Plan states that:

‘Given the potential impacts on individuals and businesses, when considering between equally effective alternatives to deliver compliance, the UK government believes that if a local authority can identify measures other than charging zones that are at least as effective at reducing NO2, those measures should be preferred as long as the local authority can demonstrate that this will deliver compliance as quickly as a charging Clean Air Zone.’

In other words, councils should only place charges on the most polluting vehicles entering their Clean Air Zones if they cannot meet air quality targets without them. It remains to be seen whether any councils will actually go ahead with such charges.

THE KNOWN UNKNOWNS

In fact, quite a bit remains to be seen. Perhaps the biggest question is whether this Air Quality Plan will survive legal scrutiny. After the publication of the draft Plan, ClientEarth – the environmental group who successfully challenged the Government’s previous attempt last year – warned that this Air Quality Plan might be subject to a challenge in the courts as well.

Meanwhile, there are two big areas of policies affecting diesels that the Government did not fully address in the Plan, but rather promised decisions in the future. It suggested that measures to improve air quality could be funded by higher taxes on diesel vehicles, but did not spell out what those tax changes would be. Instead, the Government repeated its announcement in March’s Spring Budget that it ‘will continue to explore the appropriate tax treatment for diesel vehicles and will engage with stakeholders ahead of making any tax changes at Autumn Budget 2017.’

Similarly, Ministers decided not to include a diesel scrappage scheme in the Plan. Instead, they will consult, this coming autumn, on possible measures to compensate motorists affected by clean air policies. Those measures might include a scrappage scheme, but the Government also floated other ideas, such as subsidised car club membership, Clean Air Zone permits for vans, and concessionary bus travel.

So, more than two years after the Supreme Court originally ordered the Government to draw up a new Air Quality Plan, it’s finally here. But, while there’s much to digest in the Plan, we’ll have to wait a while longer for many of the questions about diesel’s future to be answered.

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