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Oxford council calls for extra powers to tackle air pollution

Oxford council has accused the government of ignoring statistics about air pollution and called for local authorities to be given extra powers to tackle the growing problem.

The local authority hit out last week, following its response to the government’s draft air quality action plan, and demanded a series of new measures be introduced, including a scrappage scheme to encourage drivers to take polluting vehicles off the road.

The draft action plan was published by ministers after a legal battle with the campaigning group, Client Earth last month.

Speaking to New Start, Oxford council’s executive board member for a clean and green Oxford, councillor John Tanner, said although they have reduced pollution in some parts of Oxford, it is still a problem in the city centre.

In some areas of the city average nitrogen dioxide levels are still above the European Union target.

But the government’s draft air quality action plan finds that, without any further action or measures, Oxford will meet the European Union’s target by 2020.

‘I think it’s a scandal that in responding to the court decision, the government has used a nationwide model and completely ignored the large amount of statistical information we regularly gather here in Oxford,’ he said.

‘The government is saying that by 2020, because cars will be cleaner, there will be no problem and so Oxford needs to do nothing. We think that’s irresponsible. Our statistics, which we are sending to the government in the next few days, will show there is still a problem in the city centre,’ added Cllr Tanner.

‘The government has been pushed into reacting by the court action,’ he added. ‘They have been found to be breaking the law. This is a national health problem, so I think they will have to act. They may well have to act without introducing legislation, but they could always provide more money for local authorities to help them do the right thing.

‘We would like to see the government introduce a scrappage scheme for petrol and diesel cars. We would like to see financial support for cities like ours to introduce zero emission streets and areas, where there are problems. We would also like to make sure we have the powers to ban polluting cars from zero-emission streets and we want to see fines to stop people polluting streets.’

Cllr Tanner added they are working closely with Oxfordshire council on the matter.

‘The city council does the measuring and collection of statistics about pollution, but the county council is the highway authority, so we are working closely with them to make sure everybody in Oxford has clean air to breath. We are in the middle of study about how we can introduce a zero-emissions zone in the city. We are looking at the practicalities of that now,’ he added.

‘We need local authorities to be given the power and the resources to clean up air locally. We are best placed to know what needs to be done.’

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) has also criticised the government’s air quality plans last week, claiming it unfairly shifts the burden onto local authorities to solve.

Its chief complaint is that the government has failed to recognise poor air quality is a national issue. To solve air pollution in the UK, the CIEH says it requires action from central government rather than offloading responsibility onto local authorities, who are being set-up for failure if the proposed plans are to go ahead.

‘The government’s proposals are woefully inadequate to tackle air pollution and place far too much responsibility on the shoulders of our over-stretched local authorities,’ said the CIEH’s head of policy, Tony Lewis.

‘We stand on the cliff-edge of a national public health emergency and these plans are devoid of substantive proposals, timescales for addressing the key challenges, clarity around targets or even availability of resources to support necessary actions,’ he added.

The CIEH said it was also concerned about the government’s confidence that clean air zones ‘are the panacea to solving air pollution’.

It warned that the current clean air zone trials are taking place in only five English cities and have not been running long enough to demonstrate successful results.

But a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: ‘We are firmly committed to improving the UK’s air quality and cutting harmful emissions.

‘That’s why we have committed more than £2bn since 2011 to increase the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles, support greener transport schemes and set out how we will improve air quality through a new programme of clean air zones.’

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