Conservatives have been accused of delaying action on air pollution after it emerged that the government agreed to local authority requests to put the introduction of Clean Air Zones on hold last summer because of the Covid outbreak.
A plan first published in 2017 directed 61 councils across England to develop plans “in the shortest possible time” for delivering cuts in levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is emitted in car exhausts.
But only three Clean Air Zones have since been put in place – in London, Birmingham and Bath & North East Somerset – while Portsmouth is due to launch its own zone this winter.
Liberal Democrats, who control both the Bath and Portsmouth authorities, accused the government of using the pandemic as an excuse for delaying action.
In answers to questions from Lib Dem spokesperson Sarah Olney, transport minister Rachel Maclean said that “government agreed last summer to requests to delay work on the introduction of Clean Air Zones in a number of areas, recognising the significant uncertainties and economic hardship arising from Covid-19”.
Ms Maclean said the Department for Transport was continuing to keep plans for Clean Air Zones under “regular review” to ensure their introduction as soon as possible, but gave no timeframe for future zones.
Ms Olney told The Independent: “Failure to clean up our toxic air has contributed to 40,000 early deaths each year all while the Conservatives simply do not care about cleaning up our air. Their record is shameful.
“Despite identifying over 60 authorities years ago that needed to cut dangerous emissions, just four have introduced Clean Air Zones.
“The Tories even approved delays to schemes – clearly they’re failing to take the issue seriously.
“Liberal Democrats would clean up our toxic air nationally just like our councils are doing locally, with a clean air fund for councils to clean up their toxic fumes.”
A government spokesperson said: “Air pollution at a national level has reduced significantly since 2010 – emissions of fine particulate matter have fallen by 11%, while emissions of nitrogen oxides are at their lowest level since records began.
“While emissions continue to improve year-on-year, we remain committed to cleaning up our air and are providing £880 million in funding and expert support to local authorities so they can develop innovative plans – including Clean Air Zones – to achieve compliance with NO2 legal limits in the shortest possible time.”
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