COMMENT: Govt. High Court ‘defeat’ lets Slough councillors off the hook on air quality inaction

The Government may have lost its High Court bid to delay publishing its new air pollution plan until after the General Election, but the judge did take the decision that local councillors should be spared the scrutiny of their own inaction.

Car pollution

The UK’s Supreme Court says air quality compliance for London will only be achieved by 2025, fifteen years after the original deadline, and in 2020 for the other 15 zones.

A long awaited air pollution action plan must be published on the 9th May, this week’s High Court decision has decreed – five days after millions will go to the polls across the country in Local Elections on the 4th May.

The Government says it has the revised plan ready to publish and attempted to use purdah rules to delay until well after the General Election on 8th June.  The judge did accept that purdah rules would affect local elections.

Yet the component plans, prepared by local authorities, make the issue much more of a local matter and incumbent district councillors will inexplicably be spared the need to explain their poor record.

In September 2015 Slough Borough Council submitted 41 measures as part of the South East Non-Agglomeration Zone which Colnbrook sits in.  But analysis of the measures by Colnbrook Views at the time showed that only 6 were new and included lofty goals debatably outside the capability of Slough Borough Council to deliver without national or regional support.  They also included measures that would not be complete until 2026, despite the deadline for compliance with EU emissions due by an extended deadline of 2020.

Exposure to various man-made pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, is known to have important adverse quality of life impacts for people with respiratory disease

As well as a proposed low emission strategy covering the whole town the 2015 plan included new bus and rail ‘park and rides’ to be operational before 2018, a ‘strategic routing strategy’ for HGVs which would not be complete until 2026, an incentive scheme to encourage local taxis to adopt low emission vehicles by 2017, and emissions based parking charges throughout the town by 2020.

Nationally the plans were dismissed as “a list of meaningless assurances and half-measures“.

Slough Borough Council has been noticeably quiet on the issue since promising to publish its new air quality strategy in Spring 2016.  It did install rapid chargers in the town centre for electric vehicles and further charging units in its car parks through the Local Sustainable Transport Fund.  It has also sought funding for an electric car club and electric buses.

Since the 2015 draft was published Cabinet has pushed ahead with proposals to back Heathrow expansion, build a new incinerator, construct 20,000 new homes, and become the “premier location in the south east for businesses of all sizes to locate, start, grow and stay”.  It has lauded its achievement of being one of the first local authorities in the country to send 0% of the town’s waste to landfill – not by increasing recycling rates (which have fallen) but by sending waste for incineration instead.  It has failed to discuss air quality – and the public health issue surrounding it – even once.

It has, on the other hand, published a 5 year plan with 8 outcomes, including that “more people will take responsibility and manager their own health, care and support needs”.

Last March the Council published a report acknowledging that poor air quality was one of 6 significant areas of need in the all-important category of “regeneration and environment”, key to attacting inward investment.  No mention was made under the category of “health”.

Nevertheless, the Council has noted that:

“Exposure to various man-made pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, is known to have important adverse quality of life impacts for people with respiratory disease: long-term exposure can contribute to the development of chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer, stroke and heart failure”.

And in the ninth edition of the “The Slough Story“, a kind of state-of-the-union statistical digest, the Council acknowledges the depth of the public health crisis facing the town and its suburbs:

  • 1.05% of Slough’s population were registered as having Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in 2012/13 and 5.28% as having asthma.
  • Infant mortality had risen to 4.8 per 1,000 births between 2011 and 2013 from 3.9 per 1,000 births between 2009 and 2011  – well above the national average.
  • Death rates for cardiosvacular disease (CVD) in Slough are “significantly higher” than the rest of Berkshire, the south east and England and Wales – causing around 231 deaths in Slough between 2012 and 2014.
  • Public Health England estimated that 6.2% of deaths in Slough were attributable tolong term exposure to particulate air pollution in 2014, which is more akin to levels found in some London boroughs.

Last year the local Labour manifesto was devoid of policy on air quality.  It is disappointing that incumbent councillors and candidates are being let off the hook so easily over such an important topic.


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