The Government’s plan to ban new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 has been dismissed as a “smokescreen”, with ministers accused of condemning people to living with killer air for years to come.
Green groups and opposition politicians united in criticism after it emerged that key policies to cut the estimated 40,000 premature deaths from toxic air every year had been dumped.
A plan for a Government-led “scrappage scheme” – to get diesel cars off Britain’s roads quickly – has been rejected as poor value for money, it emerged.
Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, also shelved proposals to charge drivers to enter the most-polluted towns and cities, shifting the responsibility on to local councils and imposing tests.
The missing elements of the long-awaited air quality plan became clear after Mr Gove grabbed the headlines with a repeated announcement that new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be outlawed in 23 years’ time.
Areeba Hamid, a clean air campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “We cannot wait nearly a quarter of a century for real action to tackle the public health emergency caused by air pollution.
“It means that children across the UK will continue to be exposed to harmful air pollution for years to come, with potentially irreversible impacts.”
Anna Heslop, a lawyer for ClientEarth, said: “They need to be doing things in the coming weeks and months that are going to fix the problem of polluted air in towns and cities around the UK.”
Hinting at future court action, she added: “We will be holding the Government to account on this. They have been in breach of these limits for seven years – and we will continue to do that.”
Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader, tweeted: “Fear that new car petrol/diesel ban in 23 years time is smokescreen for weak measures to tackle 40,000 deaths a year from air pollution now.”
And Jenny Randerson, the Liberal Democrat transport spokeswoman, accused ministers of “betrayal”, calling for all new diesel sales to end much faster, by 2025.
Today’s announcement will see Britain banning all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040, after growing evidence that the nitrogen oxide emitted is cutting lives short.
The commitment follows a similar pledge in France, where carmakers announced they would switch to making electric cars only.
Some experts have expressed concerns over the pressure a nation of electric cars would place on the National Grid, with the AA warning it would have to “cope with a mass switch-on after the evening rush hour” and other estimates suggesting around 10 new power stations would need to be built to deal with the increased demand.
The AA also said significant investment will be required to install charging points across the country.
As part of the measures, ministers had also been urged to introduce charges for vehicles to enter a series of “clean air zones” (CAZ) after their own evidence showed this would be most effective.
However, Mr Gove today confirmed that idea had been thrown out, insisting it was “for local authorities to come up with imaginative solutions”.
“I don’t believe that it is necessary to bring in charging, but we will work with local authorities in order to determine what the best approach is,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Mr Gove described charging as “a blunt instrument”, arguing: “I would prefer to use a series of surgical interventions.
“That’s both fairer to drivers and also likely to be more effective, more quickly in the areas that count.”
Similarly, on the scrappage scheme, Mr Gove said he had no “ideological objection” but insisted it was up to local councils to do the hard work and put them forward.
“Everyone acknowledges that scrappage schemes, in the past, have been poor value for money – essentially they pay people for something they are already going to do,” he argued.
Mr Gove insisted he was taking immediate action to tackle polluted air, pointing to an extra £255m being handed to local councils to “accelerate their progress”.
The cash will be spent on retrofitting buses and other public transport, changing road layouts and altering features such as roundabouts and speed humps.
But Ms Heslop argued the plan would fail without “a national network of clean air zones”, with charges to discourage drivers from the most polluted areas.
“That’s what the Government didn’t propose – but what its evidence showed would be the most effective option,” she said.
The Government’s own figures showed a £27.5bn cost to the economy from sickness and lost productivity due to toxic air, Ms Heslop said.
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