Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom has told MPs that the government will seek to publish its Air Quality Plan for reducing Nitrogen Dioxide emissions by September, if it is granted a High Court extension.
The government had been ordered by the Court to publish a draft version of its Air Quality Plan by 4pm today (24 April) – before completing a final version by 30 June.
However, in light of the purdah restrictions on government activity in the build up to the General Election on 8 June, Defra has claimed that it is unable to publish the plan for consultation, and has applied to postpone the High Court deadline until after the election (see airqualitynews.com story).
Today’s publication would have been the third version of the plan: the government was ordered to quash its Air Quality Plan for the second time in 18 months in a High Court case led by the environmental campaign group ClientEarth last November.
Answering an urgent question from Sue Hayman – Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary – in the Commons this afternoon, Mrs Leadsom said that the plan has been completed and that postponement of publication would not delay implementation of any of the proposed measures.
She also revealed that the government had been seeking to apply for an extension to the deadline for publication in light of the local council elections on 4 May – due to the ‘central role’ of local authorities within the plan.
Mrs Leadsom added that the government had applied to extend the deadline for the publication of the draft version of the plan to 30 June, with a final version then to be published on 15 September.
She said: “I can absolutely explain that in the course of developing the draft plan it was clear that local authorities would have to play a central role, so government initially sought to delay the plan until the purdah period after the local elections. Government normally seeks to avoid launching consultations until after purdah.”
Guidance on General Election rules published in the lead up to the 2015 General Election state that in general, consultations should not be launched during the Election period.
However, if there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ where launching a consultation is considered essential – for example in safeguarding public health – permission is required from the Cabinet Office to hold the consultation.
Mrs Leadsom was pressed by MPs on whether she considered air pollution to be a public health emergency, and offered regulations around contaminated food as an example of where purdah restrictions might be lifted.
She added: “I think that clean air is an absolute top priority for this government. We have been working on our new proposals for the last five months and we are ready to go with them, we are now seeking a very short extension to meet the priority rules around purdah and we don’t expect that will delay the implementation of our plans.”