A UN advisor on human rights has criticised the ‘urgency’ of the UK government’s plan to tackle harmful levels of air pollution in towns and cities, prompting a strong response from Defra.
The comments by Baskut Tuncak, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights, hazardous substances and wastes, have emerged in a report which is due to go before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council today (11 September).
This follows on from a visit to the UK carried out by the official in January 2017, in which he sought to assess the steps being taken by the government to protect human rights in the management of hazardous substances.
In his report, Mr Tuncak noted that over 40,000 premature deaths per year are estimated to occur in the UK linked to air pollution.
The special rapporteur also criticised measures set out in the government’s air quality plan, which he claimed does not convey the “urgency” needed to tackle air pollution in the shortest time possible.
He wrote: “While many considerations must be taken into account, the latest plan does not convey the necessary urgency to protect the rights of children, older persons and other sensitive groups. For example, key details of the plan will not be finalized [sic] until December 2018 by local authorities. In doing so, local authorities are discouraged from using “charging zones,” which the Government itself determined is the fastest, most effective way to reduce air pollution levels. Leaders of at least six city councils claim measures will not enable their cities to stay within legal limits on air pollution.”
Mr Tuncak’s report added: “The Special Rapporteur is alarmed that despite repeated judicial instruction, as well as recommendations by the Committee on the Rights of the Child the United Kingdom Government continues to flout its duty to ensure adequate air quality and protect the rights to life and health of its citizens.”
Recommendations in the report include adopting future EU air quality standards, even after the UK has left the EU, as well as a network of clean air zones in towns and cities.
Defra has issued a tough response to the comments – claiming that Mr Tuncak’s report fails to acknowledge investment by government in areas including low emission vehicles, aimed at reducing pollution from road transport.
A spokesperson for the Department said: “This report doesn’t mention the present air quality problems are in large part caused by the EU’s failed regime for vehicle emissions testing.
“22 other EU member states are also breaching air pollution limits as a result of that failed testing regime.
“The report also doesn’t mention the £3 billion we are investing to fix the problem or our plan to end the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040 – more ambitious than most of the rest of the EU.
“We will continue to take action to tackle this serious problem.”