Hélène Mulholland at guardian.co.uk reports that the obvious contradiction between Boris’s policies encouraging more pollution by axing the third phase of the Low Emission Zone (not to mention the removal of the Congestion Charge Western Extension Zone) and the legal obligation for the UK to cut pollution in London or face huge fines from the EU may be about to come to a head as the government threatens to overrule Boris’s decision(s) if he doesn’t implement something else pretty sharpish to achieve at least the same reduction in pollution (as seems very unlikely given his motorist-friendly policies thus far).

While there’s no doubt that Boris’s policies are environmentally damaging, there are two problems with this way of tackling them.

First, such a situation would be pretty bizarre, as it would be the government which is supporting Heathrow expansion in the face of (opportunistic) opposition from Boris which was suddenly acting as the defender of London air quality, in what on the face of it could look like a role reversal. (The fact that Boris’s only contribution to air quality improvement campaigning happens to be the one that involves campaigning in Tory areas against plane noise, while he’s happy to expand aviation in City Airport and his ridiculous Thames Estuary fantasy island, is sheer coincidence, of course). It’s pretty hard for one environmental hypocrite to set out to expose another; charges of what I can only think to describe as meta-hypocrisy would fly from all sides.

Second, this exposes how weak the devolved powers of London really are, as Martin from Mayorwatch® discussed in some detail on Friday in relation to other matters. If the government really can just step in and override the Mayor’s policies like this, it doesn’t inspire any great feeling of enfranchisement among London voters, however noble the government’s reasons for stepping in.

All that said, as a pragmatic environmentalist I’ll be pleased to see anything being done to cut London’s pollution and emissions – including cancelling all aviation expansion and increasing the LEZ’s vehicle coverage. It’s just a shame that someone elected promising a ‘cleaner, greener’ capital city isn’t making the right decisions for our air quality himself in the first place.

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2 Responses to Government vs Boris on air quality

  1. Mark Lee says:

    Much as it pains me to say it, I think that given Boris’s current approach to spin any investigations from central government as party political posturing (Damien Green / Snow Day) – I’d expect him to do exactly the same thing if ever the government tried to ‘enforce’ air quality on London. I can already see speeches in which he says that Whitehall is meddling with London in an attempt to discredit him, steamrollering over wishes of the voters of London, etc etc. And to be honest, I think he could pull it off quite effectively.

    Which places central government in quite an interesting dilemma. How do you redress the balance where the actions of a devolved local government will result in national fines, whilst respecting local democracy? Do you pass a proportion of the fine to the local government? What if they refuse to pay?

  2. I guess I’m being opaque here, but I’ve scanned the sources noted above, and remain unsure about a trifling detail.
    London will breach the EU air-quality rules (no question there). In due course, EU fines will follow, “huge” or not. Such fines will be levies on the UK Exchequer.
    So:
    1. Who pays? Do Maggie and Mike McSporran, in distant Unst, get clobbered for their small but worthy contribution? Or does it come out of (say) the Overseas Aid commitment? (Mock not that one: it’s how the US traditionally have coughed ambassadorial parking tickets.) Or — perish the thought! — does the Exchequer do a swift raid against the subvention for London?
    And, as a consequence of any or all of that:
    2. Do we get yet more Tory froth, spittle and bile against the EU and all its works?
    Now, why (apart from the obvious) am I holding my breath?

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