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Please drive smoothly – the answer to increased air pollution?

The Air Quality Problem

As is well known, there are parts of the country where the implications for air quality, and thus human health, of road traffic are of enormous concern and in need of urgent action. The difficulty the Government is having in addressing this, however, is demonstrated by R (ClientEarth) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (No.2) [2016] EWHC 2740 (Admin) in which Garnham J held that the Government’s AQ Plan was unlawful. The Judge gave Defra until 24 April 2017 to produce a draft AQ Plan, and until 31 July 2017 for the final version.

This case highlights the importance of the current air quality legislation in seeking to protect human health (see Reuben Taylor QC’s Brexit Blog posted on 17 Nov 2016 ”Brexit and Air Quality” for the role of European law in this). The implications of the ClientEarth case for planning or development consent applications may become clearer in the year ahead.

The Motorway Capacity Problem

The Government therefore has the not easy tasks in terms of the Country’s transport network of grappling both with air quality issues and with ensuring that the roads operate as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Those of you driving along the motorways, including on the M1 near Sheffield, may have witnessed the ongoing works in connection with the “smart motorway” scheme. As Highways England state:

Smart motorways are a technology-driven approach to the use of our motorways. They increase capacity and relieve congestion while maintaining safety. Smart motorways help make journey times more reliable.

The hard shoulder is used for traffic, either permanently or at peak times. This creates an extra lane to provide additional capacity.

See here. 

The scheme is likely to add thousands of cars, vans and other vehicles to the roads. This increase, it is suggested, has been assessed in respect of the Sheffield position as being likely to result in significant adverse impacts on air quality

Pollution-linked speed limits

You may now have read newspaper reports over the weekend about the possible imposition of what is said would be Britain’s first pollution-linked speed limit. This, it is reported, would be in order to help ease smog over Sheffield, which already misses EU air quality targets and was highlighted by the World Health Organisation for having dangerously high levels of air pollution. 

The details are found for example here and here.

These report that a 60mph speed limit at rush-hour when vehicle numbers are highest where the M1 runs close to schools and homes in the city could help address air quality concerns. The mandatory speed limit, if approved, would be in place between 7am and 7pm seven days a week between junctions 32 and 35a of the M1. The underlying basis appears to be that driving smoothly could ease air pollution, something that perhaps many of us could think about more generally no doubt.

Reducing speed limits is one of a number of initiatives that Highways England has been considering to counter the increase in pollution that will arise from this increased traffic.

So, driving smoothly may do more just reduce the complaints you get from any passengers. However, quite where this may fit in with any revised Air Quality Plan remains to be seen.