Cameron aide said government was “exposed on Heathrow” over air quality and “did not have the answers”

A memo sent by a Downing Street policy advisor, to David Cameron in September 2015 shows that the government were aware of the air pollution problem at Heathrow. The advisor, Camilla Cavendish, wrote that the air pollution plans by Liz Truss (then Environment Secretary) were inadequate and would not restrict the levels of NO2 around Heathrow. Camilla said: “There are three problems with Liz’s clean air plan as currently written. First it is still very much a draft which quotes initiatives that are likely to be abolished … Second it both over-claims and underwhelms. … It says we want the cleanest air in the world but does not even begin to tackle the fundamental question of how we might help people to shift away from diesel cars. Third, it leaves us exposed on Heathrow where we don’t yet have an answer on air quality.” Cameron said in December 2015 that the government would undertake more work on the Heathrow air pollution issue.  Defra published its national air quality plan in December 2015 with no mention of Heathrow and has not said more on this publicly since. Cavendish, who is now a Conservative peer, has now said she believes “successive governments have failed the public on air quality. Too many people in Whitehall and parliament think they can play it down because it’s invisible.”



Cameron aide said government was ‘exposed on Heathrow’ over air quality

As Theresa May prepares for airport expansion decision, memo emerges in which former PM was told he did not ‘have an answer’ on pollution concerns

By Rowena Mason, Adam Vaughan and Jessica Elgot

Wednesday 19 October 2016
David Cameron’s No 10 policy chief warned him a year ago that he was “exposed on Heathrow” because the government did not have an answer to its impact on air quality, an internal Downing Street note has revealed.

The memo was written by Camilla Cavendish, a former Downing Street adviser, who was scathing about the first draft of a government air quality plan from the department of the then environment secretary, Liz Truss.

“There are three problems with Liz’s clean air plan as currently written,” the note from September 2015 says. “First it is still very much a draft which quotes initiatives that are likely to be abolished … Second it both overclaims and underwhelms.

“It says we want the cleanest air in the world but does not even begin to tackle the fundamental question of how we might help people to shift away from diesel cars. Third, it leaves us exposed on Heathrow where we don’t yet have an answer on air quality.”

This week in the high court, ClientEarth, an environmental law group, has argued that the government’s plan to clean up levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) fails to adhere to the law.

Theresa May is preparing to make a decision on airport expansion in the south-east, with all the signs pointing to a choice of a third runway at Heathrow.

…. than a bit about the alleged delay (there is no delay) …

Cameron put off the decision on Heathrow in early December last year, saying the government would undertake more work on the environmental impact of airport expansion. But the government published its national air quality plan later that month with little reference to Heathrow and has not expanded on it publicly since then.

Cavendish, who is now a Conservative peer, said on Wednesday (19th October) night: “Now this is in the public domain I have to say that I believe successive governments have failed the public on air quality. Too many people in Whitehall and parliament think they can play it down because it’s invisible.

“But the scientific evidence shows that air pollution, especially particulates from diesel vehicles, is a growing threat to health. I continue to believe that government policy underwhelms and overclaims, including on Heathrow where expansion will increase pollution.”

Air pollution causes 50,000 early deaths and £27.5bn in costs every year, according to the government’s own estimates, and was called a “public health emergency” by MPs in April.

Observers said Cavendish’s briefing to Cameron showed the government knew Heathrow expansion was problematic for compliance on air quality, and that the handful of clean-air zones planned by ministers were not enough to tackle pollution from diesel cars.

Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party and MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “This revelation confirms what many of us have been saying for months: Heathrow expansion cannot go ahead if we’re serious about protecting the environment. Not only would expansion mean additional emissions from aircraft, but it’s highly likely that there would be more fumes from road traffic blighting the local area too. The government has clearly buried this inconvenient memo in the hope of railroading this section through, irrespective of its legality and the impact on local people.”

Simon Birkett of the Clean Air in London campaign said: “Whether it’s a big or little impact, it doesn’t matter if it makes it [compliance] worse. This briefing shows us what I call free-market anarchists like George Osborne – people who say the car is king, and want no regulation on anything – have a disregard for human health.”

The Davies commission on airport expansion said that a bigger Heathrow would mean extra traffic on Bath Road near the airport, leaving it with the highest concentrations of NO2 in the Greater London area. That “would delay compliance with the directive and hence would not be deliverable within the legal framework”, the commission’s final report said.

A Heathrow source said: “Heathrow accepted the conditions of the Davies commission in May this year. The airports commission were always clear there were no issues with air quality. However, if a judicial review or another legal case is brought, government has to have done its own research into everything the Davies commission has said. It’s not enough to say the airports commission came to a particular conclusion.

“So they have to look into the air quality plans themselves. However, if Theresa May approves Heathrow next week, it will have done those investigations by now. They will not go ahead with expansion, anywhere, if they had found air quality limits were going to be in breach, because it’s a legal requirement.”

The airport’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said this week that a study by Cambridge University into air pollution had bolstered Heathrow’s case. [The study does not actually say that – and it has not yet been peer reviewed, let alone published …. AW note]

The university’s Prof Rod Jones, who has been using sensors to monitor air pollution around the airport, said his research showed the air quality problem at Heathrow was due to road traffic, not planes, and that cleaner car engines being mandated by law would bring NO2 levels down below what they are now. [The might, if there actually were these lower-NO2 engines – but that is in the realms of speculation and not fact. Professor Jones is a scientist and does not deal in speculation on future politics.  AW note]

“We would expect … the traffic-related signature [of NO2 emissions] to drop below what it is today … even though there may be more traffic,” said Jones, whose study is due to be published in about a month’s time.

A government spokesman said: “The government is firmly committed to improving the UK’s air quality and cutting harmful emissions. That’s why we have committed more than £2bn since 2011 to increase the uptake of ultra-low-emissions vehicles, support greener transport schemes and set out a national plan to tackle pollution in our towns and cities. We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”


The Client Earth hearing in the High Court in London took place on 18th and 19th October.

Cost at heart of government air pollution inaction

19 October 2016  (Client Earth)

The judge presiding over ClientEarth’s case against the UK government for breaching EU air pollution laws has said cost is the crux of the case.

ClientEarth has argued since the start of its legal action several years ago that cost has affected the government’s progress on compliance.

Mr Justice Garnham’s remarks on day two of the Judicial Review follows evidence in ClientEarth’s argument heard yesterday which revealed that former Chancellor George Osborne had blocked more ambitious plans to reduce UK pollution on cost grounds.

In exchanges with Defra’s barrister, the judge said cost was “the nub of this case; how much cost played a part in the decisions taken.”

ClientEarth argues that the government failed to take action to comply with legal air pollution limits “as soon as possible” and was focused on cost over compliance.

Defra has set out its defence today.  Its QC said Defra has “always accepted” it was in breach of EU pollution limits and “did not resile” from its duty to reduce NO2.

She added: “This does not mean that the question of cost and proportionality do not come into consideration.”

Defra argues that: “The Air Quality Plan contains proportionate, feasible and effective measures to address the anticipated non-compliant nitrogen dioxide levels in particular zones.”

In later exchanges, the judge suggested that proportionate action “achieves the objective with minimal innocent casualties,” but said the government seemed to consider what was proportionate “in regard to the rest of government business.”

He concluded: “You mean by that, cost.”

ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said: “It is patently obvious from the evidence we have heard so far in this case that cost has been the primary and overriding factor in the government’s lack of action on air pollution.

“The judge is correct that cost does appear to be the nub of this case – and at the heart of government’s failure to protect our health by complying with the law. Time spent balancing cost against projected effectiveness is time when thousands continue to die and be made seriously ill by air pollution.

“Health is more important than Treasury bean-counting and ministers should, urgently, put health first.

“We all – children and adults alike – have the right to breathe clean air.”

The two-day hearing has now concluded. Judgment has been reserved. ClientEarth hopes for a ruling in the coming weeks.


See also

Alan Andrews, lawyer at ClientEarth, finds Heathrow offers on air quality “underwhelming” and vague

In an excellent article in Environment Journal, ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews says John Holland-Kaye’s two offers by Heathrow to try to get NO2 levels down are, in his words, “underwhelming.”  Alan says the first offer to “create an ultra-low emissions zone [ULEZ] for airport vehicles by 2025” is vague, as we are not told what conditions this zone will have. It is also only airport vehicles, which are a tiny proportion of the total. Alan says this is also five years behind the tardy ULEZ which is currently slated to come into force in the congestion charging zone in central London. On the second offer, to “develop plans for an emissions charging scheme for all vehicles accessing the airport….” Alan comments that there is no deadline given for delivery, and it is far from the radical action needed to get air pollution down to legal levels quickly. Heathrow has also talked of extending a low emissions zone to the airport, but there is no detail of when this would happen or what standards would apply. ClientEarth believes that as the area around the airport breaks legal limits, all these measures should be happening regardless of expansion, in order to satisfy the Supreme Court order and achieve legal limits as soon as possible.

Heathrow’s vague proposal on air pollution – what is Heathrow really saying?

Heathrow has made some guarded offers to government, attempting to persuade them that environmental problems should not be allowed to block their 3rd runway plans. The offer on air pollution, a key issue meaning Heathrow expansion is likely to be very damaging to health, is vague. Heathrow says (as rather improbably required by the Airports Commission) “New capacity at an expanded airport will not be released unless we can do so without delaying UK compliance with EU air quality limits”. That means, if somewhere else has a worse level. Heathrow says it will “create an ultra-low emissions zone for airport vehicles by 2025.”  Airport vehicles only.  And Heathrow says “We will develop plans for an emissions charging scheme for all vehicles accessing the airport.”  The new Chair of the Environment Audit Cttee, Mary Creagh said the air pollution proposals need “to go much further much faster.”  ClientEarth said “We need to see detailed analysis on what these proposals would achieve, but air pollution around the airport needs to be cut drastically before we can think about expansion. It’s difficult to see how that would happen without something far more radical than what’s currently on the table.”  AEF said permission for a new runway should only be given if it can be proven that this is compatible with bringing air pollution in the Heathrow area within legal limits.

Report from Policy Exchange shows how poor air quality is in much of London, and near Heathrow

A new report by the Policy Exchange, called “Up in the Air” looks at London’s air pollution, and shows that over 12% of London’s area was in breach of NO2 limits in 2010, with the most affected areas being Central London, the area around Heathrow airport, and other major transport routes.  The report says: “Aviation currently makes up 7% of total NOx emissions in Greater London, but this could increase to 14% by 2025.  Aviation emissions are forecast to increase due to a growth in air [craft] movements, whilst at the same time emissions from other sectors are decreasing …..Importantly, this does not yet factor in the impact of possible airport expansion around London.” It says if there was a 3rd Heathrow runway the number of passengers would rise steeply. Their analysis only goes to 2025 but for there to be another runway, and for air quality not to deteriorate “… the acceptability of Heathrow expansion in air quality terms rests not only on the extent to which air quality impacts at Heathrow can be mitigated, but also on the level of progress on air pollution in the rest of London. If pollution levels are brought within legal limits across the rest of London, then this could undermine the case for Heathrow expansion on air quality grounds.”


‘Clean Air in London’ obtains QC Opinion on Air Quality Law (including at Heathrow)

The group, Clean Air in London (CAL), is very aware of the problems of air quality in London. Its founder and director, Simon Birkett, says the law about air pollution is not being properly applied.  So they have asked their environmental solicitors, Harrison Grant, to obtain advice from a QC on the approach which planning authorities across the UK should take to Air Quality Law. CAL wants to ensure that tough decisions to reduce air pollution and protect public health are taken by the Government, the Mayor and other planning authorities. In particular CAL wanted to clarify the extent to which planning decisions should take into account breaches, or potential breaches, of air pollution limits. This applies particularly to a Heathrow runway, among other projects. CAL now have advice from Robert McCracken QC. It says: “Where a development would in the locality either make significantly worse an existing breach or significantly delay the achievement of compliance with limit values it must be refused.”  And “Any action which significantly increases risk to the health of the present generation, especially the poor who are often those most directly affected by poor air quality, would not be compatible with the concept as health is plainly a need for every generation.”

Landmark air pollution ruling by Supreme Court could scupper 3rd runway at Heathrow due to high NO2 level

The UK Supreme Court has quashed the Government’s ineffective plans to cut illegal levels of air pollution in Britain and ordered it to deliver new ones by the end of the year. The Supreme Court Justices were unanimous in their decision, saying: “The new Government, whatever its political complexion, should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action to address this issue.”  This could have implications for a 3rd runway at Heathrow, as areas around the airport continue to be stubbornly above the EU legal limits.  That is due both to air pollution from the planes in addition to the huge amount of traffic on the M4 and M25. In their verdict, 5 judges ordered the Secretary of State at DEFRA to consult on strict new air pollution plans that must be submitted to the European Commission by 31 December 2015. The EU Air Quality Directive demanded the UK brought pollution down to legal limits by 2010 or apply for an extension by 2015. But the government in 2011 said that a number of areas, including London, would be unable to comply by 2015 and instead argued the law allowed it to comply “as soon as possible”. The judgement marks a victory for the campaigning legal firm ClientEarth.  HACAN commented: “This is a potential show-stopper as far as a 3rd runway is concerned.