The role of local authorities in addressing air pollution 

Tiffany Cloynes, a partner at Geldards LLP and head of public sector, England, looks at how councils can address carbon reduction and air quality in their communities. 

The House of Commons housing communities and local government committee is conducting an inquiry into the role that local authorities can play in enabling the United Kingdom to meet its carbon reduction target. 

The inquiry – local Government and the path to net zero – will look in particular at the UK government’s plans to make all new homes zero carbon ready by 2025 through the introduction of the Future Homes Standards and will explore how local government can help the UK to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, including by incentivising and decarbonising public transport and facilitating green growth. The inquiry is calling for evidence until 30 April. 

Local authorities have shown a commitment to addressing carbon reduction and air quality in their decisions, policies and practices. Most local authorities have made a declaration of a climate emergency and have adopted action plans to tackle this. Such declarations generally attracted a lot of public interest, as well as attention from environmental pressure groups, indicating that local authorities are likely to receive support for projects addressing climate change but also that their actions are likely to be closely monitored and scrutinised. 

Local authorities have put their commitments into effect by developing a range of practical projects. These include: 

  • Investment in energy sources, such as acquisition of solar farms and installation of solar panels on local authority buildings. 
  • Using electric vehicles and installing infrastructure to facilitate this.  This includes projects to develop all electric bus services. 
  • Raising awareness of renewable energy sources and the importance of sustainability. 
  • Creating low or zero emission zones in which road users other than zero emission vehicles are subject to a charge. 
  • Improving walking and cycling routes. 

Such projects can have a positive impact for local communities but local authorities will need to address a range of legal issues when implementing them. These include: 

  • Effective decision making. Local authorities must ensure that every decision that they take is within their powers and that they act reasonably in exercising those powers.  They will need to ensure that their climate change emergency declarations and decisions taken pursuant to them do not fetter their discretion to take each decision on its merits. 
  • Pervasive duties. It will be relevant for local authorities to consider their climate change emergency declarations when taking decisions but they will also need to consider the impact of decisions on their compliance with other duties, such as equality and best value. 
  • Planning law: When considering applications for planning permission and environmental impact assessments, it will be relevant for local authorities to take account of the presence of air quality management areas and the risk to health caused by air pollution. These will need to be considered alongside other material considerations. 
  • Legal obligations and approaches relevant to particular circumstances.  For example, the restrictions that have been imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic may have had an impact on the ability of local authorities to progress particular projects, such as any which encourage the use of public transport. 

Local authorities can play an important part in addressing carbon reduction and air quality in their communities but they need to be effective in addressing all the legal requirements. 




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