Defra checked powers to force London Mayor to act over air quality

Documents relating to Defra’s view of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, and air quailty in 2009 have been released following court action lead by the Campaign for Clean Air in London, writes Steve Eminton.

Documents relating to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ interaction with Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, have been released following freed of information action by the Campaign for Clean Air in London.

The papers, covering a meeting which took place on January 22 2009 between the then minister for air quality, Lord Hunt, and the Mayor to discuss air pollution in the capital and have eventually been released after legal hearings running on from a request made three years ago under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

The documents had been sought by Simon Birkett, the found and director Clean Air in London, with the support of Friends of the Earth and assisted by two barrister at Monckton Chambers.


Defra and Lord Hunt, the documents reveal, were closely examining what powers the Environment Secretary of State [Labour’s Hilary Benn at the time] actually had to force the Mayor to take stronger action over air . The Department was concerned over its ability to win the UK extra time from the European Commission to comply with European Union deadlines for meeting the limit values for PM10 and NO2.

The documents reveal that Defra minister Lord Hunt assessed what powers he had to direct the Mayor of London over air quality in 2009

On the role of Defra and the Greater London Authority, Defra ahead of the meeting noted that Part IV of the Environment Act 1985 also established the local air quality system which requires local authorities to work towards the achievement of seven of the EU limit values, including PM10 and NO2.

And, the Department noted that if a council expects limits to be exceeded in its area it has to prepare an air quality action plan. Furthermore, an advice paper for discussion within Defra stated: “The Secretary of State has the reserve power to direct local authorities to take specific actions if more needs to be done to this end.” It continues by explaining that the Mayor of London has a similar duty to produce action plans if limits are not met.

Western Extension

One of the central issues in the discussions between Defra and the Mayor was to cover the Western Extension of the Congestion Charging Zone which the Mayor went on to abolish in December 2010.

The Defra officials in their paper to Lord Hunt stated: “The Secretary of State has the option of using his powers of direction to direct the Mayor of London to take certain actions to improve air quality under the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2007. Whether we can direct the Mayor to simply retain particular measures (such as the Western Extension) is a question that lawyers would need to consider, as it was a measure designed primarily to reduce congestion rather than improve air quality. Thorough consideration of whether it would be a proportionate measure to take to improve air quality would be required and it is possible that other measures might achieve the same air quality benefits.”


But, the document said that the Mayor did not feel that the Western Extension had much impact on emissions. Reference is made to an early study on the Western Extension which found suggested emissions reductions of 4.2% in PM10 and 2.5% in NOX and 6.5% in CO2. A separate document from Lord Hunt’s secretariat, commenting after the meeting with the Mayor, described the savings as “relatively trivial”.

Simon Birkett – legal team felt he had been hampered by Defra in seeking action over air quality in London

Simon Birkett, director of the Campaign for Clean Air in London, said yesterday (2 May 2012) following publication of the documents that: “The release of the information in 2009 would have contributed significantly to public understanding on an important matter of environmental protection, i.e. the Mayor’s planned removal of the western extension of the congestion charging zone.

Mr Birkett also highlighted that the paper show the legal duties the Mayor Boris Johnson should have complied with when developing his Air Quality Strategy which was to later be published in December 2010.

Time extension

And, the Campaign director also claimed that: “The UK’s reapplication on 11 May 2010 for a time extension until June 2011 to comply with legal standards for dangerous airborne particles (PM10) had assumed that Phase 3 of the London low emission zone would be postponed until 2012 but not that that the Western Extension would be removed.”

Related links

Campaign for Clean Air in London


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