We need electric vehicles to solve illegal pollution, National Highways says

National Highways has offered no firm solution to illegal levels of air pollution on the national network at as many 17 sites, suggesting only the take-up of cleaner vehicles can bring air quality within legally binding limits.

A senior figure conceded to Highways that ‘ultimately the air quality challenge will be solved ‘at the tailpipe’ by vehicle manufacturers and changes in vehicle use’.

The government-owned company told Highways that it is currently unable to state whether pollution on 30 sections of its network is now within legal limits, but plans to carry out air quality monitoring at these sites ‘shortly’.

In a July 2021 report National Highways, then known as Highways England, said that five of the 17 areas for which no solution was available were provisionally forecast to be legally compliant in 2021.

It has now told Highways that the impact of the pandemic on travel flows and restrictions on staff working and travel meant it was unable to undertake monitoring at several locations.

It pointed out that traffic levels that were significantly lower than normal would have resulted in much lower concentrations of nitrogen dioxide that would not be representative.

A spokesperson said: ‘We will shortly be initiating AQ monitoring at over 30 sections of the SRN identified as above the limit value for nitrogen dioxide.’

Mike Wilson, National Highways’ chief highways engineer, said: ‘Air quality is within legal limits across the vast majority of our road network and we’re working hard to tackle the problem in locations where levels remain too high.

‘We’ve already taken steps such as reducing speed limits and working with local authorities to fund “try before you buy” schemes to encourage businesses to switch to electric vehicles. We are continuing to find and develop other innovative solutions, as set out in our air quality strategy and net zero carbon plan.

‘Ultimately the air quality challenge will be solved ‘at the tailpipe’ by vehicle manufacturers and changes in vehicle use.’

Last year’s report looked at feasibility studies into possible interventions that the roads operator could make, including lower speed limits, at 30 sites on its network that were assessed as being in breach of legal pollution limits.

It noted that at 17 sites ‘there are no viable measures available to Highways England to implement’, adding: ‘Five of the 17 SRN PCM links are provisionally forecast to come into compliance in 2021, and no measure has been found that will bring this date forward.’

The report added: 'For all links, including the remaining 17 links where no viable measures are currently available, Highways England will carry out additional air quality monitoring and continues to investigate whether there are new or emerging ideas and / or technologies that could be considered to improve air quality.’

This month a National Highways spokesperson said: ‘At this point there are no new additional measures although we continue to investigate whether there are new or emerging ideas and / or technologies that could be considered where they are shown to be effective and viable.’

Chris Todd, director of Transport Action Network, said: ‘National Highways seem to take a laissez faire attitude to pollution and public health and make little attempt to bring these exceedances down below the legal limits as quickly as possible. They have known about the problem for years but the only thing they seem capable of doing is building more roads, which makes the problem worse.

‘National Highways need to start using more imagination to tackle these issues quickly. Investing in sustainable transport measures on and off the SRN to reduce traffic would be one way. Lowering speed limits would be another. The benefits of these sorts of actions are that they would reduce carbon emissions, noise pollution and enhance reliability.’

Campaign group ClientEarth has previously taken ministers to court over compliance with air pollution rules. It told Highways that it remains ministers’ legal obligation to ensure that plans are in place to address illegal levels of air pollution across the country, including on the strategic network.

A spokesperson said: ‘Central government has tasked National Highways with coming up with solutions, but that has materialised in very little action, with some road links still projected to suffer from illegal levels of air pollution beyond 2030.’

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