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Officially designated as a 'rural road': the M25 Dartford Crossing on the QE2 Bridge. Photo: highwaysengland via Flickr (CC BY).
Officially designated as a 'rural road': the M25 Dartford Crossing on the QE2 Bridge. Photo: highwaysengland via Flickr (CC BY).
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Britain's eight-lane 'rural road' evades air quality reporting

Keith Taylor

7th March 2017

The government's 'misclassification' of an eight-lane M25 road bridge over the river Thames East of London as a 'rural road' meant they did not have to report the illegal levels of pollution found there, writes Keith Taylor - getting off the UK off the hook for a 17th breach of EU air quality standards. What an unfortunate error!

We must be clear; the Dartford Crossing 'misclassification' is a simple error. It would be scurrilous to suggest the Government is happier with being pulled up on 16 illegally polluted areas rather than 17.

What has eight lanes, links Dartford and Thurrock, carries 160,000 vehicles a day, and regularly breaches UK air pollution limits?

Answer: a 'rural road'.

You might have thought the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge on the M25 motorway, part of the 'Dartford Crossing' over the Thames, as more of a superhighway.

But no. It's a 'rural road' - albeit the most congested and polluted in Britain and the only one with eight lanes.

Well, that's according to the Government, at least. And due to this dubious designation - explained away by officials as an unfortunate 'classification error' - the Government has been exempt from reporting the illegal levels of air pollution that afflict the road, caused by the 50 million vehicles that use the Dartford Crossing every year.

We know that staff and Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs are swamped with Brexit right now. But at no point in the 15 years preceding the EU referendum, apparently, could the department find the time to reassess the crossing's 'rural road' classification.

That is despite the data the local council was providing showing the persistently illegal levels of air pollution in the area.

But there's no suggestion of foul play

After all, why would Ministers want to deliberately exclude from its air quality reports a congested crossing which carries tens of thousands more cars every day than it was ever designed to from one of the most polluted places in Kent to one of the most polluted places in Essex?

There is certainly no evidence that high-profile legal action against air quality breaches in the areas around the crossing would be detrimental to Transport Minister's case for another, equally polluting, Lower Thames Crossing connecting Kent and Essex.

The Government is simply outrageously incompetent, we are asked to accept - rather than, say, attempting to avoid taking responsibility for a deadly air pollution crisis that unnecessarily claims the lives of 50,000 people in Britain every year - an estimated 1,500 of those lost in Kent and Essex.

It is also an isolated error, completely unconnected to the systematic air quality failures highlighted, only last week, by the 'final warning' issued to the Conservative government by the European Commission - a warning in response to repeated breaches of legal air pollution limits in 16 areas across Britain.

The failure highlighted by the European Commission is as much moral as it is legal, with Ministers displaying an deeply worrying indifference towards their duty to safeguard the health of British citizens.

That the European Commission is having to hold the government to account for a public health crisis that costs the British public more than £20bn a year is a shameful indictment of the Conservatives' irresponsible and deadly apathy.

And we must be clear; the Dartford Crossing 'misclassification' is a simple error. It would be scurrilous to suggest the Government is happier with being pulled up on 16 illegally polluted areas rather than 17.

Tens of thousands of needless deaths a year - but let's burn the 'red tape'!

Theresa May's administration is continually failing to do the bare minimum, as required by EU laws the UK itself helped to set, to improve the quality of the air we all breathe. The bare minimum. Where embraced and enforced, EU air pollution limits are helping to prevent thousands of deaths every year and saving billions of pounds in direct health costs.

The government readily acknowledges EU law as the driver of positive air quality action in the UK, but the Prime Minister's still plans to put vital EU safeguards at risk in the pursuit of an extreme Brexit. Meanwhile, misclassifying the Dartford Crossing as a 'rural road' was an innocent mistake.

To err is human; to forgive, divine; so let's give Defra and the Dft the benefit of the doubt. Let us not, however, let the opportunity to remind the Government that it must finally face up to its moral and legal responsibility for tackling Britain's air quality crisis go to waste. Ministers must make a firm commitment to abiding by and fully - with improved attention to detail - implementing EU air quality laws.

At least 58% of Britons recognise the toxic air they are forced to breathe is damaging to their health and almost two-thirds want the Government to finally step up and take action to combat the UK's air quality crisis.

Theresa May must bring in a new Clean Air Act, as supported by the public, campaigners and politicians alike, as a means to maintain and strengthen the vital air quality protections provided by EU membership as Britain prepares to leave.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister might want to give Andrea Leadsom and Chris Grayling a quick nudge - just to see if there are any motorways accidentally classified as cycle paths.



Keith Taylor is the Green Party MEP for South East England.




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