The UK government is abdicating its responsibilities and “unfairly shifting the burden” of dealing with dirty air on to local authorities, says an industry body.
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health outlined its views in response to the government’s consultation on air pollution.
Under pressure from the courts, an outline plan was published last month.
A detailed scheme must be in place by the end of July.
On the top of Michael Gove’s rather full in-tray will be the tricky question of how best to tackle air pollution, especially the very high levels of nitrogen dioxide which are linked to diesel engines.
The new Environment Secretary will have to decide on the best way of meeting the substantial challenge posed to the government by the courts.
Last November, the High Court told the government that its existing air quality plan was not fit for purpose and ordered publication of a draft scheme by early May.
While the draft plan considers many options for tackling the problem, the central thrust of making local authorities responsible for cleaning up the air has drawn the ire of the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health (CIEH).
“The government’s proposals are woefully inadequate to tackle air pollution and place far too much responsibility on the shoulders of our over-stretched local authorities,” said Tony Lewis, head of policy at CIEH.
“We stand on the cliff-edge of a national public health emergency and these plans are devoid of substantive proposals, timescales for addressing the key challenges, clarity around targets or even availability of resources to support necessary actions.”
An analysis by Friends of the Earth, also published on Thursday, says that the government’s own data shows that 58 local authorities across the UK will still have illegal levels of air pollution in 2019 without further action being taken.
“They were trying to hide the true effects until the court forced them to show the much worse situation and that is revealed in this table,” Jenny Bates from Friends of the Earth told BBC News.
“Without further action, London would still have illegal air in 2030, Birmingham and Leeds until 2026, and 58 places until 2019.”
The campaigners say that properly funded, clean air zones that impose charges on the dirtiest vehicles must be introduced by the end of next year.
They are annoyed that in its draft plan the government did all it could to ensure that councils looked at every other option, including removing speed bumps, before imposing charging clean air zones.
“The law requires the cleaning up of the air in the shortest possible time. Deliberately delaying the most effective tool can’t be right,” said Jenny Bates.
“It’s supposed to be done irrespective of cost, irrespective of political difficulties. They just have to do it because it is literally costing lives.”
However, the idea that clean air zones that charge drivers of polluting vehicles should be top of the government’s list does not find favour with everyone.
“We need a programme of replacing or retrofitting ageing bus and taxi fleets with cleaner engines, especially in towns and cities which are breaching air pollution limits,” said Nick Lyes from the RAC.
“Rushing to implement charges on car owners in such a short space of time is simply not practical for many drivers, and charges should only be considered if other measures are deemed not to be improving local air quality.”
The RAC says that no-idling zones could be introduced immediately, while longer term, greater efforts should be made to encourage drivers to switch to low-emissions vehicles.