Environment secretary Andrea Leadsom claimed that the rules preventing announcements in the pre-election period of government initiatives that could be seen as advantageous to any political party were tying her hands. But commentators soon pointed out that purdah took effect only one working day before the High Court's deadline for the plan, which had been set five months previously. If the plan really was "ready to go", as Leadsom had told the House of Commons in an emergency debate, then why could it not have simply been published in the week before the deadline?
The fact that Whitehall was busily churning out other documents at this time, including six secretary of state housing scheme refusals that cynics might think would be helpful to Tory election chances, didn't help the environment secretary's case. The publication delay smacked of a desire to put off a difficult policy announcement until after the election.
Certainly the High Court judge who rejected Leadsom's application for more time was unimpressed. He said that purdah "was not a trump card to be deployed at will", and rejected the government's argument that delayed publication would not pose "a significant threat to public health", one of the grounds on which it is agreed that purdah restrictions should be lifted.
Wisely, the environment secretary this week decided against appealing against the decision. This would have buried the plan in the long grass until well after the election, but made the government look evasive on an issue of increasing public concern. The new deadline for the draft document is 9 May, with the final plan to be published by 31 July.
What might be the impacts for applicants for planning permission and decision-makers? As our article on the moratorium recently imposed on development seen as likely to generate traffic emissions harmful to Ashdown Forest shows, Planning Practice Guidance already gives planners discretion to look at the air quality impacts of any development proposal.
The issue has been rising up the agenda in recent years, with lawyers pointing to a surge in air quality-related challenges to development. Experts think the new air quality plan is likely to herald even closer scrutiny of the issue. Developers may need to demonstrate that they are in line with the European Union directive on air quality by showing that their schemes will not slow down the attainment of air quality objectives. More hard evidence of air quality impacts may be required.
For their part, planning authorities may well be told to adopt stricter policies on air quality than they impose at the moment. They too may well face new responsibilities to gather evidence to show whether or not planned development would delay attainment of air quality objectives. One way or another, planning authorities are already expected to play a central role in improving air quality, and this responsibility seems sure to be further emphasised by the new plan.
Richard Garlick, editor, Planning firstname.lastname@example.org.