Skip to main content

Air Quality

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012

As you know, Mr Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for food and farming, is not here today as he is representing the UK at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council.

Air quality in the UK is much improved, though more needs to be done, especially in cities, where transport is the main issue. We must strike a balance between protecting health and the environment and supporting sustainable economic growth. Working with local authorities and others, we are investing significantly in cleaner, more sustainable transport. Underperformance against European vehicle emissions standards is making compliance on nitrogen dioxide challenging for us and many other member states.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about air quality in cities, but I understand that air quality compliance in Greater Manchester and 16 other areas in the UK will now not be reached until 2020. Given the heavily congested roads, such as the A57, which goes through Mottram and Hollingworth in my constituency, I am not surprised. The A57 goes past Hollingworth primary school. How many children in England and Wales as a whole live or go to school within 150 metres of roads carrying 10,000 vehicles or more on average? Does the Minister feel that the Government’s strategy is adequate to improve air quality for them?

DEFRA does not hold information on the location of schools. Local authorities have duties to improve air quality and the responsibility is shared between Government and local authorities. We have provided funding for a range of possibilities, including green transport initiatives, and many local authorities are responding really well. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are real challenges in some urban areas, particularly with nitrogen dioxide levels. We are seeking to assist local authorities in trying to deal with hot spots, particularly when they are close to schools.

Will the Minister tell the House the Government’s latest estimate, in percentage terms, of annual exposure to nitrogen dioxide for the poorest quintile of the population in England and Wales compared with the wealthiest?

The way in which member states quantify where they stand with regard to air pollution varies. In this country, we have a very rigorous system that divides the country into 43 air quality zones. If one area in a zone is failing, the whole zone is deemed to have failed. It is up to local authorities to work with the Government to deal with problems when they occur, when there are high levels of deprivation and, as the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) mentioned, around schools. It is important that local authorities with access to that information use the funding that the Government give to address problems with air quality.

When people enter this country—for example, to visit the Olympics—they land in the most air polluted area of the country. The Mayor’s strategy does not seem to have worked, the local air quality management zone has barely scraped the surface and we need a fresh initiative. Will the Minister meet me, a delegation of local councillors and others to see whether we can launch a fresh initiative, particularly around the Heathrow area?

I know that the hon. Gentleman works closely with agencies in the area, particularly on air quality issues emanating from Heathrow. My noble Friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who leads on this issue, will, I am sure, be willing to meet him and others to ensure that there are local strategies. I should point out that the Mayor, through his air quality strategy, has addressed many of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. We are starting to see improvements in a number of areas and I look forward to being able to report improvements in London for 2011.

Clean air fund measures are locally targeted to reduce PM10s by 10% to 20%. They include green infrastructure, dust suppressants, retrofitted buses and dealing with traffic hot spots where the stop-start of traffic has caused severe or marked increases in air pollution.

Unbelievable! This is the second biggest public health challenge that the country faces, but all we have are excuses and inaction from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. With an estimated 29,000 premature—[Interruption.] We are talking about premature deaths, so I think that Government Members should quieten down. With an estimated 29,000 premature deaths a year in the UK from air pollution, why does the only action taken by DEFRA try to weaken EU laws that seek to protect the public?

That last point is completely wrong. In fact, there is a meeting next week in Geneva on the measures that we have taken as part of the Gothenburg agreement that will result in further improvements in air quality. There is no doubt that air quality has a marked effect on people’s health, particularly if they suffer from heart or lung conditions. We have begun to improve things, but a big challenge remains in London. The Mayor inherited poor air-quality conditions and, as a result of his strategy, we have begun to see big improvements.