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Low Emission Zones

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the introduction of low emission zones.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. It is great to host this debate on the vital subject of establishing low emission zones in the UK. Although I will focus my attention on the wider benefits of low emission zones across the UK and why they should be introduced, it will come as no surprise to Members that I would like to use my own constituency of Bath as an example of how the introduction of low emission zones will benefit a UNESCO world heritage site.

I also want to outline why the outcome of the Government’s recent consultation on air quality must lead to the introduction of a standardised set of rules and regulations for establishing low emission zones across the UK. In layman’s terms, I want to see an off-the-shelf low emission zone system that can be picked up from Government and dropped into a community such as Bath in a much easier way than is currently the case. With the European Court of Justice’s deadline for a proposal on how we can bring Britain’s air quality up to legal standards almost upon us, we need to look at the introduction of low emission zones and how they can be implemented as quickly and successfully as possible.

It is not only in terms of deadlines that time is ticking. Air pollution is having a devastating impact on the nation’s health, and that simply cannot be ignored for much longer. In my view, a national strategy is needed to ensure a continuous and unified approach to implementation, so that drivers are not expected to comply with a variety of different regulations and restrictions as they travel around the country.

Bath, unbeknown to many outside the south-west, has a huge problem with air pollution. Many of its buildings are constructed out of the famous yellow Bath stone, but they are slowly blackening in many areas. Air pollution levels in Bath far exceed legal limits and are causing problems to constituents’ health and wellbeing, as well as the health of the many tourists who visit our city. Bath relies on tourism for much of its income, and the situation puts tourism at risk.

I will show the Chamber a map, which, at the request of the Chairman, I will hand to the Library. It is famously known as the “corridor of death” map in Bath, and I have a copy courtesy of the Federation of Bath Residents Associations. The map shows the dangerously high levels of air pollution in Bath, which have increased further since it was published in 2009. A study in Bath showed that road traffic contributes a staggering 92% of the total NOx concentration, with heavy-duty vehicles contributing between 24% and 57.1% of that. Those figures are promising in that they show that a restriction on the movement of vehicles through central Bath will reduce the contribution that traffic makes to pollution levels in the city.

Earlier this month I raised the issue with the Secretary of State, who visited Bath prior to the election. She stood with me on the corner of London Road and Cleveland Bridge and we breathed in the air pollution together. She was clear at the time that the Government would like to introduce a standardised system of low emission zones around the UK. This was music to the ears of members of the Federation of Bath Residents Associations who were in attendance, along with local residents from Camden and Walcot in my constituency.

Since then I have welcomed both the European Commissioner for the Environment and the Conservative MEP for the South West, Julie Girling, to see the situation at first hand. At our meeting, we discussed Bath’s special case and called for Bath to become a special case study for air pollution by the European Commission. Given our unique world heritage status in the UK, our bowl-like geography as a city, and the Bath stone that I mentioned earlier, which seems to take on pollutants in a more destructive way than other building materials, it is important that we have a low emission zone. I want to thank the Bath residents associations, including FoBRA and the city centre residents associations, for championing these changes in Bath.

Low emission zones work to deter the vehicles that produce the most harmful gases from entering certain areas of the city. They are not prevented completely from entering, but face large fines if their vehicles are not adapted to reduce the levels of emissions produced. Air pollution contains many different substances, and is one of the biggest causes of man-made pollution in the UK. Road transport, particularly transport that uses diesel engines, contributes the most. The zones restrict the vehicles that have the worst effect on air quality with a system of local charging and regulation.

The idea is that individuals and particularly businesses with a large fleet of vehicles make simple changes to their vehicles, or alternatively replace them, so that they can drive through the area without receiving a charge. This will in turn protect the environment from ever worsening pollution levels. Such zones have been introduced elsewhere in Europe, with Germany having a national framework of more than 70 low emission zones, which has produced staggering results. Berlin alone saw a 58% reduction in diesel particulates, which obviously has had a huge, positive effect on the health of the local population.

Bath needs a handful of major infrastructure projects to reduce the amount of traffic in the city, thus reducing air pollution further. The introduction of a low emission zone will need to work as part of a wider strategy to reduce the amount of diesel cars passing through the city each day. In the previous Budget, the Chancellor championed the cross-party transport strategy that I hope will be implemented by my local authority—the first time it has been run by Conservatives in a very long time; in fact, ever. Only with this combined approach can we reduce the scarily high pollution levels in the city.

Low emission zones are not a new thing to the United Kingdom; the low emission zone in London provides a brilliant starting point for a national strategy. London began with the introduction of charges for vehicles that failed to meet emissions standards and is set to see the introduction of an ultra-low emission zone in 2020.

On a similar note, I am pleased that Transport for London has announced that new black cabs will no longer use diesel and must be capable of running on an electric battery from January 2018. 1 recently met Calor, the gas supplier, which advocates adopting liquefied petroleum gas taxis that would be another clean alternative that could help businesses adapt to the introduction of low emission zones.

Outside London, low emission zones have already been introduced in a handful of places across the UK, including Oxford, where many of the main roads in and out of the city have controls in place, and Brighton, which introduced a low emission zone for buses at the start of this year. Bath and North East Somerset completed a feasibility study in 2014. It found that air quality improvements could be made with the introduction of a low emission zone in the central area of Bath. I want to build on this study by working with the Minister and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to use the introduction of a low emission zone in Bath as a template for a system that could be replicated across the country in areas of dangerously high air pollution.

The technology currently exists for the police and/or local authorities to prevent high polluting vehicles from accessing built-up areas. The problem really rests in the inability of councils to enforce vehicle access. We need to find a way to enable local authorities to do that. We need to ensure there is improved collaboration on this issue. My understanding is that areas across the country have struggled to introduce low emission zones because Government agencies, including Highways England, the police service and a mixture of local authorities, have not been working in partnership in an effective way to deliver these zones. My hope is that, following the publication of the Government’s consultation, a framework will be introduced to ensure that these problems are ironed out.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be exemptions in low emission zones? A class of vehicle that should be exempt is the historic vehicle. The Government define such vehicles as vehicles more than 40 years old. They are used for many charitable and fundraising events and are a feature at most weddings. As they make up only 0.6% of licensed vehicles on the road, their contribution to pollution is negligible. I declare an interest as the owner of several such vehicles and as chairman of the all-party historic vehicles group.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I do not wish to be the most unpopular person at every wedding in Bath, so I completely agree that certain vehicles need an exemption, particularly vehicles that cannot be updated. A 40-year limit seems a very sensible one if such vehicles make up only 0.6% of the total number of vehicles on our roads. If a national framework were introduced, such exemptions could easily be included so that drivers would not have to check the policy of each individual zone on their route.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for calling for this debate, because York’s infrastructure and the geography of the vale of York very much mirror what he has described. Is not the urgent issue, though, the need to address the level of nitrogen dioxide in fuels? We should address that immediately, alongside the other measures he has mentioned.

I agree that we should be doing all we can to reduce pollutant particulates from our vehicles, whether that is NOx or carbon dioxide. I have given some examples of the exciting new technologies that are available. Whether we need to invest heavily in hydrogen vehicles or introduce the Calor LPG taxis I mentioned earlier, there is a range of technologies out there to help to reduce vehicle emissions. I must say at this point that there is an incredibly exciting new vehicle emissions plant in Bath that is working to reduce vehicle emissions in real-world testing. Hopefully we will see more investment in such plants. Bath is a very similar city to York; they were not built for cars, as the hon. Lady and I know. As a result, unfortunately we are sometimes constrained as to what can be done. If a new standardised system of low emission zones comes in, I hope that our councils will be able to work together closely.

I urge the Minister to consider the introduction of a national framework for the introduction of low emission zones so that any local authority in the UK that needs to take urgent action to reduce air pollution can easily implement a low emission zone without being stopped by red tape and disagreements—that goes for York as well. Our country desperately needs a standardised system of low emission zones. Our economy cannot face a hefty fine from the European Union, and we need solutions that can be implemented smoothly.

Finally, back to Bath. A number of big infrastructure projects are being discussed locally that would directly benefit from a low emission zone. An implemented zone would encourage further use of park and ride, or the use of an alternative link road between the A36 and A46—I have been lobbying the Chancellor on that heavily—to avoid people having to drive through the city. I am concerned that Highways England might try to block any proposed low emission zone, and hope that the Minister will support me in changing its mind. Bath needs red tape and bureaucracy to be cut so that it can use solutions that will make it a beautiful city fit for the 21st century. The first move is to introduce a low emission zone to both protect the iconic Bath stone and prevent the health of residents from deteriorating any further.

It is a pleasure to speak on this issue. I do not have a large contribution to make. Usually I am a man of many words, but on this issue I will be a man of few words. Nevertheless, I want to contribute to the debate if I can. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for calling for this debate. I very much look forward to the responses by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), and by the Minister, who always brings a flair to his responses, so I look forward to hearing him. I remember the Adjournment debate in which he fiercely defended the lion as the national emblem of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I live in and represent a largely rural constituency, Strangford. I am fortunate that when I get up in the morning I can breathe the fresh sea air of Strangford lough. I live in the countryside and because of that I have never had to deal with the emissions referred to by the hon. Member for Bath. I have been very fortunate to have always lived in the countryside, and I thank God for that. My constituency is not directly affected by the problems arising from high levels of emissions, but neighbouring constituencies experience a lot of congestion, and when I join those queues of cars, as I do when I go through Belfast or to the airport—wherever it may be—when I am sitting in the car, with the traffic nose to tail, I understand what it means to have all those emissions around. Even if the windows are up, this is the time of the year when heaters are going, drawing emissions into the car.

There is pollution from cars, but also from the large volume of air travel. Perhaps the Minister can give his thoughts on that. It seems to me that there is an understanding of the issue of emissions from air travel. Some of the planes that are being built now would help to address that, but until the transition to those new planes, we have to deal with the issue as it is, as the hon. Member for Bath said. Pollution brings with it the ultimate effects on the climate, which we cannot ignore, as well as the negative effects on public health, particularly in places close to where emissions are emitted. We have a duty to our citizens when it comes to public health, and we must address that.

The Minister will reply within the scope of his departmental responsibility, but there are other responsibilities, and perhaps he needs to work with other Departments. When he responds, I would be interested to hear about his relationship with, for example, the Department of Health, and about how he will work alongside other Departments to make things better. It is through no fault of their own that citizens come into contact with or are subject to dirty air as a result of emissions. They should not have to suffer the consequent negative impacts on their health. More needs to be done to protect people from the detrimental health effects of being around dirty and polluted air. We have moved on a great deal. We can all remember those grainy images on TV in the 1950s and 1960s—well, I am not sure whether everyone can, but I can—where smog just enveloped everyone, and they had to live in and breathe it. Thank goodness we have made gigantic steps to stop that.

The aim of low emission zones should be welcomed, and such zones could achieve real results if implemented properly. As always, though, we need to be mindful of the potential unintended consequences. I wholeheartedly support what the hon. Member for Bath said, but there is a cost factor, and we should be very cognisant of that, and of what it means. It is all right for many of us, including me, to say, “Let’s take the steps and make the difference,” but if we add in the cost factor, perhaps people’s zeal might be tempered slightly.

In York, it has been estimated that every year 82 people die prematurely as a result of emissions. Surely that cost should be put above other costs.

I wholeheartedly agree. I am here to support low emission zones, but, if I can, I want to put into the debate the cost factor, because it has to be addressed. At the end of the day, we all pay for these things. I agree with the hon. Lady: if 82 people die in York every year because of emissions, let us do something about it. But I am asking who is going to pay to make that happen and how it will work. Will it be local councils, direct funding from Government or something else? We need to look at that. I am not saying that we should not do anything—we should—but I want to be told where the funding is coming from. That is the issue.

Might low emission zones negatively affect economic activity, particularly small and medium-sized businesses? Of all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland has the largest number of small and medium-sized businesses, which could be directly affected. Large businesses will be able to replace vehicles that fall short of the targets with relative ease compared with SMEs, and local, indigenous businesses will be hit hard if they are hindered in their ability to operate as a result of the introduction of low emission zones. I support the purpose of the debate, but make that point because we have to be honest and realistic about what is achievable. How do we achieve the goals that the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) wants, that I want and that everyone else present wants? Perhaps we could alleviate concerns by introducing an exemption system or some sort of assistance for SMEs, particularly indigenous businesses.

We need to take action on this issue. The cost to the climate is too much, as is the cost to our quality of life.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Does he agree that if a zone is introduced heavy-handedly it could have the effect of making shoppers go to out-of-town shopping centres where parking is free, rather than go into town or city centres? It would therefore hit small businesses in our towns and cities.

As always, the right hon. Gentleman brings his experience and knowledge to the debate. I thank him for that intervention, which helps us develop our debate. I hope the shadow Minister and the Minister will respond to it. It should be done in the right way, and this debate is about how to achieve our goals.

I believe that, as public representatives, we should be bound to do our best to promote better public health. In Berlin, there have been real results from such zones. There are examples from around the world of where they have been successful. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bath mentioned this in his introduction—I am sorry if I missed that bit—but I think Berlin shows how it can be done. There has been a 58% reduction in diesel particulates and a 20% reduction in NOx. There is no doubt that the LEZs and ultra-low emission zones in Berlin work; it is just a matter of addressing the concerns that other hon. Members outlined.

We have to address the issue of emissions. We have to save the lives that the hon. Member for York Central wants to save in a way that we can afford. If we set goals and targets, I believe we can address the issues of emissions, the climate and public health while having as little a negative impact on stakeholders as possible. I am sorry for labouring that point.

I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing this debate. I declare a family interest: I have a relative who is involved in charging points in Scotland. I want to make that open and plain.

I have been here only since May, but I have been impressed by the knowledge that we gain. I am proud and privileged to be a member of the Environmental Audit Committee. The Minister appeared before us and gave us wonderful information about the Volkswagen scandal. I cannot say that I agree with him, but I was totally impressed by his knowledge of the situation. He was particularly honest, and everybody in the Committee appreciated it.

There is huge cross-party recognition that we need to do something. Some years ago, I visited Bath and Wells and the surrounding district—if I remember correctly, Cheddar gorge is in that area—so I know it is extremely busy. It is a beautiful area that I would go back to if I had time, but I totally get what the hon. Gentleman meant when he described it as a death route. The map that he produced is probably significant to lots of people in the House.

The area that I represent is similar to that of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I have the benefit of being 10 minutes away from canals, mountains, hills and rivers. We are building fish ladders and hydro pumps, and there is a general trend towards getting people out and about, walking and cycling, which can only be good for public health. One of our biggest employers, Alexander Dennis Ltd, has just signed a £2 billion contract with a firm from China to deliver all-electric buses. Hopefully, we will see them on the streets of London and Bath in the future.

Local authorities in Scotland have issues, too. To go back to what the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said, we have had more than 2,000 deaths from air pollution in Scotland. That is not good enough; it is not acceptable. I wholeheartedly go along with everything that is going forward. We need a local strategy and we need to take local people and communities with us, but we have to be mindful of how it will impact on businesses, town centres and city centres.

A Dundee taxi operator has the UK’s largest electric taxi fleet, with 40 such vehicles. The University of Dundee— I do not know why I am going on about Dundee; I am from Falkirk, so I will probably get a row about that when I get home—has got seven electric vans and is rolling out 12 electric bikes. It aims to reduce its CO2 emissions by 9 tonnes, which will save £10,000 a year. Those are all good, practical steps towards lowering emissions. I think the whole country should work towards the national strategy. In Scotland, we are working towards it as fast as we can.

The hon. Gentleman referred to electric cars. Interestingly, during the May election, one of the things that people said on the doorstep—and, indeed, on the day of the election—was that they wanted to commit to driving electric cars. Many people wish to make that move. I certainly see that in my constituency. We have installed our first few electric power points in the town of Newtownards, which is a magnificent step in the right direction, so things are moving forward. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the time has come for the Government to harness the energy of our constituents who want to see this happen?

I totally agree that we need to harness that energy. In fact, in an earlier debate today we spoke about the need to store renewable electric energy and to produce it when it is required. I do not yet fully understand the Chancellor’s autumn statement—once I have read into it, I will—but I believe he said that he is going to put more money towards renewable energy. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten me on that point.

People want electric cars. From memory—I have not researched this thoroughly—most people travel less than 30 miles a day in and around their own areas. The majority of people do not travel long distances. Therefore, to go back to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford, having electric charging points in town centres would be great. When we build infrastructure, new shopping centres, schools or hospitals, we should put electric charging points into the construction plan whenever those things are built; it should be like ensuring disability access. That makes absolute sense to me.

I totally agree with what is going on. I am glad I have come along to represent the Scottish National party, and I am happy to share my knowledge at any time in the future. I thank the hon. Members for Bath and for York Central.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on securing this debate, and I thank other colleagues for their contributions. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon.

We need to introduce a network of low emission zones. The health impact of air pollution places a huge burden on this and future generations, so we need a genuine long-term solution. Air pollution-related conditions cause thousands of premature deaths in this country every year. Children growing up around severe air pollution are five times more likely to have poor lung development, and long-term exposure leads to an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease.

Although the majority of harmful substances come from industry, in urban areas as much as 70% of harmful pollution comes from road traffic. Diesel emissions are a particular culprit, as other hon. Members have said. The World Health Organisation has identified diesel fumes as a cause of lung cancer; it classifies diesel exhaust as a group 1 carcinogen, which places such fumes in the same category as arsenic and asbestos. That tells us how dangerous pollutants from diesel are, and it puts the seriousness of the Volkswagen scandal in perspective.

We urgently need to introduce low emission zones to protect the vulnerable from exposure. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide on London’s Oxford Street are three times over the EU limit and are the highest concentrations in the world. A low emission zone has been implemented in London, and an ultra-low emission zone is on its way, but much more needs to be done, not least because this is a UK-wide issue. The EU’s limits for nitrogen oxides are regularly breached across the UK. Some 31 of 43 areas in the UK already exceed the limits set out in the 2013 EU ambient air quality directive.

In addition to low emission zones, is it not important that we also carry out congestion commissions to look at the issues behind emissions? Vehicles with lower emissions can contribute to the cumulative impact.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The more information that is available on this topic, the better. We need more ambition to clean up the air we breathe.

Worse still, the glaring inconsistencies between test data and real world emissions mean that the accuracy of the Department’s assumptions on air quality improvements must also be called into question. Given all the recent media coverage—colleagues might have seen Monday’s “Panorama”—which has seriously challenged testing data, will the Minister assure us of the robustness of the Government’s current consultation and that projections are based on accurate modelling and real world figures?

The consultation is right to suggest that there is more we can do to tackle air pollution, but the Government describe the plan as

“a plan for a plan by others”

and dodge any time-bound targets or real responsibility. The UK is also facing fines from the European Commission of £300 million a year for contravening emissions limits and failing to have a plan to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air.

A few years ago, the Government gifted themselves the power to pass such penalties on to local authorities in areas of high air pollution. At the same time, those local authorities faced deep cuts to their budgets. In Wales—you may recognise this, Mrs Moon—we call that a hospital pass. The buck is being passed without the real power to fix the problems being identified. While the Government’s approach relies on devolving obligation and accountability to local authorities, it does so without providing any additional resources or the tools for the job.

Local authorities of course have a significant part to play, but the scope of the problem absolutely requires national oversight and guidance, which is the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Bath was talking about. We should be shaping a clear path by granting local authorities the powers that they need to reduce air pollution from vehicle emissions. That means delivering a national framework for low and ultra-low emission zones, implemented locally and informed by local intelligence. The decision-making and responsibility for reducing air pollution cannot be palmed off if local authorities have insufficient direction or investment.

While the Government’s plan refers to a national framework of clean air zones, the proposal lacks detail and needs development. Providing local authorities with a national framework would enable far more coherence. Examples from elsewhere, including from the Netherlands, show that such an approach would be a step in the right direction. How does the Minister intend to achieve the necessary improvements given the hefty budget cuts to his Department and local government announced earlier today?

In conclusion, a framework of low emission zones in the UK would be worth while and cost-effective and would make a real difference, but the Government need to throw their full weight behind the framework to ensure that it delivers the benefits it promises for our health and for the health of generations to come.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship eventually, Mrs Moon. As your husband was a distinguished ecologist and created the local government network of ecologists, I am pleased that it should be an environmental subject that I have the privilege of presenting in front of you. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing this debate and thank others for their contributions, which I will try to wrap together, to consider what is a surprisingly tricky, important and evolving subject.

The first question is one of science, about which the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made several points in a couple of interventions. One of which was about the chemistry of diesel engines and their nitrogen dioxide content. I think that she was getting at the fact that diesel burns at a different temperature to petrol, producing more nitrogen dioxide. She also pointed out that some emissions may come from technically low emission vehicles. Nitrogen dioxide is our major concern today, but we are also concerned about particulate matter, and, as others mentioned in the debate, sources of emissions extend to other things apart from vehicles, including non-road mobile machinery, such as construction machinery, and domestic boilers. The sources extend right across the spectrum of vehicles, including buses, taxis, heavy goods vehicles, light goods vehicles and cars.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), the shadow Minister, also focused on science and modelling. The modelling that we undertake in Britain is sophisticated, taking nearly three months to run, and European Union-accredited. It is unbelievably complicated, involving the overlaying of emissions and the balance of the fleet. For example, when my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) is driving through his area, his vehicle will have an impact on emissions in a particular place, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned emissions from planes, which need to be put into a totally different part of the model due to atmospheric dispersion. The model therefore includes sources of emissions, a climate model, including how the wind moves things around, and the road network, and out of that we attempt to calculate nationally the number of micrograms per cubic metre. As pointed out by the shadow Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Bath, local situations will always arise in which things are being captured that may not be captured by the national model. Equally, the national model will be much better at reliably catching the national picture than can be achieved on a grid basis.

The shadow Minister mentioned Oxford Street, and I absolutely agree that the situation is shocking. It is terrible that the levels, at 120 micrograms per cubic metre, are three times the EU limit. However, I gently challenge the idea that that is the worst in the world. Someone on a visit to Beijing, Delhi or a number of cities in Latin America will find considerably higher levels, but the situation on Oxford Street is indeed shocking. Such levels will have a serious impact on human health, which was raised by the hon. Member for Strangford.

There is also the question of cost: what do we do about the problem, and where do we allocate the costs? We now have a better understanding of the cost to human health, which has two elements. There is the indirect cost to human health. There is the value that we put on our own lives and the fact that people, if they have lung diseases or heart diseases, may die prematurely. The Treasury attaches an economic value to that, which is a slightly bizarre process. There is also the direct cost to the national health service of trying to treat people. The hon. Member for Strangford challenged us to try to integrate much more how we use the NHS budget, public health, how we think about air quality and the measures that might be taken by my Department or the Department for Transport.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) for his speech. His example—as he said himself, it was perhaps more Dundee than Falkirk—shows how we can learn from the devolved Administrations again and again. In environmental policy, we are already learning from Wales’s approach to recycling and from Scotland, in particular Zero Waste Scotland. Different approaches are often taken across borders. The Dundee example of electric vehicles and potentially electric bicycles is something that we are happy to learn from, and we are happy to exchange ideas across borders.

The fundamental challenge posed by the hon. Member for Bath and the shadow Minister was, “What on earth do we do about this? How do we address these problems?” The shadow Minister put his finger on two problems, one of which was how to get the balance right between the national and the local. He was saying that it is all very well the Department pontificating and saying, “This is where we want to get to,” but the local authorities are given the job of responding to it without resources. The other problem was how to allocate the resources and costs, which was also the challenge of the hon. Member for Strangford.

One way of understanding the dilemma is to look closely at the exact example raised by the hon. Member for Bath. How does the balance work? Bath, fortunately, is modelled not to be in exceedance by 2020. This is a devolved issue, but the cities we are particularly concerned about in England are Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, Southampton and London. They are our major concerns and we have a different approach to each city—Bath is a good example. Forty micrograms per cubic metre on average of ambient air quality is an EU-set target, but we want to do better than that, because of the benefits to human health. We would like to reach the target sooner rather than later.

Since Roman times, Bath has been a great symbol of health in this country. It was where Roman tourists and 18th century tourists alike went for their health; it is a world heritage site based on the idea of health. We should certainly have a clean air zone in a place that is seen as a great symbol of health.

The council in Bath has led in a number of ways. This is a good example of the local-national thing. The council already has an extraordinary project on bicycles—Bath’s answer to the Boris bike—which has just launched and has 5,000 bikes in operation. The council has a good approach to electric vehicle charging and has more than 20 electric vehicle charging points, with businesses also building their own charging points. It has invested in hybrid buses. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been proud to co-operate in a small way on the Bath website and on some of the research into moving towards low emission vehicles. Now Bath has come forward with a proposal to have its own low emission zone, which we welcome.

There has to be a national contribution, which I will set out in a moment, but the reason why getting the balance between local and national is vital is that we can see in a single road such as Rossiter Road in Bath an exceedance reduced by 18 micrograms per cubic metre through a single local intervention. It is not sensible for the Department to fantasise that, sitting here in London with a 300-mile screwdriver, we have a solution for 28 cities. Much will be about having active traffic management systems.

One Labour MP, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), came to me with a brilliant idea about how to resolve diesel pollution issues caused by passenger vessels docking in port. It involved setting up electricity charging points, so that the vessels did not have to run off their diesel engines. He found a solution that involves the local enterprise partnership and the local council. Such solutions can have much more of an impact much more rapidly than our simply mandating things from the centre.

As for cities where we will be in exceedance by 2020, however, we are clear that we will take action. The Government are determined to be in compliance. In 2020, we will be judged on whether we are below 40 micrograms per cubic metre in every city in England, with the exception of London, and we will be in compliance in London by 2025. We will ensure that we put structures in place to support local initiatives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bath made a final challenge: can we produce a standardised system of low emission zones to be rolled out across the cities? Yes, of course we can. The point of our consultation is to provide four straightforward models of what low emission zones—what we call clean air zones—can look like. The first model deals with buses and taxis; the second with buses, taxis and heavy goods vehicles; the third with buses, taxis, HGVs and light goods vehicles; and the fourth one goes all the way down to cars.

Does the Minister agree with me and the Mayor of London that there is a case for exempting historic vehicles from any restrictions or penalties?

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point and one we will have to think about. We have to get the balance with simplicity right, and that is what we are trying to achieve. The request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath for a straightforward, simple system was a good one. The objective is for an HGV driver to know that the same rules apply throughout England or, ideally, if we can work with the devolved Administrations, throughout the United Kingdom, so that we do not have different rules in different places. Provided we can achieve simplicity and a national standard, however, I can see a good argument for excluding historic vehicles. In essence, because the low emission zones would be standard, provided that HGV drivers had a Euro 6 diesel engine in their lorry, for example, they would know that they could enter any of the zones anywhere in the country, as such vehicles would be exempt. We do not want to end up with a situation in which any individual business has no idea what is happening when it turns up somewhere.

We have made some progress since the 1970s. The hon. Member for Strangford reminded us about the problems of smog, which were much worse. In the late 1940s, some incidents cost thousands of lives over two or three days. Since then, we have reduced sulphur dioxide by a dramatic 90%, which was an extraordinary achievement, particulate matter by 73% and the nitrogen oxides, NOx, by 62%, but we can still do better and we have a huge opportunity to do so. The Government have put £2 billion into that.

The real game in town is to ensure not only that by 2020 or 2025 we meet the targets, but that by 2050 we are in the lead and that, with the exception of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire and his exotic car, we are predominantly driving electric vehicles. We can see the direction in which we are going: Britain should be in the industrial lead, and we should be the country where such vehicles are manufactured and tested.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. In my contribution, I mentioned the example of what Berlin had done. I am sure he is coming to it, but I was hoping to hear his thoughts on that.

The Berlin model is interesting in a couple of ways. First, it has had a good result; the system was put in quite early. Secondly, it was done without cameras. The German system is simply to say, “You will not drive into the centre of Berlin if you have less than a”—I cannot remember exactly what the rules are, but people must have in their vehicles something along the lines of a better than Euro 4 petrol engine or a better than Euro 6 diesel engine. However, there are no cameras to monitor licence plates. The German citizen appears to be so law-abiding that the system relies simply on the police to turn up and inspect the tax disc.

Our assumption is that we would do better to follow the London example of having cameras to recognise people’s number plates, rather than relying on that German system, which is nevertheless an example of how Berlin achieved something pretty remarkable at a very low cost. It did not have to put up any camera infrastructure, or do anything at all; the authorities simply told people not to drive in with certain vehicles and, in essence, that was that.

I note the Minister’s concern about some of the larger cities, but some of the smaller cities and in particular, as we have heard today, the historic cities have problems and pockets of very high emissions, which cause concern. Will he look specifically at some of our historic cities to ensure that they can be part of the wider programme to reduce emissions?

Let me take the opportunity to conclude on exactly that point, because the hon. Lady has summed up our discussion: it is about exactly that balance between local knowledge and national.

The whole point of our consultation is to feed in the complexities. One thing that we have picked up is that there is, of course, a real problem with historic cities. The problem can be geographical; my hon. Friend the Member for Bath said that his city in essence sits in a bowl, and the pollution tends to congregate in it. The problem in York is a medieval street network, or just narrow streets, as potentially in the centre of Leeds, creating a real problem of congestion. A diesel engine might run well on the open road, but the problem is that, as soon as the vehicle gets stuck on a hill, its engine is pumping out a great deal of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. That is why we want our process to be an open one that embraces the offers made by York and Bath, gets behind them and clears the obstacles out of the way.

The Government’s main objective must be to bring into compliance cities that are not in compliance. However, as I said, the European target is simply a compliance level and we really encourage people to do better. Any city that wants to do better will find a huge benefit for human health and tourism: Bath alone, with its millions of visitors, is bringing in £400 million a year in tourism. It will also be good for businesses. We want this country to be a place where people are proud to breathe the air.

One of the key issues in historic cities, however, is that while we may have the ambition of introducing electric cars, we cannot just dig up the roads to introduce electric car charging points. One thing we are having a lot of difficulty with is getting through the planning process to introduce charging points in cities. Will the Minister guarantee that he will go away and work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to streamline the planning system for electric car charging points?

That is a very good challenge, which will apply to many of us. We see the same challenge in the installation of broadband and insulating historic buildings, as well as in electric infrastructure, and DEFRA tries to use different mechanisms to address that. We sit on taskforces on housing and infrastructure, which provide good opportunities to raise that point. I absolutely take the point that historic cities are different. They operate differently and it will not always be possible to have a solution for an historic city that can be applied to a new city.

I thank the Minister for accepting my intervention and for his contribution. There seems to be a lot of willingness across the UK to introduce these schemes and he has spoken about introducing cameras and background administrative systems to help implement them, so how will the Government financially help local authorities to implement these good ideas?

The answer to that, I am afraid, is that we are still completing our consultation on the plan. The plan will be printed by the end of the year and a final answer will be presented to the shadow Minister on exactly that. We have just compiled more than 700 different responses and we are going through them to try to understand what local authorities wish to do in their different towns. We are trying to work out how many projects will involve cameras and how many will involve light goods vehicles, HGVs and taxis. Some will want to invest money in hybrid buses, while others will want to go for electric charging schemes and others will want active traffic management systems to move traffic around in different directions.

The plan, which will be the answer to that, will be scrutinised carefully by the Opposition and also by ClientEarth, the Supreme Court and the European Commission, all of whom will look at it to ensure that they can be confident that we can deliver by 2020. That is the document that we wish to present at the end of this year.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for attending. This is a really important issue on a change. We did not know much about nitrogen dioxide until relatively recently: the first scientific evidence on it came out of when the “Six Cities” study in the United States that began on particulate matter and moved on to nitrogen dioxide began to identify correlations between pollution and morbidity. We still do not completely understand the chemical processes and health implications. We know that there is some kind of correlation between these substances and effects on human health and that we have to act to reduce these substances, but this is something that Governments were not really focused on even as recently as five to seven years ago.

Science is changing all the time. New research is coming in and we have doubled our numbers in a lot of these areas. I am very grateful to those who have participated in the debate and we look forward to working with everyone around the table and every local authority and devolved Administration to ensure that we provide what everyone in the United Kingdom wants: that the invisible substance that we breathe and on which we depend and our children’s lungs depend is safe and clean and that British air remains something that we proudly breathe.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the introduction of low emission zones.

Sitting adjourned.