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Air Quality

Volume 603: debated on Thursday 17 December 2015

I have today issued the UK plan for improving air quality. This plan sets out a comprehensive approach that will reduce health impacts and meet our environmental and legal obligations by implementing a new programme of clean air zones. It is available at:

Under this plan, by 2020 the most polluting diesel vehicles—old polluting buses, coaches, taxis and lorries —will be discouraged from entering the centres of Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby. Newer vehicles that meet the latest emission standards, and private cars, will be unaffected.

Over recent decades, air quality has improved significantly. Between 2005 and 2013 emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen by 38% and particulate matter has reduced by more than 16%. Over the past five years the Government have committed over £2 billion to help bus operators upgrade their fleets, reduce pollution from a range of vehicles such as refuse trucks and fire engines through cutting edge technologies, and promote the development of clean alternative fuels such as powering taxis with liquid petroleum gas in Birmingham.

In order to bring the UK into legal compliance and to reduce concentrations of nitrogen dioxide below 40 micrograms clean air zones will be introduced in five cities. These zones will reduce the pollution in city centres and encourage the replacement of old, polluting vehicles with modern, cleaner vehicles. Similar zones in Germany and Denmark have been shown to improve air quality.

These zones will target air quality hot spots. Following scoping studies, which Government will provide funding for, councils will consult on the details on these zones.

In Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby, these zones will cover old diesel buses, coaches, taxis and lorries. Newer vehicles that meet the latest emissions standards will not need to pay and, under this plan, no private car will have to pay. The local authorities will have to set charges at levels designed to reduce pollution, not to raise revenue—beyond recovering the costs of the scheme.

Birmingham and Leeds will also discourage old polluting diesel vans and implement other measures including park and ride schemes, signage, changes in road layouts and provision of infrastructure for alternative fuels.

Many companies have already started to update their fleets to modern, cleaner vehicles. For example, by 2017 British Gas will have replaced at least 10% of their commercial fleet with electric vehicles, reducing emissions compared to their old diesel vans. The new electric vans also represent a saving over their diesel counterparts. In London the cost savings could be as high as 20%, with other locations saving between 6% and 10%.

The Environment Agency, winner of Green Fleet of the Year 2015, has committed to increase the number of ultra-low emission vehicles to more than 100 by the end of 2015.

Another example of businesses modernising their fleet is Reading Buses—38% of their fleet are “ultra-clean” drastically reducing their emissions. Drivers are also given advice on fuel efficient eco-driving techniques.

One of the main reasons our cities continue to face air quality problems is the failure of diesel vehicles to deliver expected emission reductions in real-world driving conditions. We have recently secured agreement in the EU to introduce more stringent emissions testing across the EU, ensuring that vehicles live up to their low emission credentials. Our plans fully factor in current car performance and future performance standards following this agreement.

The Mayor of London has a well-developed strategy for improving air quality by 2025, including the implementation of an ultra-low emission zone by 2020, retro-fitting of buses and licensing new taxis to be zero-emission capable from 2018. We will continue to support and monitor the delivery of the Mayor’s plans.