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Air Quality

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 22 February 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what steps his Department will take to improve air quality after the High Court ruling on 21 February 2018.

In July last year, we published the UK plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Yesterday, the High Court handed down its judgment following a challenge to that plan, and the judge dismissed two of the three complaints that were considered in relation to England. Specifically, he found that there is no error in the Government’s approach to tackling NO2 concentration exceedances in areas with some of the worst air quality problems, and that the national air quality modelling and monitoring that underpin the plan fulfil our legal requirements. On the five cities identified in 2015 as having particularly marked air quality challenges—Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby, Southampton and Leeds—the judge found that the Government’s approach to tackling their exceedances was “sensible, rational and lawful.”

The Court has asked us to go further in areas with less severe air quality problems. We previously considered that it was sufficient to take a pragmatic, less formal approach to such areas. I wrote to several councils in November, and that was followed up by officials who asked them to provide initial information on the action they were taking by 28 February. However, in view of the Court’s judgment, we are happy to take a more formal approach, and I have already written to the local authorities, asking them to attend a meeting on 28 February to discuss that information and their plans, and whether they can take any additional action to accelerate achieving compliance with legal limits of NO2 concentrations. We will follow that up in March by issuing legally binding directions that require those councils to undertake studies to identify any such measures. As required by the Court order, we will publish a supplement to the 2017 plan by 5 October, drawing on the outcome of the authorities’ feasibility studies and plans.

As we set out in the 2017 plan, the Government are absolutely committed to improving air quality. We have pledged to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it. Later this year, we will be publishing a comprehensive clean air strategy, which will set out further steps to tackle air pollution more broadly.

Minister, I believe that you are working very hard to improve air quality. This is not just about legislation; it is about practical actions to improve air quality. Are you, as Minister, getting enough co-operation from other Departments, including enough money from the Treasury, to address this serious issue? A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report found that particulate matter pollution costs some £16 billion a year and dramatically affects people’s lives. Does the Minister agree that preventive action would be far more cost-effective?

The High Court did find that the Secretary of State’s approach to the timetable is “sensible, lawful and rational” but not enough leadership is being provided in respect of all the local authorities with illegally high air pollution levels. Does the Minister agree that a new clean air Act will provide proper leadership, while allowing local authorities real autonomy to address the pollution levels they face at a targeted local level?

I welcome that the Government can be held to account through the courts and through Parliament, but does the Minister agree that the judgment is too focused on compliance when what we need is a much more detailed, wide-ranging and practical air quality plan? Clean air should be a right, not a privilege. I believe we need to hear much more from the Government now and we need to speed up the whole operation of cleaning our air.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is important, as he points out, to remember what we have already achieved on air quality, as well as what we are doing with local authorities. To remind the House, air pollution has improved significantly since 2010: nitrogen oxide emissions are down 27%, sulphur dioxide emissions are down 60%, particulate matter emissions are down by about 11%, and volatile organic compounds emissions are down by 9%. That is why we are investing £3.5 billion to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions. Some of that is £1 billion to support the uptake of ultra low emission vehicles. Specifically with regard to the air quality plan, we set aside nearly half a billion pounds to help local authorities to develop and implement their local air quality plans. About £90 million has been given through the Green Bus fund and we continue to try to reduce emissions in other ways.

I remind my hon. Friend that we intend to end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. He talked about a wide-ranging plan. I have been working on that for a while. He knows that we will be bringing forward a comprehensive clean air strategy. In particular, I am absolutely focused on particulate matter. That is why we issued a call for evidence on domestic burning with regard to smoky coal and wet wood. We are looking forward to receiving more responses to that. On money from the Treasury, we have been given substantial funds to try to work this through. I agree with him about prevention in relation to issues such as particulate matter.

With regard to powers in a clean air Act, we need clean air action. Councils and the Government already have a lot of powers. It is about being prepared to make very difficult decisions at times. That is why I urge the leaders of councils, including those I wrote to yesterday, to really grip this issue on behalf of the people they represent and we represent. It really matters that we take direct, effective local action to ensure the future health of our citizens.

This matter warrants the urgent attention of the House, which is, of course, why I granted the application for the urgent question. However, I am keen that we make timely progress, as the Back-Bench debates are heavily subscribed. There is, therefore, a premium on observation of time limits from the Front Bench and on very pithy inquiries from the back. I know that that will be reflected in succinct replies from the Minister.

I have heard the response from the Minister, but the reality is that yesterday the Government’s plan was ruled unlawful for the third time in three years. Here we find ourselves once again having to take the Government to court and having to summon them to the Dispatch Box for them to take any action on this serious issue of public health.

We know that air pollution is responsible for about 40,000 premature deaths each year, with cardiovascular disease accounting for an estimated 80% of all such premature deaths. Research by the British Heart Foundation found premature deaths and diseases attributable to air pollution in the UK result in over £20 billion in economic costs every year. The UK is currently routinely exceeding the legal pollution limits set out in the 2008 EU ambient air quality directive. That poses the serious question of whether this Conservative Government can be trusted with our environment and to deal with illegal air pollution after the UK leaves the EU, given the kind of ducking and diving we are witnessing now.

As the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated, this situation has escalated into a public health emergency, yet the Government’s attitude and actions do not appear in any way to reflect the severity and urgency of the situation. A press statement released by the Government yesterday appeared to try to spin the Court ruling—we have heard it again today—as some sort of win for the Government and played down responsibility for this incredibly serious failure. It is typical of a Government who provide high talk on the environment but are not capable of demonstrating the leadership and action necessary to make changes on the ground when it really counts.

Given that the matter has effectively been taken out of the Government’s hands, through what is an unprecedented step, does the Minister recognise her Department’s chronic failure to grasp the nettle on this issue? Will she confirm whether the Government plan to appeal the latest Court ruling? I understand that leaders of the affected local authorities have been invited to a workshop on 28 February. Will the Minister outline the purpose of the workshop and, crucially, what support will be made available to support those cash-strapped local authorities in delivering the action we now need?

As I have said before, I take this issue very seriously. I am not surprised that the hon. Lady failed to mention that the Welsh Labour Government were also a defendant in the judicial review. Welsh Ministers admitted that the Welsh element of the air quality plan last year did not satisfy the legal requirements, which is why they have undertaken to publish a supplemental plan. Frankly, therefore, the issue is not confined to the Minister at the Dispatch Box today.

Present problems with air quality in the UK are a direct result of the EU’s failed emissions testing regime, the actions of certain irresponsible car manufacturers and the rapid increase in the number of diesel cars on the roads since 2001. I should also point out that 21 other EU member states are also breaching legal air quality limits. I try not to take a partisan approach on this, but I am fed up with the Opposition simply not accepting their part of the responsibility. It was the last Labour Government who incentivised diesel cars. Between 2000 and 2010, the sale of diesel cars shot up from 15% to nearly half of all vehicles sold. I am not saying that previous Labour Ministers did not act in good faith, but as we have found out through a freedom of information request, Labour ignored advice that diesel fumes were toxic and pushed on, on the basis of lowering CO2 emissions.

We do not intend to appeal the ruling because, in essence, the judgment turned on a narrow issue: that areas with shorter-term exceedances ought to be mandated to take action. We had already asked local authorities to do that and are more than happy to say that we will now issue legally binding directions stating that they need to take action. We will work with them. We had already asked them to provide initial information and plans, and we are now asking them to come to London next week so that we can go through those in detail and talk through the kinds of resources they need to ensure better air quality for the citizens we all represent.

Will my hon. Friend impress upon colleagues across the Government that this is not only an issue of fundamental social justice for many of our poorer citizens but about strengthening the UK economy, given that clean air is a business advantage? We do not want to fall behind Norway, the Netherlands and Scotland, which are looking to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2025, 2030 and 2032 respectively. Let us make sure that England is at the forefront, socially just and globally competitive on this issue.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are working together to try to improve air quality. He will recognise that air pollution has already improved significantly since 2010. That is why we are working with local authorities to devise local solutions to make this happen. He mentions Scotland. Yes, the Scottish Government are also working on the introduction of a low emissions zone, but I can assure him that the situation in Glasgow is very serious, and I am sure that the Scottish Government, with the support of SNP MPs, will work to ensure they have effective solutions for their citizens, too.

With three High Court cases lost, how critical does this situation need to get before the Government act? I appreciate the Minister’s words, and she mentioned Scotland, where all local authorities with air quality management areas now have action plans. We have set more stringent air quality targets than the rest of the UK and are the first country in Europe to legislate for particulate matter 2.5—a pollutant of special concern for human health. Perhaps I can help her out and meet her, because she will know the work that I have been doing on the aviation noise authority and making sure that it is independent. I wonder whether she would consider ensuring that pollution is taken into consideration and is part of its remit. In my Livingston constituency, I have set up a local noise authority, which ensures that the community can engage meaningfully with airports, airlines and government. Will she commit to ensuring that the aviation noise authority is truly independent and that the monitoring and management of pollution is also within its remit?

The hon. Lady now has the opportunity to breathe, and I am sure that she will find it a most welcome opportunity.

We all have the opportunity to breathe clean air in here, thanks to the excellent work of the House. The hon. Lady talked about the aviation noise authority. I am not a Transport Minister, so I am not aware of the issues that she raised, but there is no doubt that we want to continue to want to reduce emissions from aviation. That is why we are already working with other countries; I have instigated some elements on that. With regard to what is happening in Scotland, she will be aware that, in the Glasgow area, compliance with the legal limits is not predicted until 2026, so yet again, the money that we are investing in England has consequences for the Barnett formula. That will help the Scottish Government to achieve some of the outcomes that she wants. I will have to ask her to contact Transport Ministers to discuss the other matters that she deliberated on.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s proactive work on air quality, including in Dudley, and I urge her to work closely with local authorities to ensure that our air is clean and safe.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. Dudley is one of the areas that has been named. I have already been in conversation with Andy Street, the Mayor for the west midlands. He is very ambitious on the plans to make these improvements and I look forward to meeting the leader of Dudley Council next week to discuss further specific issues.

If the UK leaves the EU, the Commission and the European Court of Justice lose their role in monitoring and enforcing air pollution standards. Back in November, the Environment Secretary told my Committee—the Environmental Audit Committee —that he would consult on a new body to fill that governance gap very early in the new year. When will we see that consultation? Will that body be in place before exit day? Will it have higher environmental standards, which is what the Environment Secretary says he wants, lower standards, which is what the Brexit brigade wants, or full regulatory alignment with the EU, which is what the Prime Minister has promised her EU colleagues?

The good news is that the House has put legislation in place—we brought this forward—on the targets for 2020 and 2030 on the key pollutants. This Government have already acted and laid the legislation. I am pleased that the House endorsed that approach.

The consultation will be forthcoming soon. I am conscious that people are eager to see it, but, in the meantime, we are not relying on the EU to help with air quality. The hon. Lady will be aware of many measures that we are undertaking, including the new bypass in her constituency, which I and my officials believe will be the solution to improving air quality for the people of Wakefield.

The A6 corridor in my constituency is among the most congested and worst-polluted roads in the country. What conversations has my hon. Friend had with the Department for Transport on road building to alleviate congestion and therefore improve air quality?

The Department for Transport has been active. The Government have one of the largest transport investment programmes that there has been for many decades. I am not particularly aware of the road to which my hon. Friend refers, but I am confident that my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport will be. One thing that we have done with the clean air fund is make sure that air quality is a key criterion in assessing particular grants in the future.

In Greater Manchester, as in many other areas, the real issue with nitrogen oxides is from heavy goods vehicles and old buses. We have to begin to think about a bus scrappage scheme and incentives to get old lorries off the roads. How would the Minister respond to that?

The good news is that we had already invested £89 million in helping authorities to convert their buses, and another £40 million was added. When I visited the councillors involved in Manchester some time ago, they indicated that they are likely to use the powers under the Bus Services Act 2017 to ensure that they can do more on scheduling and requiring buses to be Euro 6 compliant in future. That is why we have been funding local councils right around the country to make that transition.

The expectation from the targets that we have legislated for is that the impacts of air pollution will be halved by 2030. One reason for saying that we will end the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040 is to give a strong message to the manufacturers. We have seen a response already in that a number of manufacturers are saying that they will stop the production of such cars by the end of this decade. That is good news for people not only in the United Kingdom, but across Europe and the wider world.

For the last seven years, the UK has been in breach of EU limits on toxic pollutants linked to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions and stunted lung growth in young children. It is no use telling the parents of a seven-year-old that things will improve by 2030. Can we see greater urgency, more resources, more action now, and those responsible holding up their hands and admitting when they have got it wrong?

I am sure the hon. Lady will be talking to Lesley Griffiths and the Welsh Labour Government, because it is a devolved issue. They contributed a part of the 2017 air quality plan. Just a few months later, they recognised that it was not good enough and said they were going to do more. That is why we have been working with the Welsh Government to make improvements, and why at a national level we are taking measures regarding fleet turnover and incentives to move to the cleanest diesel possible for those people who still want to use diesel cars in the interim. That is also why we are taking measures such as increasing company car taxation on diesel cars. We are taking measures, but it is not usual practice for the UK Government to order the Welsh Government to do something that is devolved. I am sure that the hon. Lady will work with her colleagues in Cardiff to ensure that her citizens are better represented in making the case for air quality with the Welsh Government.

Older vehicles are the most polluting, and they tend to be owned by small and medium-sized enterprises or by people on low incomes. Will my hon. Friend look at the potential for a vehicle scrappage scheme for not only buses, but cars and lorries, so that we get the worst-polluting vehicles off the road more quickly?

On the air quality plan, we issued a consultation on mitigation measures and a potential scrappage scheme as part of that. We are still considering the responses, and will report back to the House shortly.

Yesterday I sat here listening to the Prime Minister’s response to my question, and I was very surprised at the gap between the briefing that she had been given by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—albeit, I accept, at short notice—and what I was reading through the news feeds. Will the Minister apologise to me and to the House for the briefing given to the Prime Minister that implied that the judgment was more a win than a loss, given that, as we now know very clearly, the Government have been found to be acting unlawfully, and so badly that the court is taking over DEFRA’s role in implementing the legislation?

I am afraid the hon. Lady is simply incorrect. The judge dismissed challenges about our approach to air quality. I wrote to councils last November asking them about how we can help to improve air quality in those 45 local authorities, and the judge said that urging and encouraging was not sufficient, but that we should issue legally binding directions. That was reflected in what the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, and that is what we will do. I encourage the hon. Lady to work with the Mayor of London, who has already had a substantial amount of funding, which he is using to start deploying cleaner buses and other aspects of modal shift in London. Frankly, he needs to accelerate his programme, and I encourage her to work with him in doing that and building on the plans of my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson).

I welcome the energy and resources that the Government are applying to this issue, particularly the clean bus funds, which will see a fleet of electric vehicles serving Harrogate and Knaresborough. Are all the local authorities that my hon. Friend is dealing with as committed and enthusiastic as she is about solving this issue? That has not been my experience so far.

My hon. Friend was a Treasury Minister when we were working on the air quality plan, and I know that he is as committed as I am to these improvements. I fully recognise that some of the issues involved are politically difficult, which is why I have been meeting councillors from those authorities to tell them that time cannot wait for effective local solutions. My hon. Friend ensured that we had Government finances with which to tackle the issue, and those finances will be deployed.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I am very grateful to the Minister for her letter and her offer to meet me to discuss the plan for Oxford, which I intend to take up. Will she confirm, however, that it is not just a meeting that she is having with the councils, and that there is also extra money? I know that they have already been trying.

I did not mention this earlier, but yesterday I wrote to all Members affected by the impact of yesterday’s legal ruling, which binds the councils legally to co-operate with what we were already doing. I have engaged in correspondence with the leader of Oxford City Council, and look forward to meeting her next week. The council is looking at certain proposals, which include widening the pedestrianised area in the city centre, to tackle the challenges. I want to know what resources or powers it may need, but I think that it has powers already, and it may just be a case of working through the details of the plan.

Will my hon. Friend give us more details about what the Government are doing to support renewable technology to secure the future of clean energy in the United Kingdom?

In addition to the £3.5 billion that we are investing to tackle, in particular, air quality in the context of a modal shift, we are massively increasing the incentives for councils to help to deploy the infrastructure that is needed to support the growth in the use of electric vehicles. There is already a reasonably generous grant for people who wish to buy such vehicles—about £1 billion has been allocated—and, as my hon. Friend will know, legislation that is currently before Parliament will require fuel stations to provide the electric infrastructure that enables people to charge their cars, rather than just filling them with petrol and diesel.

As chair of my party’s Back-Bench environment, food and rural affairs committee, may I say to the Minister that this is not good enough? We are talking about a national health emergency: according to recent estimates, a million people could probably die by 2040. The Minister must act now, with the manufacturers, with local authorities, and with everyone else.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the effort to get local authorities working on this. He will, I hope, be aware from the letter that I sent him yesterday that we have been in correspondence. We recently funded a significant number of buses—350, I think—in the West Yorkshire combined authority, and there is clearly an opportunity for those new buses to be deployed in the worst traffic hotspots, so that we can work on air pollution. I look forward to meeting the leader of Kirklees Council and other West Yorkshire authorities next week.

I thank the Minister for meeting me a couple of weeks ago to discuss specific Bath issues. She was helpful and pragmatic. I agree that local leadership is needed.

The Minister mentioned the new legislation earlier. I do not think that it goes far enough. May I ask again whether she will consider introducing regulations requiring owners of public facilities such as supermarkets and public car parks to provide electric car charging points?

I did have a very constructive meeting with the hon. Lady recently. I also visited Bath last year to see at first hand the challenges that it is facing. The hon. Lady will know of the grants that have already been provided to increase electric vehicle take-up. However, I take her point, and I will discuss it with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman).

Oxford was excluded from the mandated list because only 3% of our monitoring sites were included. Do the Government now accept that that decision was wrong and that, as the first British city to commit itself to a zero-emission zone, we really need the powers and resources that she mentioned?

Oxford City Council already has those powers. It could have done this years ago. The powers were granted some time ago in the Transport Act 2000. The judge yesterday upheld the fact that our modelling had fulfilled our legal requirements, although I am conscious that the local air monitoring does not comply with the legislation by which we are bound. I am pleased that Oxford is considering wider pedestrianisation in its city centre, and I look forward to discussing that in detail next week. However, it has those powers already. It can get on with this, and I encourage it to do so as quickly as possible.

Although I am grateful to the Minister for the funding she has given to cash-strapped authorities such as Bristol for consultations on clean-air zones, I would like her to move a little further and think of the children who are at school in one of the worst-polluted areas in the centre of Bristol, St Michael on the Mount Without. Will she urgently consider a scrappage scheme for cars and other vehicles, such as taxis and buses?

I have discussed air quality with the hon. Lady before. She will be aware that I have had direct discussions with Bristol City Council. She will also be aware of the funding that has already gone in to help the uptake of electric vehicles and the buses that are being provided from transport funds. Bristol is making good progress. It is one of the councils that we mandated last year to come forward with action; I believe that it is on track, mainly, with its process and I look forward to receiving its final considerations later this year.

After eight years of court cases, I find the Minister’s minimalistic approach quite staggering. Why are her Government investing in a new generation of dirty diesel trains, which are a major issue in my constituency, as they idle outside residential areas?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), the Rail Minister, said, we are going to end the use of diesel-only trains by 2040. That has given a clear steer to the procurers and operators, on the basis that they tend to invest in 15-year cycles. Our rail electrification programme is considerably greater than that of the Labour Government, who, when in power for 13 years between 1997 and 2010, achieved 13 miles, so frankly, it is not for Labour Members to lecture us today about these issues. Since 2010, we have been investing to fix the problems that they left behind.

Three years after the Volkswagen story broke, how are the Government holding the company to account for its emissions scandal?

We have been holding Volkswagen to account. One of the challenges of how the EU operates in this regard is that it is for the German Government to be the regulator of Volkswagen, and we hold Volkswagen directly to account through the European Commission. I am pleased that Volkswagen has come forward with its wider group to do some of the retrofitting of vehicles in terms of software updates to correct what it did, and I am pleased that that is now being fixed, but frankly, the behaviour of Volkswagen and its chief executives was a disgrace. The way they used money to fund research into the effects of diesel fumes on primates and humans is frankly disgusting. They should hang their heads in shame, but we are now fixing the problems that they created.