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Volume 721: debated on Thursday 27 October 2022

Select Committee statement

We begin with the Select Committee statement. Dame Meg Hillier will speak on the publication of the 22nd report of the Public Accounts Committee, “Tackling local air quality breaches”, for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of Dame Meg Hillier’s statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and call Dame Meg Hillier to respond to them in turn. Questions should be brief. I call the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I record my thanks to the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee for this report. As many Members will know, the National Audit Office does great work to support us, analysing the numbers from Government and making sure that we are working on the basis of the facts in front of us. I record a special thanks to my deputy Chair, the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), who chaired this particular session of the Committee’s work. We also took evidence from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—it is good to see the Minister in her place—the Department for Transport, and National Highways on their work to tackle air quality in England. Our report covers the nitrogen dioxide programme and work to address other air pollutants.

The Committee was particularly keen that we make a statement on this report in the House because of the vital importance of the issue. Quite simply, poor air quality can cause significant damage to people’s health, as well as harming the environment. There is some good news: emissions of most air pollutants have been falling in recent decades in the UK. However, poor air quality continues to cause damage to people’s health and the natural environment. As we highlight in our report, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants estimated that human-made air pollution in the UK has an effect equivalent to between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths each year. Of course, there was the very tragic case of a young girl who died, where the coroner concluded that her asthma had been exacerbated by the pollution around the south circular in south London.

There are two types of air quality target in the UK: national emissions ceilings, which are breached if too much of one pollutant is emitted across the UK within a year, and local concentration limits—about which I think most Members get the most letters—which are breached if the average level of a pollutant in a specific area is too high. Current national targets cover pollution from ammonia, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds and sulphur dioxide, as well as others. Between 2010 and 2019, the UK complied with most of its legal air quality limits for major pollutants at local and national levels, with the exception of the nitrogen dioxide annual mean concentration limit, of which there have been long-standing breaches. The Committee was particularly concerned about those breaches, and the report reflects that concern.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport helpfully established the Joint Air Quality Unit in 2016 to oversee delivery of the Government’s plans to achieve compliance with air quality targets. Measures to tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution include bus retrofit and traffic management schemes and, in some areas, clean air zones where vehicle owners are required to pay a charge if their vehicle does not meet a certain emissions standard. Through their nitrogen dioxide programme, the Government have directed 64 local authorities to take action to improve air quality. They have also commissioned National Highways to examine breaches on the strategic road network in England. I should say that across that network, only a total of about 51 miles has actually breached that limit across 31 local areas. Air pollution is often very localised, and only about 250 homes are directly affected by that air pollution, because it dissipates. However, one of the challenges is how to measure it, and I will touch on that challenge in a moment, because the Committee is concerned that the Government need to look at the model for measurement as we go forward.

As of May this year, a lifetime budget of £883 million has been committed to the programme to support local councils, and the Government separately spent £39 million to improve air quality on the strategic road network between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The Government published a clean air strategy in January 2019, outlining their approach to air quality much more broadly. At the time, we took evidence from the Government, and they have since published their air pollution control programme to make sure that the 2030 targets are met.

However, the Committee concludes that current policy measures are insufficient to meet four of the five 2030 emission ceiling targets set for the UK as a whole. There has been progress, but there is still a lot to do. Progress to address illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution in the 64 authorities and 31 sections of the strategic road network, which I mentioned, has been slower than was expected in 2017. Central Government had expected that there would be a change within three years, but as of 1 April this year, 17 local authorities were still in the process of implementing measures. It has been four and a half years since the target was set, and most of those 17 authorities do not have a firm completion date, although eventual compliance is expected because of the Government’s moves to introduce electric vehicles and other upgrades to vehicles. However, we have separately looked at the electric vehicle programme, and there are challenges there too.

One of the main conclusions of our report is that the public find it hard to find information about air quality in their area, and it is difficult to know what has been done by either central Government or local government to address illegal levels of pollution. We conclude—I do not think it is rocket science—that air quality issues require local government and the national Government to work very closely together, yet we do not think that the Government have quite got the balance right. The lack of a co-ordinated central communications campaign means that activities by local councils are not always supported by a strong national message about the need for air quality measures. For example, low emission zones can be unpopular locally but are vital. Often, it is about the Government saying, “You need to take measures in order to reduce emissions,” but when measures are taken, they are not always backed up by the national message. National messaging can also help to make sure that people know how they can be affected by air quality breaches and how they can take mitigating action, especially if they have respiratory problems, because that obviously has a very big impact on their health.

Of course, as the Public Accounts Committee, we are very concerned about value for money, and we would like the Government to look at how money is being spent across Whitehall on air pollution issues. We know it is difficult to get a precise figure, but we think it important that DEFRA takes a lead and nudges or pushes other Departments to identify in their budget what they are spending, so that we can all see that, DEFRA will be able to see that and, crucially, Departments can be held to account to make sure that they are doing their bit to tackle air pollution in the UK.

I will not go through every recommendation in detail, but the issue of information is worth highlighting. The Government’s main source of public information on air quality is the UK AIR website, but this is impenetrable for the average user if they want to find out information about their local area, and it does not present very clear information on the legal limits for each pollutant. It needs to be looked at again, and I hope that the Minister hears this and will feed it back to the Department. We really believe in transparency—not just the Public Accounts Committee, but all Members of the House—and it needs to be pushed through, because the best group of people to help us tackle air pollution can be local people, who have a real interest in the issue and who need to be able to see what is going on. They can also adapt their behaviour, perhaps by travelling less and thinking about not using cars on short journeys, in order to tackle pollution in their area.

One of the other issues is the national model that the Government use to identify areas that are likely to breach air quality limits. They use that information to direct councils to take action, but the national model does not directly use the results of monitoring by local authorities. Instead, there is a national network of monitoring stations, which is a good thing, but there are obviously gaps—they are not everywhere—and the Government have to use that for the national model. Some local authorities have raised with the Committee their concerns that this may result in an unfair situation, whereby councils with high levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution are not required to take action because the national model did not predict a breach. It sounds quite technical, but it is actually about local government and the national Government working closely together, having a good look at the model, and making sure that the uncertainty in the model is highlighted.

The Committee is clear that local authorities have a key role to play. As I said, they have the freedom to set different exemption criteria and different charging levels for clean air zones and so forth, but the joint air quality unit at Government level has been a bit inflexible and lacks understanding of local politics, with too much emphasis often placed on clean air zones as the default option, instead of measures that may be more suited to the area. I am a great believer in local communities deciding as much as possible for themselves, while Government have an overarching view and challenge where there is a failure at local level. There is a will in local government to deal with this and we need to see a better way of working between local and national government. I hope that is landing with the Minister.

We have recommended introducing a national communications campaign on air quality to provide a strong national message about how we can all change our behaviour and the purpose of those measures to support us all in staying healthy and keeping the air clean in our areas. We have also recommended ensuring that councils have sufficient flexibility to determine the approach in their area. In summary, we have seen some progress, but there is a lot to do. If the Government take their foot off the pedal, we would very concerned. The impact of not tackling air quality is not something we can contemplate The bones of action are there but there needs to better working together. That is the summary of our report.

Did the Committee arrive at an overall ballpark figure as to the cost to society as a whole from air pollution? I think you, Chair, and I were on an unprecedented joint transport, local government and environmental committee two or three years back that looked into air pollution and I think we arrived at a figure in the ballpark of £20 billion a year in terms of health and other costs to the country. Those figures are always quite useful, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) agrees, when making arguments for the Treasury about the cost-benefit of taking real, meaningful action on an issue such as air pollution.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The National Audit Office has looked into that in detail. I do not have a figure to hand, but he is right. All these measures have an important role in health prevention, which plays a hugely important role in the cost. NHS spending was just over 40% of the resource spending of all Whitehall Departments. When we think of it like that, there is a clear incentive for Government to work together to tackle things such as air pollution to try and reduce health problems and health inequalities, which will also have an impact on an already massively overstretched NHS budget.

Sitting suspended.