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Air Quality

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2013


Asked By Lord Dubs

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to improve air quality in London and other cities.

My Lords, since 2010 the Government have invested over £1 billion in measures that will help to improve air quality, including incentives for low-emission vehicles and sustainable transport. In London, the mayor is responsible for working towards national air quality objectives, and we work with him and London boroughs to improve air quality. Nationally, we support local authorities to deliver local measures and work with the devolved Administrations to improve air quality across the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but the Government are not being very effective. Will the Minister confirm that in the UK as a whole there are estimated to be 30,000 early deaths as a result of poor air quality, that in London the figure is over 4,000, that the number of people who have an early death through poor air quality is second only to the number who die of smoking, and that about 17% of the National Health Service budget is used to deal with the consequences of poor air quality? Are we not dealing with a major national emergency, rather than something that can be dealt with as the Minister suggested?

My Lords, we take this subject extremely seriously. It is fair to say that air quality in the UK has improved significantly over recent decades, but we continue to face severe challenges, particularly from nitrogen dioxide in densely populated towns and cities. As a Government, we are committed to working towards a much better situation and, indeed, towards full compliance with EU air quality standards. There is close working between departments and local authorities to consider air quality in all policy areas. The noble Lord mentioned health, and he is quite right, but transport, energy and planning are also important.

Can the Minister tell me about the health and welfare boards, and is it correct that in London only the City of London Corporation is doing anything at all in that respect? Can he inform me, as I live in central London, whether it is currently Knightsbridge or Marylebone that has the worst air in the whole of the UK?

My Lords, there were quite a lot of questions in there. On the public health outcomes framework, in the financial year 2013-14 local authorities will take on new responsibilities for public health. They will be expected to deliver against 68 measurable outcomes set out in the PHOF. One of these indicators is air quality, but measures implemented as part of a package of transport interventions and street improvements will help to deliver against more than half those indicators.

On London, I cannot agree with my noble friend. The mayor has implemented an ambitious package of measures across the whole of London, including tighter lower emission zone standards, building Europe’s largest hybrid bus fleet and introducing London’s first ever taxi age limits. He has also introduced a number of other measures.

My Lords, would the air quality in London not have been improved had the mayor not abolished the western extension of the congestion charge?

My Lords, can the Minister throw some light on the possibility of the electrification of the railway line between Barking and Gospel Oak? This line would carry not only electric passenger trains but much more importantly the large amount of freight that will emanate from the London Gateway port development, and as a consequence would keep a lot more heavy lorries off the roads of London.

I cannot, my Lords, but I can say that the critical issue for achieving the EU targets is principally in the area of diesel vehicles.

Given that poor air quality and particulate matter during pregnancy and for newborns in particular is known to increase the susceptibility to allergic disease later on in life, what work is being done to plot air quality with the use of health services by those who have severe allergic diseases and to plot the cost to the NHS of that air pollution?

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Baroness specifically. I will, if I may, write to her. I can confirm that in general terms we agree with her. Air pollution, particularly diesel emissions, as I have just mentioned, can be extremely harmful to health generally. It can aggravate existing heart and lung conditions, and better awareness of the health impacts from air pollution is important for the public so that we all know what we can do to protect ourselves.

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned compliance with European standards, but can he confirm that the UK is currently not compliant with the targets set by Europe? Can he also inform the House what penalties are likely to come from Europe because of our current position?

Yes, my Lords. First, for particulate matter the United Kingdom meets both the daily and annual limit values. A number of member states face infraction proceedings by the Commission for failing to meet their limit values. The United Kingdom, like many other member states, faces significant challenges in meeting the air quality limit values, specifically for nitrogen dioxide, as I think I mentioned earlier. Significant transport and other measures have been put in place over many years to reduce the emissions of air pollutants. Twenty-two out of 27 member states reported that they exceeded the limits in 2010, and most are unlikely to achieve full compliance by 2015. The United Kingdom has secured time extensions for nine zones, with compliance in London not expected until 2025. This is similar to other major cities, including Paris.

My Lords, the Minister has said that Her Majesty’s Government support a number of measures, both locally and nationally. Apart from measures to reduce the emissions from buses, can he say what some of those measures are?

Yes indeed, my Lords. The Government are investing significantly in initiatives, particularly transport initiatives, that will contribute to further reductions in air pollution. There is a £560 million local sustainable transport fund for local authorities to support sustainable travel. Over £400 million is being spent on measures to promote the uptake of ultra low-carbon vehicle technologies. There is a £76 million green bus fund to enable bus operators and local authorities in England to purchase new low-emission buses. I could go on; it is a substantial list.