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Air Pollution

Volume 747: debated on Monday 22 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to mitigate the health risk caused by air pollution in London.

The Government have invested more than £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. The Government work with the mayor and London boroughs to improve air quality and help support the health needs of people across the capital.

My Lords, I am sure we are grateful to the Mayor of London for the initiatives he has taken, even though their implementation seems to be rather slow. However, is the noble Baroness aware that the WHO has calculated that there have been something like 29,000 premature deaths due to air pollution in the United Kingdom? Will she be kind enough to let me have details of the like-for-like figures, by region, for people dying as a result of air pollution compared with those dying as a result of obesity, alcohol or smoking?

The noble Lord is quite right to give the figure of 29,000 premature deaths per year because of pollution. I will get him the information that he requires from the department.

My Lords, the area in which I live in London is considered one of the worst in the UK. Is it not a fact that we have been in breach of the European Union directives for many years and that the EU keeps extending the time before we have to pay the penalty? Does that not seem to be a very unsatisfactory position?

The noble Baroness is not quite right. There are a number of measures and the United Kingdom has worked incredibly hard to try to meet these; for example, on particulate matter, which is very significant, the UK met EU requirements for the PM10 measure in 2011. In addition, 22 out of 27 states are struggling to meet the nitrogen dioxide directive, largely because of problems with diesel vehicles. So across the board countries are finding this a challenge. We are working very hard to ensure that we comply, aiming for later this decade.

My Lords, is there particular concern about the welfare of cyclists, and are they being given advice, particularly about wearing masks?

My brief tells me that cycling is actually a safer means of transport and that the risks from pollution highlighted by the noble Earl are not of major significance. However, clearly it would depend which roads those cyclists are cycling along. We want to do our very best to encourage people to cycle and walk, for the general benefit to themselves and the wider public, but it is true that there are greater risks in certain areas than in others.

My Lords, could the Minister explain how we are to know whether or not this reduction in pollution is correct, when the Government no longer require local authorities to measure pollution officially? We had this last year, before the Olympics, when it was reported that many measuring stations around London were covered with plastic bags so that we did not know that the pollution in London was actually worse than in Beijing before its Olympics.

In fact, pollution levels were and are carefully monitored. The challenge is to tackle that and we are trying to tackle that at all levels: national, across London and in the boroughs. The noble Lord will note also that Public Health England, which has recently been set up, is taking this forward, working with local public health specialists. He may also wish to contribute to the local air quality management review, which is occurring at the moment and is looking at what is being done locally and consulting on how best to take this forward.

My Lords, do the Government accept that the biggest public health risk after smoking is air pollution? Is the Minister aware that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee concluded that,

“a public awareness campaign would be the single most important tool in improving air quality”?

What plans do the Government have for such a public awareness campaign?

I noted the reports from The Lancet which cited air pollution as being the second greatest cause of lung cancer after passive smoking, so the noble Lord is right to flag its risks. The Government are working very closely to raise awareness. We are providing funding for this to local authorities. The public health outcomes framework includes an indicator on air pollution which enables public health professionals to address this. We are providing a forecasting service on levels of air pollution and information to vulnerable groups. There are some trials at Barts on how best to get information to vulnerable groups.

My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, the Minister, referred to the consultation Local Air Quality Management in England. In that consultation, the Government’s preferred option is to remove the requirement for local authorities to report and declare air quality management areas. How then do the Government propose to monitor air quality if their preferred option is chosen—or are the Minister’s warm words just hot air?

The noble Lord refers to hot air on a day like this. The consultation is a genuinely open one, and I am sure the noble Lord’s views will be taken into consideration. Many of these Acts date back a long way, including of course the Clean Air Act which had a fantastic effect in earlier decades. We need to make sure that these Acts are brought up to date, and I am sure the noble Lord will feed in his very cogent views.