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House of Lords Hansard
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03 November 2014
Volume 756

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce air pollution.

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as vice-president of Environmental Protection UK, which is campaigning on this issue.

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My Lords, the Government have invested billions of pounds in measures to reduce air pollution, including incentives for low-emission vehicles and sustainable transport. Local authorities are also required to review and assess air quality under the local air quality management system. We support them in seeking to deliver local measures to meet national air quality objectives. We also work with the devolved Administrations to improve air quality across the United Kingdom.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but does she recognise that there are still 29,000 people whose deaths are attributable to air pollution, mainly induced by traffic? Does she also recognise that the UK is in clear breach of EU limits in large parts of the country, particularly urban areas; that the WHO found a lot of the assessed areas were at dangerous levels, particularly for nitrogen dioxide; and that the Government’s own forecasts suggest we will not reach EU limits for London, Yorkshire and the West Midlands until 2030, 15 years after the deadline?

Does the Minister accept that the Government have virtually abandoned previous local and national air quality strategies and the development of low-emission zones, and have ignored the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations? When are we going to see a proper government strategy on air quality?

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My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we take this extremely seriously and I would refute the latter part of his question. He will know that we have managed to limit most pollutants and these are now below the legally binding EU limit values. The outstanding one is nitrogen dioxide, which has been a challenge not only for the United Kingdom but for 17 of the 27 EU states. We are working very hard to combat this.

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My Lords, many local authorities are starting to introduce low emission zones to tackle air pollution. If they are led locally, these will have different criteria and be introduced at different times. What are the Government doing to ensure an effective network of low-emission zones, right around the country?

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We work very closely with local authorities to provide support when they seek to introduce low-emission zones. One factor here is that there may be different reasons for air pollution in different areas, and it is therefore important that decisions on how to identify and then tackle it are taken on a local basis. However, we are working very hard to support local areas in introducing appropriate measures.

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My Lords, how much thought has been given to democratising our understanding of air quality by developing a “citizen science” approach, whereby ordinary people might be encouraged to monitor their own air quality using measuring kits in their home and back garden? Air quality is about many things, including chemical fertilisers, natural allergens and so on, which will affect individual people’s day-to-day quality of life.

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The more we involve and educate people of every age the better as far as tackling this is concerned. As the noble Earl will know, local authorities monitor locally. We have 273 sites, but if his suggestion brings many more sites on stream, maybe it is a very good idea.

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My Lords, bearing in mind that trees take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, will the Government do all they possibly can to encourage the planting of trees, particularly in inner-city areas?

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My noble friend makes a very good proposal. I am sure that he will have seen the report today which, in terms of tackling climate change, puts a great deal of emphasis on planting trees.

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My Lords, the Mayor of London abandoned plans to introduce congestion charging in west London. Did that help to reduce air pollution or cause more trouble?

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The noble Lord had better refer his question directly to the mayor. He will know that the mayor has introduced a wide range of measures and is consulting on a number that are in the pipeline. We are also constantly reviewing the effects of the various proposals, and I am sure that the point that the noble Lord has made will be looked at as well.

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My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the British Lung Foundation. Does the Minister agree that there is a regrettable lack of research into the detailed effects of air pollution on the lungs of Londoners?

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My noble friend makes a good point, and this is something that Public Health England is taking up. We work very closely with the Department of Health and Public Health England. It is extremely important that we encourage research into the effect of pollutants.

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My Lords, what is the Government’s policy on diesel engines? Defra has now realised that they are in fact a dangerous source of pollution, as does the Mayor of London. Japan has for many years discouraged diesel engines. What is the Government’s policy in this direction?

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We are looking very closely at this. The noble Lord will know that, in the past, it was thought that diesel engines would be less polluting and that studies of diesel engines in factories indicated that that was so. However, it did not prove to be the case when the engines were used out on the road, and that has serious implications.

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My Lords, the noble Baroness may have sought to refute my noble friend’s Question but the truth is that, because the Government’s strategy for tackling air quality involved reducing the number of monitoring stations, they have been forced to go back to the drawing board. There is no strategy. Given the great interest in this issue on all sides of the House, perhaps we should have a debate on it so that we can help them form a strategy.

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Again, I refute what the noble Baroness says. It is extremely important that local authorities work out in their own areas where the key spots are. They are best placed to monitor and identify them, and it is their responsibility. Defra takes an overarching responsibility, working with the local authorities.

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My Lords, I am concerned that the Minister does not understand the concept of an overall plan for the whole of Britain. The problem is Britain-wide. The Mayor of London is planning an ultra-low emission zone, which is fantastic, but it is still too small and too limited, and that will be the problem every time if the Government do not take the lead.

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As I have just answered, it is important that Defra takes an overall strategic approach —which it is doing—and that the local authorities look at the situation—it may be a road junction—in their area. It is important to work on a local, national, European and international scale.