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Air Quality: London

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking in conjunction with the Mayor of London to tackle air quality in London.

My Lords, the mayor is responsible for working towards air quality objectives in London. Nationally, the Government have committed £2 billion since 2011 to address air pollution. As part of this, the Government work closely with the mayor, the GLA and London boroughs to improve air quality, including providing support via our air quality grant fund for a range of projects.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that last week the Mayor of London issued a warning that pollution in London had reached a dangerous level? That level was so dangerous that advice had to be given to thousands of Londoners—people with certain health conditions, young and old—that they should not go outside and should not take strenuous exercise. Is it not a disgrace that our capital city does not have decent air quality?

My Lords, the poor air quality event last week was due to pollution brought in via winds from continental Europe—

It was not the fault of the European Union. This was combined with particulate matter from a number of local sources. The Government provided information to the public, including health advice on UK-AIR, the Government’s air quality website. However, I agree that more needs to be done to clean London’s air.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the European Court of Justice ruled last November that in 40 out of 43 urban areas in this country the legal limits for nitrogen oxides were exceeded. She will also be aware that Public Health England estimates that 28,000 people a year in this country die prematurely as a result of air pollution. Given these figures and facts, is it not time for the Government to take stronger action to tackle urban air pollution, not only in London but in many other cities in this country?

My Lords, air quality has improved significantly in recent years. Average roadside concentrations of NO2 levels have fallen by 15% since 2010. However, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that more needs to be done, and a great deal is being done. For example, we are using the tax system on vehicles and cars to encourage the purchase of cars with low CO2 emissions regardless of whether they are petrol, diesel or other fuel types. A great deal is going on with buses and other forms of public transport to ensure that their emissions are as low as we can make them.

My Lords, I live in the most polluted part of the UK—central London—and I am still, fortunately, surviving. However, is the Minister aware that when traffic calming measures were introduced—I received this answer in your Lordships’ House—they resulted in greater air pollution? They slowed down the traffic so much in places such as the road through Hyde Park that it created a conflict: how do you deal with both of these issues so that you can slow traffic but not increase pollution?

My noble friend is right: there is work to be done on road design, road junctions, local planning and the design of buildings, all of which can have an impact on air pollution. Certainly traffic calming measures sometimes cause pollution to rise, but that is part of the constant review to find different ways of cleaning the air.

My Lords, given that the mayor is now worried about air pollution in London, has the Minister had any conversations with him about whether his decision not to proceed with introducing congestion charging in west London has helped to improve the health of people in London or make it worse?

My Lords, I have not had a conversation with the mayor. That answers the first of the noble Lord’s questions. Congestion charging has had some effect, but not a great deal, on air pollution. We use a combination of factors such as encouraging people to use bicycles, to walk or to drive vehicles which do not use the worst kinds of fuels—all play a part. We need to use a combination of factors.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, rather than asking people to stay indoors during high pollution episodes, it would be better to give that advice to drivers of highly polluting vehicles and for them to stay at home?

My Lords, it is well understood that poor quality air produces many incidences of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as cancer. Does it not make sense for this to be a core area of health policy and a positive way to close the gap of £30 billion which is expected in the NHS budget by 2021?

My noble friend makes an important point. Defra works closely with the Department of Health and Public Health England and its advisers, as well as the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. We have daily air quality forecasts which provide accompanying health messages because a combined cross-departmental effort is required to tackle this problem.

My Lords, in her response to the question put by my noble friend Lord Dubs, the noble Baroness referred to an expenditure of £2 billion to improve air quality. Is that £2 billion a national figure or is that the money to be spent just in London?

The sum of £2 billion is predominantly for London because I am answering questions on London and the mayor of London’s programme. Defra has an air quality grant programme of £1 million and there are various other programmes. In this context, however, we are talking about what is being done to improve London’s air.

Can the Minister say whether we have any way of measuring the pollution produced by construction and building sites in and around London, of which there is now a larger number than we have seen for many years?

Construction would be a contributory factor, but it is up to local government to take note of the pollution that is being caused by building sites in their areas.

My Lords, taking asthma as an example, is it not a fact that the trade-off in terms of extra costs to the health service would be as great as the cost of reducing air pollution? How does that arithmetic work out?

I am not entirely sure how that arithmetic is worked out, but I know that the departments are in constant dialogue with each other to try to ensure that the best case is made for improving air quality and for tackling the health problems that go with poor air quality.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Does my noble friend agree that we need more internet-connected air quality meters in London in order to tell people quite how bad the air is?

It is all very well telling people how bad the air is, but you then need to tackle the problem itself. All these methods of communication help if they alert people to when it is safe to go out or when they should stay at home and not drive their cars. I think that that may well be one method to be pursued.