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Air Pollution

Volume 762: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the 29 April Supreme Court judgment on nitrogen dioxide levels, when they will bring forward plans to ensure that the whole of the United Kingdom complies with air pollution limits by 2020.

My Lords, successive Governments have worked hard to improve air quality significantly in recent decades. Tackling air pollution continues to be a priority for this Government. We are fully committed to submitting revised plans to the European Commission by the end of this year with a view to ensuring that the UK is compliant with nitrogen dioxide limits in the shortest possible time.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Are the Government aware that the Mayor of London has said that he can bring London into compliance by 2020 if the Government act? Are the Government considering two measures that the Mayor of London has suggested? The first is a national scrappage scheme to get the worst-polluting diesel vehicles off the road, and the second is a proper government review of vehicle excise duty, which has encouraged more diesel vehicles on to the roads.

My Lords, vehicle excise duty is clearly a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider. While there are no plans at the moment for a national scrappage scheme, we will be keeping all measures under review. I assure noble Lords that the Government take the health consequences of this matter very seriously. I know from my few weeks in the department that this is being considered very strongly indeed.

My Lords, is it not the case that other European cities are experiencing very similar problems and that the reason is that some of the technical changes made to heavy goods vehicles in recent years have not delivered the benefits expected?

My Lords, my noble friend is right. It is fair to say that all countries in the EU have difficulties with adhering to the limits. The most recent figures show that 17 of the 27 EU countries are in difficulties on their nitrogen dioxide limits. That is why in this country we want to deal with it as swiftly as we can.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to his new parliamentary role. With nitrogen dioxide at such high levels right across the UK, can the Minister say whether the Government accept that measures to achieve legal compliance will have to include a national network of low emission zones?

My Lords, this is one of the areas that we will be looking at. In London the mayor has been very strong about the zero emission zone and is also considering an ultra-low emission zone. There are a number of other towns and cities in the country which have a low emission zone. They are for buses in particular. Clearly this is part of the package that we need to look at. What the Mayor of London is doing is a very positive first step.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that central London is virtually gridlocked during daylight hours? Travelling times are doubled at least. Has any assessment been done, or will he do an assessment, of the increased pollution caused by roadworks which are said to help cyclists and which will not be completed until the middle of next year? God help us all if that goes on.

My Lords, obviously when we are implementing change there are always times when there are issues. Certainly one of the important features is to keep traffic moving—slowly, but moving—because it is when you have stop-start that you have some of the most significant particle emission. In the previous Parliament an investment of £278 million was made available for cycling and walking initiatives. They are all about getting all of us to change some of our habits so that we improve the air quality in our cities and towns.

My Lords, have the Government costed the excess mortality and morbidity from atmospheric pollution in those areas that are exposed to high pollution? It is not only nitrous oxide but other diesel particulate matters that are causing a great deal of pulmonary damage—that is, lung damage.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that health is one of the key features of this. It is why Defra is working closely with the Department of Health and with Public Health England and its expert committee. I do not have before me the figures on the costs in terms of health and I will look at that, but it is one of the reasons why this Government and the previous one have committed to spend £2 billion on measures precisely to deal with the two problems with pollutants.

My Lords, I think that sometimes noble Lords just want me to stand up and take control of the situation. We started with the Green Party and we have been going around the Chamber very carefully. If we go around in order then it is the turn of the Conservative Benches and, therefore, my noble friend Lord Borwick.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the British Lung Foundation. Does the Minister agree that the best thing an individual can do to help with this dreadful air pollution problem—other than not driving, which is totally impractical—is to buy a new car? The newest cars are very much cleaner on average than the old ones that we drive.

My Lords, my noble friend is of course right that we need to encourage the use of the ultra-low emission vehicles. That is why there has been considerable investment in the marketing of low-emission vehicles. Indeed, we in this country are now attracting global investment, with Nissan, which produces the Leaf electric car, duly investing £250 million to build a plant that will help to build the electric black cab. This is all part of the mix of things that we have to do.

My Lords, it is not necessary for Members of your Lordships’ House to have a GCSE in chemistry to know that all oxides of nitrogen—as well as oxides of sulphur, for that matter—have a very deleterious effect on health and the environment. It is, however, necessary for your Lordships’ House to understand that this Government apparently do not have a comprehensive, wide-ranging set of policies to deal with the problem. As for suggesting that people buy new motor cars, that is akin to saying, “Let them eat cake”.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that my experience in Defra is that his description is not the case. A considerable amount is being done not only by the department but in working with local authorities and the EU Commission. This is all part of the plan that we will bring forward for public consultation later this summer precisely to deal with the point that the noble Lord made, which is that this is a health issue. That is why the Government are determined and will be bringing forward plans—because we are aware of the effect on people’s health.