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Air Quality: London

Volume 765: debated on Thursday 15 October 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any proposals to improve air quality in Britain, especially in London.

My Lords, improving air quality is a priority for government, involving action at international, national and local levels. We are pushing strongly for EU legislation to introduce a new vehicle test procedure. Nationally, more than £2 billion-worth of transport measures have been announced since 2011, including support for local action. Additional measures are being taken by the London mayor. We are also consulting on plans to ensure compliance with nitrogen dioxide limits as soon as possible.

My Lords, is it not true that our Supreme Court has twice in recent years criticised us for not complying with EU legal standards on nitrous oxide? For the Minister to say that we are going to do something when those court decisions have already been made seems a bit late in the day. Will the Minister confirm that it is estimated that 29,000 people a year die in the United Kingdom because of poor air quality, a figure that is rising, and that more than 9,000 of them are in London? Is not the recent scandal about VW emissions a further argument that we should tackle these issues quickly and that, in particular, we should stop giving the owners of diesel cars such financial benefits?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that a considerable number of things are being done to address that, particularly in London and other cities, where it is a strong issue. I entirely agree that there is a big health issue here; that is precisely why we are working with colleagues from the Department of Health and the health agencies. That is precisely why we are encouraging investment in the ultra-low emissions market. We have the highest number of registrations of those vehicles in the EU. We are not alone: 17 other countries have a problem; five have proceedings against them. We all need to work on this and I agree that it is a high priority.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one practical thing that we can do immediately is to push for more tree planting in all our inner cities? Trees take in our carbon dioxide and give us back their oxygen, doing more than anything else to improve the quality of the air we breathe.

First, I entirely agree that we should be planting more trees. In fact, my party’s manifesto stated that we wished to plant 11 million more trees over this Parliament. Trees are a great enhancement to our lives, but we need to ensure their planting and location, particularly in urban areas, because if we have avenues of trees it is often difficult for the emissions to go up, which causes a local problem. There are all sorts of reasons why we need to be careful about the way in which we plant our trees.

My Lords, in the Minister’s reply, mention was made of the Mayor of London. Is the Minister absolutely convinced that the mayor, together with the boroughs and the City of London, has the necessary powers to effect a pan-London improvement of the situation? Obviously, pollution does not respect borough boundaries and the impression locally is that, at the moment, the mayor does not have the requisite powers.

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate. I will certainly look into his point about powers, but I know that the Mayor of London is introducing an ultra-low emissions zone in London from September 2020 covering all vehicles, so I imagine that the powers are there. We believe that there will be a significant reduction in NO2 emissions and roadside concentrations because of that, but we obviously need to do more. That is why, for instance, we are investing in many more people cycling: it is all part of reducing the amount of road traffic.

My Lords, back-street garages and tuning shops are still removing factory-fitted diesel particulate filters, despite the fact that, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, says, diesel particulates have been linked to the deaths of 29,000 people a year. What do the Government now intend to do to stop those garages removing those diesel particulate filters from cars?

My Lords, the removal of diesel particulate filters is a very serious issue. It is an offence to use a vehicle that has that filter removed. In February 2014, an automatic MOT failure for removal of those filters was introduced. Authorised MOT garages that are found to be offering those removal services may have their authorisation to test withdrawn. We are also conducting further research into this, because it is a serious subject both here and in Europe.

My Lords, has any assessment been made of the additional pollution caused in London by the myriad roadworks to produce cycle lanes of benefit to cyclists? Is he aware that the increased pollution must be so bad that many cyclists today will not live to see those benefits? Something must be done to reduce this pollution immediately.

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord’s wish that we do something immediately. There is no quick bullet to this, but I assure your Lordships that considerable work is going on into how we reduce traffic, change how we conduct ourselves and increase the number of vehicles that have low emissions. All of that is part of the investment. The London Taxi Company—part of Geely—has been awarded £17 million under the Government’s regional growth fund precisely to get another generation of low-emission black taxis.

My Lords, the Minister said he is very keen to lower the number of vehicles so as to reduce pollution. He is absolutely right on that, but surely the main solution must be to increase public transport. How can he link an increase in the quality and scope of public transport with the drastic cuts imposed on local authorities all the way round the country?

My Lords, turning to London as that is where we are, London now has the largest fleet of hybrid buses. There are 600 already on the road and by next year that will be up to 1,700. There is a lot of very good work going on and we need to work in partnership with local government across the country. The economy and its restoration will make possible all the things that many of us want. If we do not have a strong, secure economy, we will not be able to do the things that all of us would like to do.