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Air Quality

Volume 767: debated on Monday 23 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to satisfy the Supreme Court’s ruling that United Kingdom air quality should be brought within legal limits as soon as possible.

My Lords, the consultation on the draft air quality plans has now been concluded and we are assessing the 728 responses we have received. We are on track to submit the finalised plans for the 38 non-compliant zones to the European Commission by 31 December. We have already committed £2 billion since 2011 on transport measures which will address both particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide levels.

I thank the Minister for that reply but I have to say that it lacks any of the urgency demanded by the Supreme Court. It cannot be right that the Government’s response in the draft report would see pollution levels remain above legal levels until 2025. In the mean time, King’s College has estimated that nearly 10,000 people a year are dying in London as a result of toxic air pollution. There are practical solutions available, such as better traffic controls, a diesel scrappage scheme and better incentives for clean cars. I urge the Minister to look again at these proposals and come back with a more radical and timely response to the Supreme Court’s challenge.

My Lords, I do not think the noble Baroness has yet seen the plan—nor have I. It would be more appropriate if the draft plan was seen before any suggestions of that sort were made. It is very clear that the Government think that this is an enormous priority, not only because of the health issues but because it cannot be right that we continue to have the nitrogen dioxide levels that we have in parts of our country, and the Government are going to address this.

Given what the Minister has said about this being an enormous priority, can he explain why on 29 October in Brussels the Government voted to weaken limits on deadly diesel car emissions?

I am certainly not aware of any diminution of our resolve to ensure that we have the correct assessment in the European Union context. It is why we have been calling for very strong, real testing, which is absolutely essential, and we will continue to do so at all levels. This will be cracked only if we deal with it at local, national, EU and international level.

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-president of Environmental Protection UK. I have two questions for the Minister. First, in view of the cuts in Defra staff in this area—and more to come, no doubt, in this week’s announcements—is he confident that he has sufficient resources not only to draw up a strategy on air quality but actually to deliver it? Secondly, in view of the previous question, does he agree with Boris Johnson that a third runway at Heathrow is “inconceivable” if the Government are to meet their EU targets on air pollution?

My Lords, the first thing to say is that the Government will consider all appropriate incentives that may be required to help secure delivery by local authorities through geographically structured measures set out in the plan. Clearly, I am not in a position, particularly this week, to say any more about the current level of spending review negotiations, but it is clear that everyone will need to work together to address this. As for the noble Lord’s second question, I have every regard and respect for the Mayor of London; indeed, his important action with regard to non-road mobile machinery—announcing on 1 September that there are going to be much greater and stronger requirements for that—is the sort of practical thing that he is doing.

My Lords, what can the Government do to enable all local authorities to measure the air quality in their own areas, particularly outside schools?

The noble Baroness asks an important question. Obviously there are monitoring services, and Defra produces data so that everyone can know what the air pollution situation will be in various parts of the country. This is very important, not only near schools but so that people with health issues can make plans accordingly. It is very important that the monitoring work continues and is effective.

Can the Minister reconcile for me the facts that although Knightsbridge is one of the worst polluted areas and has been in breach of all EU regulations for years, people apparently live longer there than anywhere else? Can he also reconcile the facts that when it introduced speed humps in Hyde Park pollution in the park went up tremendously, yet people want the option to reduce speed? Will that be at the cost of even more pollution?

My Lords, I am sure that as these matters develop, research will tell us a lot more, and it is important that we consider it. That is why real-world testing, for instance, will be of much greater benefit in the future. The health of the nation is one of the reasons why we are very conscious of this problem and of the need to address it. Wherever the pollution is—whether it is in the docks at Southampton, in inner London, in Scotland or wherever else—we need to crack the problem.

My Lords, if 10,000 people a year were dying prematurely in London, and many others in the rest of the country, as a result of any health threat other than air pollution would the Government have a greater sense of urgency, rather than the complacency, and a degree of hypocrisy, that they have at the moment?

My Lords, I see no complacency or hypocrisy, if I may say so to the noble Baroness. I think that the officials who are working hard on this problem in local authorities might take exception to that description. Everyone here is in an honest adventure to ensure that we get this right. It is very important that we get it right. That is why we have to get everyone working together in local authorities, and at EU and other international levels. By bringing forward real-world testing, we will get a much better result.

My Lords, would the Minister care to inform the House how many air-monitoring devices at local level were in operation five years ago and how many are now? It is my understanding that many have been closed down, so our ability to tell what is happening is being reduced by Government policy.

I am not aware of that, and I will look into the matter more thoroughly. However, we have a daily air quality forecast, for instance, and we work with Public Health England and its adviser the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. I have plenty of information on what is available for everyone to see. There is a five-day air monitoring forecast, which is very important. I will get back to the noble Baroness on the finer detail.