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Air Quality

Volume 776: debated on Thursday 3 November 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Life Opportunities, Dr Thérèse Coffey, to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Improving air quality is a priority for this Government and we are determined to cut harmful emissions to improve the health of the people that we all represent and to protect the environment. The UK currently meets the legal limits for almost all pollutants, but faces significant challenges in achieving nitrogen dioxide—NO2—limit values. We are not alone, in that 16 other EU countries are facing similar challenges.

We have already achieved significant improvements in air quality across a range of pollutants. However, transport is responsible for 80% of nitrogen oxides—NOx—emissions at the roadside in areas where we need to act to reduce levels. That is why transport has been the focus of our action on air quality. We have committed more than £2 billion to green transport initiatives, including supporting the early market for ultra-low emission vehicles between 2015 and 2020. The main reason for the difficulty in meeting NO2 limit values is the failure of Euro standards for diesel vehicles to deliver the expected reductions in NOx emissions in real-world conditions. Since 2011 we have been at the forefront of action in the EU to secure more accurate, real-world emissions testing for diesel cars.

The Transport Act 2000 gave powers to councils to introduce measures that would help on tackling air pollution. The national air quality plan for NO2, published last December, set out an approach to improve air quality and achieve compliance. We are mandating five cities to introduce clean air zones and targeting the oldest and most polluting vehicles. The consultation on this framework was launched last month to ensure that a consistent approach is taken.

The plan that we had, Mr Speaker, was based on the best available evidence at the time. We have been pressing for updates to COPERT emission factors and got these in September. We said that when we got the new factors we would update our modelling and that is exactly what we are doing.

I am writing to councils to ask them what they are doing themselves to tackle air pollution. Our local authority grant fund was launched in early October and we are encouraging all local authorities to apply. We will shortly be launching a consultation on policy options for limiting emissions from diesel generators. In addition, funding was announced last month to boost the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles.

We accept the judgment of the court and will now carefully consider it, and our next steps, in detail. But legal proceedings are still ongoing, so I may not be able to answer the question of every honourable Member in detail. I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that this is a top priority for me. It is a top priority for the Secretary of State. As the Prime Minister said yesterday:

‘We have taken action, but there is more to do and we will do it’”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/11/16; col. 887.]

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement, but I am sorry to say that the Government’s handling of this issue has been a disgrace. It should never have ended up back in court. Scientific evidence is showing that this is a huge public health issue, with around 50,000 early deaths a year, so I pay tribute to ClientEarth for its determination to bring the Government to account on our behalf. It is not good enough to lay the blame on local authorities when we need robust national intervention to tackle this issue.

Can the Minister tell us what the new deadline will be for wiping out illegal levels of air pollution? Can he clarify what the Government have in mind? Can he confirm that there will be a nationwide network of clean air zones covering all polluted cities, not just the five announced so far? Will he confirm that discussions are now taking place with the Department for Transport to introduce urgent curbs on the use of diesel cars and commercial vehicles, which, after all, lie at the heart of this problem?

My Lords, I assure your Lordships and the noble Baroness that the Government and my department take air quality extremely seriously. We are well aware of the health consequences of this and that is why it is important that we get the plans right. We received the judgment 24 hours ago, and it is essential that we consider the next steps in the light not only of the ruling but of the recent updates on data on emissions from diesel cars. Indeed, we are already working on that, having received them at the end of September.

On timing, I hope the noble Baroness will understand that the judge has given the parties seven days to reach agreement on an order setting out the timetable for developing new plans, and we are liaising with ClientEarth to agree this. I hope the noble Baroness will therefore understand that I am not in a position to give a categorical timing, but action is already taking place and there are existing powers, as I said. We are working with the devolved Administrations and with the five cities where mandatory clean air zones are intended, and tackling the oldest and most polluting vehicles. We are also working with the Department for Transport and the Treasury together to seek ways of improving what is clearly a hugely worrying and unsatisfactory situation.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, but I am sorry to say that I find it totally unacceptable for a Minister say that the Government have mandated five clean air zones when 50,000 people a year are dying. I seek an assurance about all the people who are dying who are not in those five mandated cities. How urgent does he regard this? The Statement says it is a top priority. Can the Minister assure me that the whole country will be a top priority and not just five cities?

I thank the noble Baroness. It is essential that we deal with the compliance area in the plans we are going to bring forward and, yes, it is well beyond five cities. That is where we were mandating action, because there was such a significant problem, but I would not for one minute want to suggest that all areas of the country having the current levels of air pollution is a satisfactory position, because clearly it is not. That is why, in 2011, when we were in coalition with the party of the noble Baroness, £2 billion was allocated for green transport initiatives. We are actually in a world-leading position on ultra-low emission vehicles, for instance. With that £2 billion we are seeking improvements. I know that everyone is frustrated—I share that—but we really do want to make progress on this.

My Lords, while action on diesel, however feeble, is welcome, and while five cities is a start—although nowhere good enough—if the Government are serious about improving air quality, how on earth can they have taken such a confident decision about the expansion of Heathrow, where nitrogen oxides are already in serious breach of health limits?

My Lords, the Government believe that the Heathrow north-west runway scheme can be delivered without impacting on the UK’s compliance with air quality limit levels, with a suitable package of policy and mitigation measures. Indeed, final development consent will only be granted if we are satisfied that, with mitigation, the scheme is compliant with our legal obligations.

My Lords, would the Minister like to consider that in London there is a system called airText, which provides warnings for people, particularly those suffering from air pollution? It seems to me that that could be done quite immediately. The financial support and the arrangements need to be expanded, but we could roll it out throughout the country and if people know that tomorrow is going to be bad, they can then take steps. It seems to me that that should be done urgently—and of course, it is done in other cities.

My Lords, in order to give the noble Lord full details, I will take that point away, but it is very important that we provide information, particularly for vulnerable people. Given the air quality zones and the knowledge that Defra has on air quality across the nation, I suspect that that is within scope and that we could do it, but I will take this point away and inform the noble Lord and others about it.

My Lords, does the Statement mean that the Government now accept that the national air quality strategy produced by the Minister’s department was found by the court, in what has been a bad week for the Government in court, to be flawed in its evidence and lacking in ambition to meet the targets? Although the Government endorsed the five cities that the Minister referred to, did not the Minister’s own officials recommend that clean air zones should be established in more than 20 cities? Lastly, 60 years on from the Clean Air Act—probably the only remaining positive outcome of the Eden Government—do the current Government accept that we need a new clear air Act, and possibly a clean air commission, as recommended by Clean Air Alliance UK? I declare an interest as the president of Environmental Protection UK, one of the members of that alliance.

My Lords, I would be the first to say that I think that the Clean Air Act and some of the improvements we have seen since that time have shown that Governments of all persuasions have taken this matter very seriously indeed. As I say, we got the judgment 24 hours ago and it is very important that we consider all the measures. We accept the judgment, and we now have to work speedily and constructively to ensure that we remedy a situation that we all wish to be much improved.

My Lords, will the Minister indicate how, under this ruling, diesel cars purchased in recent years that do comply with EU standards can themselves be phased out?

Obviously, we will have to look at diesel. As I mentioned earlier, the updates we received on emissions at the end of September mean that we are going to be looking at this area very carefully indeed. The most important thing is that we wish to target our work at the oldest and most polluting vehicles. We have been working on that with the five cities, but many other cities will be working on it and we need to work together because we need to get it right this time. I assure your Lordships that the department and its officials want to make this a lasting settlement on this issue.

My Lords, local authorities throughout the country have a duty to test pollution levels—for example, on main roads passing through their towns—and they can declare zones where the air quality is not high enough, yet they have no real powers to do anything about it. What is the purpose of this exercise?

My Lords, my understanding of the Transport Act 2000 is that local authorities do have the powers. Referring to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty—which I should have answered more fully—we believe that there are existing powers for local authorities to set up clean air zones. The ability of charging authorities to introduce a clean air zone was clearly set out in the Transport Act 2000.