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Air Quality

Volume 782: debated on Monday 24 April 2017


My Lords, I beg leave to repeat, as a Statement, an Answer to an Urgent Question given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place.

“This Government are committed to making sure that ours is the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. As part of that, I am personally deeply committed to the importance of clean air. I can tell the House that since 2011, the Government have announced over £2 billion to help bus operators upgrade their fleets; support the development and take up of low-emission vehicles; reduce pollution from vehicles such as refuse trucks and fire engines; and promote the development of clean alternative fuels. In addition, in the Autumn Statement, we announced a further £290 million to support electric vehicles, low-emission buses and taxis, and alternative fuels.

Our actions have enabled the UK to make significant progress on improving its air quality since 2010. We now have lower emissions of the five key pollutants: volatile organic compounds, sulphur dioxide, ammonia, particulates and nitrogen oxides. However, due to the failure of EU vehicle emission standards to deliver the expected improvements in air quality, the UK is among 17 European countries, including France and Germany, that are not yet meeting EU emission targets for nitrogen dioxide in parts of our towns and cities. We are taking strong action to remedy that. Since November my department has been working jointly with the Department for Transport to update the Government’s national air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide. We have updated the analytical base for the plan to reflect new evidence, following the Volkswagen scandal and the failure of the EU’s regulatory regime to deliver the improvements expected on emissions. The plan adapts to these new circumstances by setting out a framework for action.

Following long-standing precedent, we have now entered the period of pre-election sensitivity that precedes elections. In accordance with the guidance covering both local and general elections, the propriety and ethics team in the Cabinet Office has told us that it would not be appropriate to launch the consultation and publish the air quality plan during this time. The Government have therefore applied to the High Court for a short extension of the deadline to publish the national air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide so that we can comply with pre-election propriety rules. The Government are seeking to publish a draft plan by 30 June and the final plan by 15 September. The application will be considered by the court”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer given earlier in the other place. However, notwithstanding that the Government may wish to absolve themselves by sharing culpability across other EU member states, they were given their final warning, as was clearly stated in the court case brought recently by ClientEarth, and told that they should publish their proposals to comply with EU law within two months.

Despite the argument that the purdah period on government announcements may start from a vote in the other place to undertake a general election, this announcement of government intentions could be said to be a matter of public health. I am sure the thousands of Britons at risk from diseases caused by air pollutants such as fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ammonia, and the businesses that will suffer lost working days from pollution-related illnesses, would agree that this is a public health issue and that an announcement is desperately needed. Will the Government not consider that an announcement on public health grounds could be made that would then comply with the court and negate any application for an extension?

It would be futile to ask the Government any further questions, as the Minister may well invoke purdah in all his replies. If I may, however, I will tempt him further by asking whether a new clean air Act would not be required to give citizens new rights to breathe unpolluted air and rectify the situation across all the responsible culprits.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his questions. On his last question, I can say that we believe the legislative framework exists to deal with these matters, and therefore a separate clean air Act is not necessary because they can already be dealt with.

On the issues at hand, we have been advised that there are very strong requirements vis-à-vis purdah. However, I say to the noble Lord and indeed to all noble Lords that we will ensure that this short delay in the timetable will not result in a delay in the implementation of the plan. It is precisely to deal with the purdah issue, relating to both local government and the general election, that we have given the dates by which we want to publish this report. Obviously it is in everyone’s interests that we publish, and we want to work in partnership. That is why we are working with the devolved Administrations and the Mayor of London, and indeed we are working with many cities that have this acute problem which we need to address.

My Lords, this is clearly a public health crisis, with 40,000 people dying prematurely in the UK every year because of air pollution and many more suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The reason that the Minister has given why this needs to be delayed does not stand proper scrutiny, because here we face a genuine public health crisis, which is a legitimate reason for the purdah rules to be put aside. Given that the department has shilly-shallied about producing its 25-year plan for the environment, it is very good at talking the talk on protecting the environment, but it is not good at walking the walk.

I have two quick questions for the Minister. First, does he accept that after Brexit, when we no longer have the European Union obligations, we need firm air quality targets in UK law to hold the Government to account? Secondly, what comfort can the Minister give to both parliamentarians and the public on the question that, in the absence of the European Union, there is no alternative to costly judicial reviews for the public to hold the Government to account on the crisis of air pollution?

My Lords I do not think that the facts bear out what the noble Baroness said. In fact, it was during a Government in which her party was in coalition that £2 billion of taxpayers’ money was diverted: £400 million for ultra-low-emission vehicles, £600 million for the local sustainable transport fund, £224 million invested in cycling and more than £27 million since 2013 to retrofit and clean up more than 3,000 of the oldest vehicles. I hope that she would agree that that was a success during the time that her party was in coalition with mine. That is why £2 billion was diverted to that important subject.

On the question of how we will proceed, as I said, this is a short delay in the timetable, because we have purdah requirements. That is the advice that I have received. I fully acknowledge that this is a public health issue. That is one reason why considerable sums of money are being invested in it, why we will continue to do so and why we in the department very much want to bring forward these plans after the general election.

Has the public health issue been part of the submission to the courts, because as well as adults, there is now strong evidence that atmospheric pollution impairs the development and growth of children’s lungs, which means that you are storing up big problems into the next generation? What have the Government done to ensure that enforcement powers are used when vehicles on the road are belching out pollutants because they have not been properly serviced or there is a fault? Quite a lot of them could be deemed as in the public service, including taxis, buses, and so on. Sometimes they are belching out vast quantities of grey, stinking smoke.

I thank the noble Baroness because that plays into why retrofitting is so important, why there has been investment since 2013 of £27 million to retrofit and clean up 3,000 of the oldest vehicles and why we have sought to introduce low-emission buses, taxis and alternative fuels. As I said, this is a very important issue which will need a partnership of us all, whether local authorities, the devolved Administrations, the Mayor of London or us, to mitigate. I have found it interesting how small features—the changing of a traffic light or turning engines off—can change pollution levels and create considerable advances.

Does my noble friend agree that the problem of air pollution is greatest in London, and that the reality is that Transport for London has totally failed to deal with the issue? Indeed, it has made it a great deal worse, in two respects. First, it apparently has no authority to limit the number of minicabs. In fact, the extraordinary position emerges that no one has any authority to limit the number of minicabs. Does my noble friend agree that urgent action needs to be taken in that regard?

Secondly, there is the ludicrous way in which Transport for London has been building bicycle lanes. There is enormous congestion as a result of this, not only when they are being constructed but in the longer term. It is an appalling policy. I spend much of my time in Holland, where they do not have any problem with bicycle lanes operating properly without being blanked off in a way that prevents them being used in off-peak periods.

My Lords, I shall ensure that my noble friend’s points are put to officials who meet fortnightly with GLA officials to discuss air quality. I think that that would be the best way forward.

My Lords, is not the real problem, in London in particular, lorry emissions? Why do we not have a national programme of conversion of diesel trucks to LPG systems, because tests by Millbrook and HORIBA MIRA show that conversion of trucks to LPG leads to substantial reductions in carbon emissions and substantial savings by lorry operators, with a payback period of as little as 18 months? I have identified a firm called Quicksilver-AFI that has a system that is made for truck conversions, which is not too expensive, and which the Government could pump prime with public money, because the emissions from trucks are very much more substantial than from individual motor cars.

My Lords, what the noble Lord said is extremely helpful. I have mentioned retrofitting quite a bit during this Question, but that is a point that I would like to take back, and I am most grateful to him.