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Air Quality

Volume 789: debated on Thursday 22 February 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment on the air quality plan. The Statement is as follows:

“In July last year, we published the UK plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Yesterday, the High Court handed down judgment on the challenge to that plan, and the judge dismissed two of the three complaints considered during the case in relation to England. Specifically, he found that there is no error in the Government’s approach to tackling nitrogen dioxide concentration exceedances in areas with some of the worst air quality problems, and that the national air quality modelling and monitoring that underpin the plan fulfil our legal requirements. In relation to the five cities identified in 2015 as having particularly marked air quality challenges—those being Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby, Southampton and Leeds—the judge found that the Government’s approach to tackling these exceedances was ‘sensible, rational and lawful’.

The courts have asked us to go further in areas with less severe air quality problems, where we have previously considered it sufficient to take a pragmatic, less formal approach. I had already written to those councils in November. That was followed up by officials asking them to provide initial information on the actions they were taking by 28 February. However, in view of the court’s judgment, we are happy to take a more formal approach with them following that judgment. I have already written to the local authorities asking them to attend a meeting on 28 February to discuss that information and their plans, and whether there are any additional actions they can take to accelerate achieving compliance with legal limits to nitrogen dioxide concentrations. We will follow up on this in March by issuing legally binding directions requiring those councils to undertake studies to identify any such measures. As required by the court order, we will publish a supplement to the 2017 plan by 5 October, drawing on the outcome of the authorities’ feasibility studies and plans.

As set out in the 2017 plan, this Government are committed absolutely to improving air quality, and we have pledged to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it. Later this year, we will publish a comprehensive clean air strategy, which will set out further steps to tackle air pollution more broadly”.

My Lords, I refer the House to my involvement with the charity ClientEarth and thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. Surely he recognises that this court ruling is a damning indictment of the Government’s handling of the air quality issue. Let us be clear: yesterday, the judge ruled that the Government’s 2017 air quality plan was “unlawful” and went on to say:

“It is now eight years since compliance with the 2008 Directive should have been achieved. This is the third, unsuccessful, attempt the Government has made at devising an AQP which complies with the Directive and the domestic Regulations”.

He was so critical of the Government’s response that he is now considering direct court supervision of the Government’s future plans.

Meanwhile, the Government issued a completely misleading press release yesterday claiming that this was some sort of victory. I am sorry to say that the Minister’s Statement today has similar shades of complacency. This is an issue about which there is, quite rightly, huge public concern. We have previously heard of the estimated 40,000 premature deaths a year from heart attacks, strokes and respiratory problems. This is a public health crisis.

Are the Government planning to appeal against this judgment again? Alternatively, will they now take the advice of their own officials and implement a network of clean air zones in the 33 towns and cities which are projected to have continuing illegal levels of pollution? Can the Minister explain the difference between the action that he is now proposing and what was presented to the court and has already been rejected by the judge? I suspect that the court will want a great deal more than the outcome of feasibility studies in the non-compliant cities by October this year.

There has been real concern around this House that the Government are not taking this issue sufficiently seriously. I hope that the Minister can now convince us that a major rethink is going on in the department and that the Government will finally come back with solid proposals that will deliver a proper legal deadline for clean air zones in the shortest possible time.

My Lords, I think that all your Lordships want clean and cleaner air. That is why the Government have invested considerable sums of money, amounting to £3.5 billion. I can go through some of that expenditure in detail, but much of it is in support of things such as cleaner buses. For instance, retrofitting school buses in Manchester has resulted in a 92% reduction in emissions; the level of nitrogen dioxide fell by 27% from 2010 to 2016 and by 10% from 2015 to 2016. So progress is being made, but we want to do more. That is why, across the piece, we are going to bring forward our clean air strategy.

However, I want to be clear to the noble Baroness that the judge acknowledged that very considerable time and effort had been invested by both Ministers and officials. The judge also said, in relation to the five main cities where there is a considerable problem, that what was being brought forward was lawful. I do not want to trade elements of the judgment, because we should take it seriously. That is why, instead of requesting the 33 local authorities to undertake measures, we will be requiring and directing them to do so, because we want to make progress.

It is interesting that, of those 33 areas—which is really what the judgment came down to: what we are going to do about those 33 areas where we need to achieve compliance—10 are projected to come into compliance next year, 13 in 2020 and the final 10 in 2021. In looking at this, a lot of what can be done could be done comparatively cheaply—for instance, the rephasing of traffic lights, including at roundabouts. There are a number of ways in which we want to work with the individual local authorities concerned. The reason we have requested and required the leaders to come to the meeting next Wednesday is precisely so we can get what we all want, which is cleaner air for everyone.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the reply to the Urgent Question. In the “Conclusions” section of the hearing referred to earlier on the air quality plan, Mr Justice Garnham said:

“In its application to the 45 local authority areas, it does not contain measures sufficient to ensure substantive compliance with the 2008 Directive and the English Regulations”.

The Minister has stressed that the Government are fulfilling their legal requirements under the UK plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide concentrations, but I put it to him that those legal requirements fall a long way short of what is required to improve air quality in the 45 cities—never mind the 33—that were the subject of the court action taken by ClientEarth. The residents of those 45 cities deserve better for their children and elderly. Air pollution costs the UK economy £20 billion every year. Sick and vulnerable people, the elderly and children are particularly at risk. The health problems resulting from exposure to air pollution have a high cost to NHS services and business. As an asthmatic, I find that I am severely affected by poor quality air.

The Government’s success in banning the use of microbeads in wash-off cosmetic products could be extended to assist with the air pollution in the country. Research suggests that chemicals in everyday consumer products, including perfumes and paints, have been revealed as a major source of air pollution, comparable with emissions from the transport sector. This research suggests that these products emit significant quantities of petroleum-based chemicals, rivalling cars and other vehicles as the top source of urban air pollution. What steps are the Government taking to tackle this source of air pollution?

My Lords, the clean air strategy we are bringing forward is designed to deal with all elements of air pollution, because we think that is very important. I should have said to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that we are not intending to appeal; we want to implement what the judge has said. We are working actively, in different ways, with all the cities involved, helping them to tackle their NO2 exceedances, and that is an issue for the whole United Kingdom. Wales, which was a separate party to the action, has conceded that it needs to do more and will be bringing forward a new plan in July. There are exceedances in Scotland and Northern Ireland—in fact, 22 of the 28 countries of the EU are in exceedance—so this is an issue we all need to grapple with very seriously. I am confident that my honourable friend Minister Coffey is dealing with this with rigour and drive.

My Lords, over the decades the UK’s air quality has improved, thanks to the concerted efforts at all levels, but we all today, listening to other noble Lords, agree that more needs to be done. Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health as well as to the environment, damaging agricultural crops and forests, and people are rightly concerned. Will the Minister say whether more could be done to inform the general public, with more detailed information or a campaign, to enable them to make informed choices to help tackle the sources of, and to avoid exposure to, air pollution?

My Lords, I think that what my noble friend has said is really important. We are working with local authorities and businesses. One thing we all have to wrestle with is how to manage our lives differently in terms of the things we do and air pollution. Whether it is particulate matter with domestic wood and coal burning, there is a range of things we are all going to have to address. I agree with my noble friend that more needs to be done. With the Department of Health, on things like awareness of air pollution events, we need to ensure that vulnerable people are safer. All these are important points, but the work we are doing and that we need to do in collaboration is urgent and we need to get on with it.

My Lords, the Government’s proposal to satisfy the judge means air quality will not comply with EU limits until 2028. I am not sure that everybody else would agree with the judge that that is reasonable. I draw the Minister’s attention to the report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee which came out today, and I declare an interest as a member of that committee. The committee is very concerned about the oversight and enforcement of these regulations, and it draws attention to the fact that the SI speaks of a new “advise and challenge” body. How will the Government enforce this and ensure that there is oversight of whether these targets are met?

My Lords, this is a joint venture between government and local authorities to achieve the requirements that have been set for us in terms of EU compliance and, obviously, continued compliance following our departure. Of the 33 areas—this is the area where the judgment came in, where we are required to direct the local authorities—as I have enumerated, the plan is for all 33 of them to be compliant by 2021.