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Transport Emissions in Urban Areas

Volume 791: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on improving transport emissions in our urban areas. The Statement is as follows:

“Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health in this country and the fourth biggest public health killer after cancer, obesity and heart disease. Today marks the publication of the latest stage in this Government’s determined efforts to reduce and reverse the effects of air pollution on our health and on our natural environment. Our clean air strategy consultation, published today, outlines steps that we can all take to reduce the emission of harmful gases and particulate matter from all the sources that contribute to polluted air. It is important to recognise, as I know my honourable friend does, that air pollution is generated by a wide variety of sources: from the fuel used for domestic heating to the application of fertilisers on agricultural land; and from the use of chemicals in industry to sea, rail, air and road transport. The strategy published today outlines specific steps that we can take to reduce the use of the most polluting fuels, to manage better the use of manures and slurries on agricultural land and also to ensure that non-road mobile machinery is also effectively policed, among other measures.

Also, my honourable friend asks specifically about urban transport pollution and of course last year the Government published their UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The plan allocated over £3 billion to help reduce harmful NOx emissions, including £475 million to local authorities to enable them to develop their own air quality plans. Since then we have been working with local authorities to help them deliver specific solutions and have issued ministerial directions to 61 local authorities to ensure that they live up to their shared responsibilities.

Our plan, of course, committed us to phasing out the sale of conventional diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and taking them off the road altogether by 2050. This is more ambitious than any EU requirement and puts Britain in the lead among major developed economies.

Alongside that commitment, we are dedicating £1.5 billion to the development of zero-and ultra-low emission vehicles, including support for new charging points across the country. We were, of course, helped in the preparation of our clean air strategy by the excellent report produced by the chairs of the Health, Transport, and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committees, which was published earlier this year. In their excellent report on air quality, the Joint Select Committees recommended introducing a new Clean Air Act, and we will introduce primary legislation to clean up our air. They suggested that we initiate a new health campaign and we will, as the Secretary of State for Health has emphasised, introduce a personal messaging system to ensure that those most at risk receive the information that they need about pollution risks.

It was also recommended that we place health and environment at the centre of our strategy, rather than simply technical compliance, and we do that with ambitious new targets that match World Health Organization metrics on improving air quality. We were also asked to reduce emissions from tyres and braking, the so-called Oslo effect, and today we announced action to work with manufacturers to do just that.

Emissions have fallen consistently since 2010, and my predecessors in this role are to be commended for the action that they have taken. But today’s strategy marks the most ambitious steps yet to accelerate our progress towards cleaner air, and I commend it to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Statement. He will know that the Question focused on transport emissions because of their glaring omission from today’s published clean air strategy. Defra’s own research makes it clear that the quickest way to tackle nitrogen oxide pollution is to introduce a network of clean air zones in urban areas. Can the Minister explain why this Government are adamantly refusing to take this action?

At the same time, there is an urgent need to phase out diesel cars and vans. The Government’s current target is a very unambitious 2040. Does the Minister accept that it is both feasible and desirable to bring that date forward?

Finally, today’s clean air strategy has been produced in part to satisfy the courts, which have demanded urgent action. Does the noble Lord recognise the important role that courts can play in defending environmental standards? Will his Government now pledge to support our amendment, giving greater powers, including recourse to court action, to the UK green watchdog post Brexit?

My Lords, this is an extremely ambitious strategy. New legislation will be introduced to give local government new powers to take decisive action. We have deliberately said that this is for local government because, with the funds that we are providing of £3.5 billion, we want to work with local government because we think that that is the place where local decisions can be best made. That is why we need to work in partnership—and we are intending to, because that is how we will receive the greatest remedy.

The noble Baroness suggested that, in effect, the Government were not proceeding with vigour. In fact, we are bringing forward some of the most ambitious proposals for any developed economy. Many of them exceed what other EU countries are doing—and I think that that is very important indeed.

On the point about the courts, clearly we are mindful of what court proceedings have said. We were very pleased that the court in the last case acknowledged the right course of action. Where it did not agree was in saying that we should have directed local authorities, which we have now done; we will work with 61 local authorities where the most concern is directed. That is precisely where we will solve a lot of problems, particularly of nitrogen dioxide. Certainly, that is what we intend to do.

My Lords, the endless repetition of the mantra that this is ambitious and that the Government are world leading does not convince anyone. The truth of the matter is that 50% overall of roadside pollution by nitrogen oxide, and 80% in dense urban areas, is caused by transport, which is largely omitted from today’s announcement.

Is the Minister aware that, in the last three months, sales of petrol vehicles have soared to fill the gap left by diesel ones, which people are deserting because they have become aware of their emissions? Yet, by buying petrol vehicles, they are now creating pollution from CO2, which has been the subject of so much concern in the past. Do the Government realise that what they are doing by their laissez-faire approach is far too little, far too late? Producing a date of 2040 for ending the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles means that the Government are dragging along in the wake of the motor industry, which is working very much faster than that.

My Lords, I dispute what the noble Baroness has said. I have figures here from when my party and hers were in government, which include considerable reductions in air pollution since 2010. I wonder whether the noble Baroness wishes not to acknowledge the reduction of, for instance, 27% in nitrogen oxide from 2010 to 2016. So progress is being made, but we want to make more. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but I would have thought she would have been pleased about the investment of £1.5 billion to position the UK at the global forefront of all ultra-low emission vehicle development, manufacture and use. We are doing all these things and we are world leaders in this. Our investment in ultra-low emission vehicles may not be recognised by some in your Lordships’ House but it is recognised by other countries. We are going to ensure that, with increased electric charging, these vehicles will replace conventional combustion engine ones.

Does my noble friend agree that one of the causes of extra emissions is traffic congestion? Am I the only Member of your Lordships’ House who feels that there are an increasing number of occasions when local authorities and others close roads and are extremely slow to reopen them after the work has been done? Can I direct him to come with me to Parliament Street and Whitehall, where there is an absolutely classic illustration of that problem? One drain has been repaired, the south side of the carriageway is completely closed and there is serious congestion in Horse Guards Avenue. I talked to the people who were removing the barriers, in a rather leisurely way, work having finished some time this morning, and said: “When is this going to reopen?” They said, “Midnight tonight”. There ought to be an arrangement when, if the work finishes early, there is a messaging system and roads can be reopened swiftly, so that the traffic can flow and we can then end the congestion that otherwise occurs when there are these blockages.

I entirely agree with my noble friend and will pick that up with TfL and the Department for Transport. As my noble friend rightly identified, congestion is a cause of pollution, as is the idling of vehicles. I am pleased that the City of Westminster has issued an edict about idling and turning engines off. This is very helpful.

My Lords, 2040 to 2050 is still a long way away. I appreciate that one has to develop infrastructure so that there are charging points for electric vehicles. However, could we not have made an immediate decision to encourage the use of hybrid cars at the expense of petrol and diesel ones? Hybrid cars have enormous advantages and this could be done very quickly, without any charging points. Why not?

My Lords, there are many plus points in hybrid cars and I entirely agree that, at this time, they are a very good option. However, with our investment in ultra-low emission vehicles and in more publicly accessible charging points, we are clearly moving towards ensuring that ever more ultra-low emission vehicles are bought.

My Lords, the Minister has quoted our position worldwide. However, the fact is that the end of last week the European Commission infracted us for not meeting air quality standards. So we are one of the six dirty half-dozen of Europe for air quality. That is a fact—we would not be going in front of the ECJ if we were not. Commissioner Vella put that down in particular to those six member states being persistent offenders that were in the last chance saloon. Can the Minister say how we can make these strategies, and all the other plans we have, credible, not just to Europe but to our own citizens, to convince them that this time we will perform where in the past we have singularly failed?

There were a number of points there. We are one of 22 member states reporting exceedances, and there are 12 other countries against which infraction proceedings are carrying on. So this is undoubtedly a problem in many of the developed economies, which is precisely why the £3.5 billion, plus what we are announcing today on particulate matter and ammonia, is all about bearing down on the problem of improving air quality generally. We recognise that it is a great health problem that has a great cost in misery and financially. We wish to address this, and this is what we precisely need to do.

My Lords, I draw my noble friend’s attention to a scheme I saw being demonstrated at the current Chelsea Flower Show. Research has shown that some common house plants such as ivy are brilliant at clearing pollution within a domestic situation. This seems to be an interesting point that might be followed up.

I entirely agree with my noble friend, whom I saw at Chelsea very early yesterday morning. Plants and trees—the natural world and its protection—are hugely important because of what the natural world does for us. We still have a lot more to learn, and there are many plants from which I hope we will learn a great deal more about improving our environment.