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Air Pollution

Volume 797: debated on Monday 8 April 2019


Asked by

My Lords, the Government’s clean air strategy, published in January of this year, sets out an ambitious programme of action to reduce air pollutant emissions from a wide range of sources. The World Health Organization has recognised this strategy as an example for the rest of the world to follow. This complements the £3.5 billion package announced in 2017 to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations.

My Lords, today London’s ultra-low emissions zone comes into force, cutting toxic emissions and making London’s air safer for millions, especially children. First, I commend the Mayor of London for this bold, world-leading scheme to tackle toxic air. The forthcoming environment Bill is the Government’s chance to be as bold. The clean air strategy is a welcome step forward, but without any legal force it is just an aspiration. Will the environment Bill include legally binding targets in line with WHO air quality standards on particulate matter, and will the new office for environmental protection proposed in the Bill have the power to hold the Government to account for breaching air quality standards?

Noble Lords will have heard us mention the office for environmental protection a number of times over recent months—it has been the subject of much discussion. When the environment Bill comes before your Lordships, it will contain provisions which will give the OEP the ability to hold government and other bodies to account, and to work retrospectively. We are already looking at the targets set by the WHO. The targets are very tough; no other major economy has so far been able to adopt them. What we have decided to do is look at them and see what action we would need to take to reach them.

My Lords, can the Minister say what steps are being taken to devise means by which older cars will cause less pollution, for example by catalytic converters, filters and other methods of that kind?

Air pollution is a complex area—not only is it about what comes out of cars, but also what comes out of stoves and things such as carpets and paints. We need to move people on from older cars, which are far more polluting, and get them into ultra-low emission vehicles. The way to do that is to provide various grants and other schemes to encourage them in that direction. Eventually, people do change their cars, and I hope that they will look at zero-emission vehicles.

My Lords, that answer is interesting, because it is older cars—as the Minister and the noble Lord pointed out—that are the trouble. Sadly, it is the poorest people and smallest businesses that own the oldest cars. For them, changing is nigh on impossible. The Minister mentioned grants and encouragement; scrappage schemes, fiscal incentives, better public transport and mobility credits would all be of benefit in moving the poorest people off the most polluting vehicles. Which of these schemes will the Government be introducing, and when?

I think noble Lords have heard us talk before about the scrappage schemes. In our view, the evidence of their deliverability and value for money simply is not there. We are not pursuing that currently. However, on the other side, the The Road to Zero strategy, published in 2018, sets out a wide range of things that can be done to move people towards ULE cars and to make sure they have the charging points at which to charge them.

My Lords, where I live in the centre of Oxford there is a considerable number of houseboats moored along Oxford Canal, which burn diesel or solid fuel as a form of heating. Could the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to restrict this form of air pollution in urban environments?

The noble Lord makes a very important point: we have already been able to tackle the biggest sources of industrial pollution, and now we are coming on to the more difficult areas. For example, Aviation 2050, which has been published, looks at aeroplanes and what they can do up to 2050; Maritime 2050 is out for consultation, and it will be published shortly. I am not sure whether Maritime 2050 includes houseboats, but I will certainly find out for the noble Lord. There is also rail: what are we doing about our trains, some of which currently run on diesel? This will be published soon. We will be rolling that out by 2040.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the British Lung Foundation. Given that last year’s WHO figures showed that 49 UK towns and cities failed to meet international standards on air pollution, will the Government work with local authorities to implement a network of charging clean air zones in all those towns and cities that have high levels of air pollution?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising that, because it is exactly what the Government are doing. The roadside nitrogen dioxide plan basically directs all local authorities to come up with a plan to reduce air pollution in their area. Clean air zones are very much supported. Noble Lords will know that Leeds will have the first one, which will start in January 2020. It will be the first authority, but many others will follow suit. Other places, such as Nottingham, have decided to go a different route by retrofitting their buses. The point we have to understand in all of this is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each city, area and local authority needs to come up with a good plan that the Government will stamp and approve to reduce roadside nitrogen dioxide.

My Lords, the Minister may not know, but I have tabled a clean air Bill. I suggest that, if the Government were to pick that up, the whole problem would be solved a lot faster than the route they are taking. Perhaps the Minister would like to meet me to discuss my clean air Bill.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, not quite right to single out children? The risks to children from not addressing this are particularly severe. Is that not why it is so welcome that the Mayor of London has introduced these steps and the Government are taking steps? There is an especially severe risk to children’s long-term health from exposure to pollution.

The noble Earl is quite right to mention children. Many vulnerable people are also significantly impacted by poor air quality. The Government are developing personal air quality messaging systems for them so that, when air quality is poor, they know that they need to take action. The Government are also providing funding to local councils to trial low-cost sensors, which can be placed around schools, so that they can monitor the air quality around schools much more effectively.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her answers so far. Can I pick up the issue of children? As the Bishop of London, I am very grateful for the ultra-low emission zone being implemented today. Can the Minister reassure us that money is going to be put into research to ensure that we know the long-term effects on the health of those children who have already incurred high emissions?

Certainly we need to understand the impact on children’s health. The London Mayor has also committed to look at the air pollution around 50 primary schools in London. The more we can do to reduce fine particulate matter, which is a relatively new measure which has come to our attention, the better for everyone’s health.