[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 13 December 2016 on Air Quality.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of Session 2015-16, Air Quality, HC 479, and the Government response, HC 665.
Thank you for chairing this sitting, Mr Betts. It is lovely to see so many members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee here today to support our work on tackling air quality and our recent report. We took evidence again two days ago on air quality, so this debate is timely. It is good to see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport in her place.
Tackling Britain’s air quality problem must be at the top of the Government’s agenda. Poor air quality contributes to around 40,000 to 50,000 early deaths every year in the UK. This is 20 to 30 times the number of people who die on our roads in traffic accidents every year. Poor air quality is a silent killer. In any other area of policy, the Government would be moving heaven and earth to get it sorted out as quickly as possible, and that is what we now need to do. The Government have been in court twice, and twice they have lost their case. This is a matter of urgency for the quality of life of all people in this country, but especially for those who live in our inner cities in hotspots of air pollution.
The Committee’s report in April 2016 said that poor air quality is a public health emergency and called for strong measures to tackle the problem, including an overarching Government strategy to tackle it in all sectors, with flexibility for councils to implement their own clean air zones with higher charges for the most polluting vehicles in those areas, a scrappage scheme for the oldest and most polluting vehicles and proper incentives in the low-emission vehicle market. We have an able Minister here today from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but she is not answerable directly to the Department for Transport or the Department for Communities and Local Government. Everybody—the whole Government, including the Treasury, which deals with vehicle taxation, and others—must work together to deliver a good and urgent response. We want action, not just words.
The Government are in the dock. Having lost their case in the Supreme Court in April 2015 for failing to meet the legal air quality limit, they then lost again on 2 November 2016. The High Court case was brought by the campaign group ClientEarth. The judgment was that the Government had not fully complied with the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling and that their old air quality plan was not up to scratch. DEFRA must now release a new draft plan for air quality by 24 April 2017 and a final report on 31 July 2017—four months away and seven months away.
Given that the Government have twice been pulled kicking and screaming into court to lose cases for breaching EU air quality limits, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that post-Brexit we will not have that regime to ensure mandatory, legally enforceable air quality limits?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Provided the Government do not tamper with the great repeal Act and that EU legislation automatically becomes UK legislation, there should not be a problem. I do not think the Government would do that for the simple reason that not only would it be wrong, but people in this country expect decent air quality. I think it will rise up the political agenda more and more, and I suspect that trying to water down environmental control on air quality would not be popular with anyone.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that 40,000 people are already dying prematurely, so there is no reason to think the Government are treating the matter seriously or that post-Brexit they will fulfil the legal obligations they are being dragged into court to fulfil?
We have two years at the very least before we leave the European Union. The case is being made that the Government must be answerable with a proper plan by July 2017, so I think much of this will be driven before we leave the EU. I still believe they would be very unwise and careless to try to water down legislation on air quality when people are becoming much more aware of the situation. It is reducing life expectancy and all Governments of whatever colour will be asked to commit to policies to improve air quality dramatically.
The High Court case was brought by ClientEarth. To lose once in the Court could be seen as careless; to lose twice is negligent. The Under-Secretary told the EFRA Committee that the High Court case was a wake-up call. How many more wake-up calls do the Government need? Urgent action is needed now to address the problem once and for all.
On Tuesday, the EFRA Committee held a fresh evidence session on air quality with the Under-Secretary who is here today and the Minister of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). The Under-Secretary said that air quality is a top priority for her and the Transport Minister. We need evidence, but in this case I am afraid the Committee was unconvinced by the evidence we heard on Tuesday that there is enough urgency in the Government’s policy. The Minister repeatedly emphasised the role of local government in tackling air pollution and that is absolutely correct, but we must make sure the Government give the necessary powers and in some cases the necessary resources for that to happen. The Committee fears that, as happens under all Governments of all persuasions, it is easy to say, “It’s all in the hands of local government; it’s not in our hands.” Then local government turns round to central Government and says, “The Government haven’t done enough. We don’t have enough resource or the necessary legislation.”
We cannot keep arguing about whose problem it is, because it is the Government—it is DEFRA—that is in the dock, and in the end we have to answer for it. I do sympathise with this Minister, because she has to, and I am sure will, work with all other Departments, but getting all Departments to work together is a challenge in itself. However, we must do that, because in the end people will die prematurely if we do not sort it.
We talk in the recommendations about a diesel scrappage scheme. That is for older diesel cars in particular. The Government should consider a scrappage scheme. We had evidence on Tuesday from witnesses who talked about that. I do not want to make it too complicated, but perhaps it could be targeted slightly at income as well, because what often happens with a scrappage scheme if we are not careful is this. The professional middle-class people think, “Well, this is a very good time to change our car. We have a car or two that are older and we can have a new car.” The problem is that many people in our inner cities who are driving older cars may not necessarily have the income, even with a scrappage scheme, to go out and buy a new car. Perhaps if we could target a scrappage scheme not only at diesel cars but at those who can least afford a new car, we could do something about the problem.
In addition, it is now possible to convert many diesel cars to liquid petroleum gas. That cuts their emissions by about 70%, but again, is it really wise to spend a lot of money on an older diesel car?
The current—illegal—Government plan provides for only five compulsory clean air zones, but we know that pollution in dozens of areas elsewhere in England exceeds EU limits. That is why the Government must look at the whole country when considering hotspots, which is where the high levels of pollution are. The answer to a written question that I tabled to DEFRA is that a full 40% of councils in the UK breached nitrogen dioxide limits in the last year. The problem is widespread in our country; it is not just in our biggest towns. All local authorities should have the power, and the funding, to implement clean air zones if they wish to. In October, the Government provided a £3 million fund for local authorities to bid from to improve air quality. That is a start, but it is a very small amount of money, considering the number of areas that will need clean air zones.
As I said, we had the Transport Minister before us on Tuesday. The interesting thing that the Government have not yet accepted totally is that, not quite for a generation but probably for 15 years or more, there has been a push towards diesel cars. It has been advantageous to have “cleaner” diesel: people pay less road tax, and diesel cars emit less carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and are much more fuel-efficient than many petrol cars. Previously, the issue was carbon dioxide; now, it is very much nitric dioxide, so we have to start moving the taxation system away from supporting the diesel engine and towards hybrids, clean petrols and electric cars. A grant system is in place—I will talk about that in a minute—but we also need to use a bit of a stick in order to move people away from diesel cars. I understand the position because I have diesel cars; indeed, many of us in this Chamber will have. It is a fairly clean diesel, but we have to start to say to people, “You have to try to change your philosophy from diesel to petrol to hybrid to electric.”
Since the Volkswagen scandal, we know that many emission figures were completely fictional. We have only to pick up a new car magazine. There are various ones out there, and they will give us a list of the manufacturer’s claims. They will say, “This car will do 68 miles to the gallon,” and then they will say, “True figure: 45—Government figure.”
There is no doubt that we have to get away from that. It is not just Volkswagen making such claims; all sorts of people are making the claims. It is just that Volkswagen is the one that got caught. In the end, we have to have a true figure, so that when people go to buy a car, they know what the pollution levels are and how many miles to the gallon it will do. This applies to anything else that is bought and sold in life. Surely it is against the Trade Descriptions Act that we are buying something when the claim about it is not actually true. We need to do much more on that. The Government must ensure that vehicle companies’ marketing claims are fully accurate and reflect real-world conditions. When devising the new plan, the Government must take into account the most accurate figures on vehicle emissions. If the new figures show an even greater need for additional clean air zones, the Government must act accordingly.
On the VW scandal, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Department of Justice in the US took VW to court on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and is suing it for $12 billion, but I think that in Britain the figure is £1.1 million. Does he not think that through the British Government and, indeed, across Europe we should be taking firmer action against VW, given that we know the emissions are 40 times the EU limits because of the removal of the defeat devices, and that is literally killing thousands and thousands of people across Britain and Europe?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I suspect that the Americans took the case for various reasons—not just because of the pollution from the vehicles, but because they wanted to ensure that European vehicles did not get so much into the American market. However, we have missed an opportunity to drill down on Volkswagen. As I said, on Tuesday we had the Transport Minister before us, who said that the Government are now looking to sue Volkswagen. It is good if they are, but we should have got on to that more quickly. Look at the congestion charges that people have paid. If their vehicle was more polluting than was suggested by the band that the vehicle was in, surely Transport for London has missed out on extra charges that should have been paid.
To go back to my previous point, I believe that if an individual has been sold a car that has not met the standards, they should be compensated also. This is not just about the Government; there is a case for the individual, too. I have some sympathy for Volkswagen because it is the one having to face the music, but if we take action against Volkswagen, that will perhaps ensure that the other manufacturers also perform better and do not go down the route of misleading people and putting out the wrong figures for their cars’ pollution levels. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) makes a very good point.
We call in our report for incentives for a low-emissions vehicle market. The Government have made considerable progress in that area. It was very encouraging to hear my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announce £390 million of extra funding for electric vehicles, including £80 million for charging points and £150 million for low-emission buses and taxis. If we look at our inner cities, where the hotspots are, there is no doubt that the issue is the buses and the taxis, but there are also a lot of delivery vans now. With the new style of life, in which many of us will order goods online, more vans and small delivery vehicles are driving right into our inner cities. In the short run we need to look at whether some of those diesel vehicles can be changed to LPG and others moved to electric. Lorries are even more of a challenge. There is no doubt that the diesel engine pulls a heavy load so much better than an electric or petrol vehicle would. Again, we have to look at that.
In October, the Government launched a consultation on measures to support electric vehicles. It included bold proposals such as a national roll-out of electric charge points and better mapping and information for consumers. It was heartening to hear the Minister of State for Transport state on Tuesday that the modern transport Bill in 2017 will “specifically address” electric charging points. This issue is cross-Departmental. I urge the Minister here today to continue to work closely with her counterparts in joint ministerial groups to give ultra-low emission vehicles the priority they deserve, to tackle air pollution and air quality. This is not only about having electric charging points; it is about making sure that people can charge quickly. If we are going to get people to use electric cars over a bigger area, they have to be able to charge those cars quickly.
I will move on to agriculture emissions—of course, transport emissions dominate press coverage, but other sectors also cause air pollution, including agriculture. Before I do, I must mention that there are also building sites where we have generators and many of the dumper trucks—all those things people use on a building site—that are all diesel; some are gas-converted, but many are not. I am sure that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) will talk about cruise ships and the need for electric to be attached to these ships so that they do not need to have their engines running while in port and here in London.
Turning to agriculture, the report recommended that farmers adopt practices that cut emissions of greenhouse gases and local air pollutants including ammonia. DEFRA needs to target support for farmers to improve manure and nutrient management and cut methane emissions through improved feeding for livestock. This is not just about the storage of manures; it is also about the spreading of them. It is about making sure that they are spread at the right time and, if someone uses artificial fertilisers, that those are put on so that they do not evaporate into the atmosphere.
One of the problems—being a practical farmer, I understand this—is that if ammonium fertiliser is applied and it does not rain, quite a lot of that fertiliser is released into the atmosphere. It is about trying to make sure that fertiliser is applied when it does actually rain. Believe it or not, even now, although the weather forecast is nearly perfect, it is not always 100% perfect—it does not always rain. Sometimes we can make sure that the fertiliser is injected into the crop. If we can get this right, not only would having less ammonia going up into the atmosphere be an advantage to the environment, but it would be a huge advantage to the farmer because he would be applying less nitrogen and making better use of it. It is the same with our fertilisers.
The New Zealanders have done quite a lot of work on making sure that grasses grown are more digestible. Believe it or not, that reduces the amount of methane gas that comes from the livestock sector. I declare an interest as a farmer—I do not want to see the end of the livestock sector in order to see less methane gas. We have to work out a smart way of using that ruminant—a wonderful animal that digests lower-grade proteins and produces a high-grade protein—to make it emit less methane gas. It is not just nitrogen dioxide, but gases such as methane and ammonia, that contribute to these air quality problems.
In conclusion, clean air should be a right, not a privilege. This matter is not going to go away and it is inconceivable, in my view and that of the Committee, that the Government should lose in the courts on this issue for a third time. The first air quality plan was illegally poor. The Government cannot make that mistake again. It is time for a comprehensive strategy to tackle this problem once and for all. We need to have some real practical measures out there that reduce the amount of nitric oxide, in particular, that is in our inner cities. I can assure Members that the EFRA Committee will continue to scrutinise the plans that are published by the Government next year. We intend, only metaphorically, to hold the Minister’s feet to the fire and to ensure that we make good very good progress in the future.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Betts. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee so well and with such authority. As he said, there is a degree of curiosity about the fact that we are speaking to the Minister today, having had some robust exchanges with her only two days ago in the Committee. I am sure that we will come back to that.
I will be brief because in his opening comments the Select Committee Chairman effectively detailed the Committee’s main recommendations, and I am sure that the Minister will focus on the responses, so I do not see any need to repeat what the hon. Gentleman said. The one comment I will make before focusing on ship emissions on the Thames, is that were 150 people dying prematurely from any other cause in Britain, there would be a massive public outcry and a demand for immediate action from the public and the media. However, this silent killer escapes the scrutiny that it warrants except, occasionally, from the media and the Evening Standard in particular. That is clearly an exception because of the impact on London; it carried the report of the Select Committee’s exchanges on Tuesday in its columns yesterday, and the issue even made it into its editorial column because the issue is so important in London.
I want to focus briefly on shipping emissions from the Thames. To put this in perspective, on Tuesday, in response to questions during a discussion on the European directive on air quality, the Minister correctly said that poor air recognises no national boundaries. Obviously she is absolutely right, but neither does it recognise city boundaries or borough boundaries. On Tuesday, the Minister’s response to our exchange on the prospective emissions from the proposed cruise terminal at Enderby Wharf on the Thames was that, on the question of ship to shore power, the Royal Borough of Greenwich had carried out an impact assessment in its planning committee so it was job done. I am sorry to say that for many of us that was just not adequate. It is not adequate not only for residents in east London, such as Ralph Hardwick from my side of the river, who has been campaigning vigorously on this issue, but for residents on both sides of the river and in many parts of London.
It is not just residents, constituents, the Chair of the Select Committee and myself who are unhappy; the EFRA Committee collectively articulated unhappiness about this, as have the Mayor of London, the European Commission and the UK courts on two occasions, as the Select Committee Chair outlined. In his letter to the Minister on 14 December, he said:
“The Committee was disappointed with the information Ministers provided. We are extremely concerned that, despite the courts twice rejecting its plans, the Government has failed to grasp the serious impacts of poor air quality on British people.”
However, in the Minister’s defence, her position was qualified in two elements of the Government response to the Committee’s report. On page seven, in response to recommendation 8, the Government said:
“There will be no ‘one size fits all’ approach…However, it is important Clean Air Zones are co-ordinated from a national perspective”,
recognising that this is not a local borough issue or even a city issue. On page 15, in response to recommendation 22, the Government said that they
“recognise through the National Policy Statement (NPS) for Ports, that local air pollution may be abated through the provision of shore-side fixed electrical power to replace ships’ generators while in port. The NPS encourages developers including ports and shipping companies to examine the opportunities available for shore-side electricity connection, particularly in areas identified as having poor air quality. All proposals should either include reasonable advance provisions to allow the possibility of future provision of appropriate infrastructure, or give reasons as to why it would not be economically and environmentally worthwhile to make such provision.”
I am not sure that the Royal Borough of Greenwich council’s decision addressed either of those issues. The discussion we had in Committee on Tuesday—and have had for some months now—was that it was not down to the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s planning committee to decide on the matter, because it is a pan-London matter. In fact, it goes even wider than that. The Mayor of London has no locus and could not call in the planning decision. The Department for Transport has no locus either, and nor does the Port of London Authority. The Minister, who has responsibility for air quality, to whom we look to be our champion in Government, also does not have the power. Therefore, the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s decision is heavily undermined, and fatally flawed and compromised.
As I said, the Minister’s position was qualified by the two responses from the Government to the recommendations that I mentioned. Further, in response to question 93 in the oral evidence session, her senior colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), said:
“We have both said publicly that we are going to bring a further report, because we have to, given the decision of the court that the Chairman mentioned at the outset, and I would be surprised if there was not an expectation that we addressed this issue. It would be very odd if we left this issue out. I will certainly take away what you have said and we will discuss it in the inter-ministerial group. I would certainly want to address this before the date you suggest.”
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister can confirm that her joint ministerial committee will address the issue of emissions from the Thames. It would be really helpful if she set out in her winding-up speech the frequency of the joint ministerial meetings and the timetable for its final report. This is a very important issue, particularly for London but to the whole country as well, and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
I am probably something of an interloper today, given that I am not a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. However, I am a member of the Select Committee on Health, and this issue is equally important to members of that Committee. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said, this is an urgent and important issue. The fact that there are 40,000 to 50,000 additional deaths in the UK each year shows how significant it is, and we are right to pay real attention to it. However, we need to realise that this is also a global issue. The American Association for the Advancement of Science calculated that in 2013 there were 5.5 million deaths as a result of air pollution worldwide; 1.6 million were in China and 1.4 million were in India. That does not make the issue in our country any less urgent, but it is important to put the debate in a global context.
I would not be speaking in this debate if I did not think this was an important issue. We all have a shared purpose, wherever we sit in the House, in wanting to take serious action on this issue.
Going from the global level to a local one, the constituency I represent has three market towns. One of them, Dunstable, has an air-quality management area in the town centre and in the Luton Road area. There are 37 different monitoring points for air quality in that area. I remember many years ago, not long after I was first elected, my excellent GP in the centre of Dunstable telling me that many more children who live in central Dunstable—close to the A5 trunk road, which goes through the middle of the town—suffered from asthma than the children who lived in Dunstable’s suburbs or the villages around the town. That is replicated up and down our country, not just in town centres. People who live next to busy roads are affected, which is something that we absolutely need to bear in mind in future planning decisions.
I completely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said about making sure that we transition from dirty energy in road transport to cleaner energy in an affordable way for our constituents. We all want clean air, but people have cars to get to work, to take the children to school and to go about their daily lives. Cars are a necessity for very many of our constituents. We need to think about who the people are who drive older diesels. They will mainly be constituents who are perhaps less well-off, which is why they are driving an older car that is a bit more economical. It is really important that we provide mechanisms to help constituents on lower incomes transition to cleaner vehicles, and I very much hope that we will.
In May 2011, I held a Westminster Hall debate on ultra-low emission vehicles. The then Transport Minister replied to the debate by saying that the Department had “two objectives”, which were
“to create growth and to cut carbon.”—[Official Report, 10 May 2011; Vol. 527, c. 382WH.]
Those objectives are both excellent. I hope that today the Minister, who I know really cares about this issue and is determined to make progress on it, will perhaps let us know about a third objective to go alongside the Department’s former second objective of cutting carbon—namely, to improve air quality. That would be very helpful.
I want to press the Minister on the scale of our country’s ambition and policy on ultra-low emission vehicles. When I held that Westminster Hall debate some five-and-a-half years ago, I noted that the Committee on Climate Change had said that the United Kingdom should aim to have 1.7 million ultra-low emission electric vehicles on our roads by 2020. At the time there were only 57,000, and I said that the total of 57,000 was a pretty small share of the then 28.4 million cars on our roads. I also noted that Japan had the much higher goal that 20% of all its vehicles would be electric or plug-in hybrids by 2020. It is important that we have world-leading ambition in this area so that, first, we get clean air, and secondly, absolutely critically, the United Kingdom is right at the forefront of benefiting—to ensure that we have good jobs, economic prosperity and growth—from this industry, which is taking off around the world.
Staying with the far east, China’s goal is to have 5 million all-electric and plug-in vehicles on its roads by 2020, and a number of Chinese companies are already working actively in that area. Zhejiang Geely has bought the London Taxi Company and is making the electric TX4 Euro 5 London taxi cabs, which will be launched in the middle of next year.
China Daily has referred to Norway and the Netherlands as
“leading electric vehicle growth in Europe”.
I am disappointed that China does not believe that the United Kingdom is in that position and I look forward, with interest, to what my hon. Friend the Minister will say on that when she winds up. Norway and the Netherlands plan to phase out diesel vehicles entirely by 2025, as do, at the city level, Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City.
On the bus front, it is good to see that the Chinese battery company, BYD Company or Build Your Dreams, has teamed up with Alexander Dennis, the British bus company, to bring electric buses to London, Liverpool and Nottingham. I echo what the Chair of the Select Committee said about the need for joined-up, cross-Government action within this area, but I am most concerned about how we are tracking whether the United Kingdom is on target to meet our 2020 objectives. I would like reassurance that there is a real mechanism to look at that, and that, where we are falling short, Ministers are getting their heads together to take the appropriate action to ensure that we are a world leader in this area not just for our constituents’ health but for the benefit of the United Kingdom’s economy.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I was not a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee when it prepared this report, although I have subsequently joined and was there for the evidence session on Tuesday, when the Minister once again reassured us that air pollution was a top priority for her Department and, indeed, for the Government. Some of us remain to be convinced, including the courts, as we have seen with the recent ClientEarth proceedings and with the news that the European Commission is taking the UK Government to court for their failures in dealing with the Volkswagen scandal.
In its response to the report, DEFRA described its air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide as “an ambitious plan”, which rather begs the question why it was snuck out on the last day of Parliament before last year’s Christmas recess, hidden in a flurry of written ministerial statements. We will, no doubt, get a similar flurry next week. In its response, DEFRA also rejected the Committee’s call for a comprehensive strategy on the grounds that:
“The national air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide already sets out a comprehensive plan”.
But, as we discovered on Tuesday, it only covers NOx. It was disappointing that the Minister did not seem to appreciate, when we spoke on Tuesday, that it was time to update the 2007 plan, which covers all air pollutants. It was more reassuring that the Minister of State, Department for Transport seemed to accept that it was time to do so.
It was also worrying how many times the Government’s response to the report was simply to repeat:
“£2 billion has been committed since 2011”,
with little mention of future plans and funding. DEFRA’s contribution, the air quality grant scheme to support local authority action, went down from £3.1 million in 2012-13 to just £0.5 million last year—a funding cut of 84%.
The Select Committee report expressed concerns about weak national leadership and evidence from the ClientEarth court case suggests that it is the Treasury that has been leading on air quality policy, not DEFRA, by blocking measures to reduce pollution levels. If the Treasury is not prepared to listen to the public health arguments and the moral arguments that we are facing a real emergency, perhaps it needs reminding of the £20 billion that air pollution costs the UK economy every year —10 times the amount that the Government boast they have spent on improving air quality in five years.
Ministers should not need to be dragged through the courts twice to realise that their air quality plan is just not good enough. Ministers’ optimism has little basis in reality. Last year, DEFRA decided that just eight of the 43 air quality zones would still exceed legal limits for NOx in 2020, yet just one year earlier, 28 zones were still expected to be non-compliant. The reason for their belief in this rapid improvement was due to new modelling. Ministers were warned that if real-world emissions were much higher than expected, 22 additional zones would exceed the legal limit, and we now know that diesel emissions are up to 12 times the legal limit.
Why did Ministers choose to base their plans on such optimistic assumptions? Why did they try to block European Union legislation on random inspections of vehicles’ real-world emissions? Why did they support loopholes that give car companies permission to pollute well above legal limits into the next decade? Why are Ministers still ignoring passenger cars, even though they are responsible for 29% of NOx emissions in the UK? The answer, as we learnt from the ClientEarth court case, is that Ministers were not trying to reduce air pollution levels to safer levels, to limit the damage to people’s health, or to prevent premature deaths. For the Government, this was simply a bureaucratic exercise to avoid EU fines and further court action. My constituents and all our constituents are paying the price because Ministers decided that, to meet this technical requirement, they only had to worry about five cities: Southampton, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Birmingham.
Yet, as every Bristolian knows, we are never far from the top of the list of most congested cities. Parts of Bristol regularly exceed nitrogen dioxide limits and the World Health Organisation lists Bristol as one of the most polluted cities in the UK for particulate matter. Only this month, the city was warned that it was facing its worst air pollution levels in a decade, with the Government’s index scoring us a worrying nine out of 10. The consequences are clear. According to the British Lung Foundation, people in Bristol are 16% more likely to die of lung cancer than the national average, 12% more likely to be admitted to hospital with asthma and 40% more likely to be admitted to hospital with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A recent study indicated that nitrogen dioxide and particulates are responsible for 300 premature deaths in Bristol annually—8.5% of all deaths in Bristol each year. Perhaps the Minister would highlight to her Treasury colleagues the fact that air pollution costs Bristol £84 million a year.
The British Lung Foundation has expressed to me that only two schools in Bristol have air pollution monitors within 10 metres. There are three schools in my constituency alone in areas where nitrogen dioxide levels are illegally high. Thankfully, we now have a Mayor, Marvin Rees, who is committed to tackling our air quality crisis and has cross-party support across Bristol City Council for a clean air zone. Bristol has responded to the clean air zone framework consultation, has applied for air quality grants and is working with Core Cities on a comprehensive list of recommendations, although it is worth noting that the Mayor has written to me saying that it is a shame that core cities are required to compete against each other for air quality grants.
Bristol’s cabinet member for transport has recently announced with First Bus that routes along Fishponds Road, one of the busiest streets in my constituency, would benefit from a new fleet of low-carbon buses, so the council does understand the need to work with transport providers and taxi fleets. However, the Mayor, like the experts who gave evidence to the Committee, has made it clear that the council needs support from national Government to strengthen legal powers, fund investment, work with vehicle manufacturers and help with real-world data if we are to design effective clean air zones.
To conclude, I welcome the new joint air quality unit between DEFRA and the Department for Transport, and the recognition from Ministers that we need a cross-departmental approach. It was disappointing, however, that DEFRA refused to answer my written parliamentary questions on the work of the clean growth committee, in order to
“protect the integrity of the policymaking process”.
The public have a right to know whether Ministers are suggesting solutions to a problem that is killing tens of thousands of people every year. Is not such a complex problem that affects so many of us best addressed through open engagement, rather than through such cloak and dagger secrecy?
The Government’s response to the Committee’s report assured us that:
“Specific actions have been developed over the course of these meetings”.
So I do hope that we can hear more from the Minister about exactly what those specific actions are.
There is common agreement now that air pollution is an issue that we absolutely must tackle. Perhaps it is now time for a new clean air Act to be passed, some 50 years after the last one. I urge DEFRA to come back to Parliament with a comprehensive, forward-looking plan that includes detailed actions and specific timeframes. It really is time for an end to the complacency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on a comprehensive and valuable report on the air quality crisis that we face in this country. I am pleased that the Committee is continuing to take evidence on DEFRA’s plans following the High Court ruling that the Government have comprehensively failed to address the issue.
There is a lot in the report, and I will briefly address a couple of its recommendations on vehicle emissions. The deterioration in the quality and safety of the air we breathe, particularly in cities such as Manchester, is increasingly acknowledged as a public health crisis. We know that air pollution causes 40,000 premature deaths a year, that air pollution is linked to cancer, asthma, strokes and heart disease, and that 3,000 of our schools are on sites with dangerous levels of air pollution.
The report is particularly timely in light of the EU referendum result. There is no doubt that the EU has helped us to address air quality. EU regulations such as the 2008 ambient air quality directive have been important tools for campaigners to hold the Government to account. Just this week, EU Environment Ministers approved a new directive on air pollution that revises targets for member states in line with the Gothenburg protocol. The directive is predicted to halve premature deaths in the EU due to air pollution by 2030, so the EU has a strong track record of action on this issue. Working closely with our EU partners will be critical in the coming years, which is why there is such concern that, following the referendum, we are now at a crossroads. The scale of the challenge is huge.
From speaking to people such as Manchester Friends of the Earth and the British Lung Foundation, I know there is a real fear that leaving the EU could see us return to being the dirty man of Europe, notwithstanding what was said earlier about the repeal Bill. I agree with the Labour environment campaign and ClientEarth that the prospect of leaving the EU reinforces the need for a new clean air Act to bring the EU and World Health Organisation guidelines into UK law to ensure that we do not lose those safeguards in the long term.
The report raises a couple of issues that relate to Manchester. First, I welcome recommendation 9, which calls on the Government to extend new powers and support to councils that are ready to address air quality. Restricting the provision of clean air zones to five cities outside London limits the scope for supporting urban centres such as Manchester to play our part in reducing air pollution.
We are not restricting it. The difference is that the Government are requiring it of those five cities. Any part of the country can introduce a clean air zone if it wishes.
What we do not get in Manchester is the support and resource to do it, as the other five cities do.
I was told in July 2016 that Greater Manchester was denied funding and support for a clean air zone because of predictions that the city region would not break the EU directive limit. However, it emerged during the recent High Court case that DEFRA originally included Greater Manchester in the list of clean air zones, only to be told by the Treasury that we cannot afford it. Also, DEFRA’s air quality projections for Manchester have been widely discredited because they are based on static car usage and no population growth—in fact, Greater Manchester’s population has grown at double the UK average over the past decade. Despite our fantastic progress on public transport, particularly our Metrolink, 58% of journeys within Greater Manchester are still made by car. Now that DEFRA is having to revisit its air quality strategy, I urge the Minister to think again and support Manchester in implementing a clean air zone.
Secondly, we all got it wrong on diesel vehicles, and the Government now need to take stronger and faster action. The direction of travel across the world is away from diesel cars and towards low-emission vehicles. As has been mentioned, just last week Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens joined Tokyo in moving to ban diesel vehicles from their city centres.
Recommendation 19 calls for a national diesel scrappage scheme, paired with grants for purchasing low-emission vehicles. Funding for new refuelling infrastructure for low-carbon vehicles is welcome, but it is clearly not enough on its own to get high-polluting diesel cars off the road. In Manchester we have taken promising steps to modernise our bus fleet and increase the number of charging locations for electric cars, but we need the Government to show more leadership. It is time for the Government to follow our international partners and take serious action. A scrappage scheme for diesel cars would demonstrate such action, so I repeat the calls made by other Members to reconsider that proposal.
I will not speak for long, but I return to the High Court case brought by the lawyers at ClientEarth. The case exposes the Government’s lack of ambition to address our air pollution crisis. The verdict shows that the Government are committed to scraping by but, following the EU referendum result, that approach will not be enough.
Recommendation 7 sums it up perfectly:
“the Government must accord poor air quality a priority commensurate with the toll on the nation’s health and environment.”
That is absolutely what we need now.
I welcome the report. I serve on the Environmental Audit Committee, and I have proposed the Clean Air Bill that, in essence, calls for the development of sustainable public, private and commercial transport by road, rail, air and sea. Obviously, the background is diesel pollution. The Clean Air Act 1956 was passed to confront the 12,000 deaths in London in one year, 1952. Now we are seeing 9,400 deaths in London, and 40,000 across Britain, every year. We are looking at a silent killer on an industrial scale. At best, the Government’s position is complacent and negligent. They have been dragged into court and forced to abide by EU standards. The strategy is minimalist, rather than an holistic approach that confronts the real problem. We know that people are dying, be it through heart attacks, lung disease or strokes. Unborn babies are being exposed through the placental wall.
The Select Committee Chair mentioned VW, and it is appalling that VW’s NOx sensors were allowing 40 times the EU pollution limit. As I mentioned earlier, the US has taken firm legal action and sued VW for $12 billion, but the EU and the UK are doing virtually nothing vis-à-vis VW. We know that we need to take action.
I have been working in conjunction with the Health Alliance UK on Climate Change, which includes the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, The Lancet, The BMJ, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of General Practitioners. We have seen the huge protests by doctors against diesel deaths. People are getting wise to the fact that they are driving around inside silent killers, and that politicians of various hues have overseen an increase in diesel cars from a market share of some 10% in 2000 to 50% of new cars now. Nearly 40% of the stock is diesel. Of course politicians are frightened of doing anything, but they must do something to save people’s lives and to save future generations. Poorer people and children disproportionately live near highly congested areas.
I completely agree with the Select Committee’s recommendations, and I want local government to be empowered to provide more infrastructure, such as modern electric trams. I want local government to be able to restrict diesel and heavy-polluting cars and vehicles from entering areas where there is particular vulnerability. I want the Government to introduce complete infrastructure for electric and hydrogen vehicles. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, electricity must be provided for ships that are coming into port and polluting local areas. There is another debate to be had about ships. Ships in the North sea create more pollution, diesel and otherwise, than the totality of transport in Britain.
We need to think about the wider picture. The Chair of the Committee mentioned agriculture and methane from cows; we must think about how to manage that as well, by promoting vegetarianism and encouraging best practice. We need to reduce the massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and the production of methane through agriculture. I know that people have been reconsidering Heathrow airport. A lot of the testing for the airport was based on old-fashioned modelling that underestimated the amount of emissions from cars roughly fourfold, did not even factor in emissions from the planes themselves, which will increase in number from 480,000 to 700,000 a year.
It really is not good enough. We have seen some action elsewhere: Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens are seeking to ban diesel within the next decade. There has been talk in Germany; a motion was passed in the Bundestag to stop the sale of new diesel cars altogether across the EU from 2030. There are calls, whether caused by Brexit or otherwise, for the Government to support investment in hydrogen electric cars. In Swansea, we welcome the electrification of the railways, but it will not happen until 2024, and the trains will be diesel and electrified. Meanwhile, in Germany, they are developing the first hydrogen trains. We are absolutely miles behind and pretending to be at the front of the game.
The basic point that needs to be made is that we need a new, comprehensive fiscal strategy that encourages a clean and healthy future in terms of consumption and production and discourages bad, unhealthy and deadly behaviour. Since 1992, there has been basically no difference in fuel tariff between diesel and petrol, and despite inflation there has been no growth in either of them since 2010, so the real cost of diesel—the cost of promoting death—has been cut. We need differentials to emerge between diesel and petrol, and particularly in order to encourage electric and hydrogen.
I know that time is pressing for the Front-Bench speeches, so I will bring my comments to a close. I completely support what has been said in the report, and I think that much more must be done. I will circulate my detailed Clean Air Bill for comments and contributions, to help push forward on this growing problem for people not just in London but across Britain who want to protect themselves and their children from unnecessary death.
We now move to the Front-Bench speeches. We are not restricted to concluding this debate by 3 o’clock; the two debates together may take three hours. There are 10 minutes for each of the Front-Bench speeches on this report, and the Chair of the Select Committee has the right to make a brief response at the end.
This inquiry was conducted by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, led by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). As a member of the Committee, I was pleased to participate. We published our report on 20 April 2016, after close scrutiny of 56 items of published evidence and four evidence-gathering sessions.
The Committee framed a number of recommendations, offered the UK Government additional advice and commented formally on a number of vital matters. We also endorsed the UK Government’s approach to certain aspects of new road transport technologies. In developing our recommendations, the Select Committee considered 12 important themes relating to UK Government policy and air quality in England. The themes included: the integration and reinvigoration of UK Government actions and policy; Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs air quality strategy and analysis of cost relative to benefit; DEFRA nitrogen dioxide plans; how best to fund local action; EU emissions tests and the impact of test inaccuracies on DEFRA plans; the use of so-called defeat devices in software by Volkswagen; new road transport technologies; and emissions from ships, agricultural and greenhouse gases.
Despite mounting evidence of the health and environmental impacts of air pollution, the Committee found little evidence of a cohesive cross-Government plan to tackle emissions and improve the quality of the air that people breathe in England. In part, the Government’s narrow focus appeared to relate to a failure by the Cabinet Office to establish clear duties and policy responsibilities for each Department. Furthermore, we observed that Ministers must begin to develop more open and transparent communication strategies in order to engage with the public. In that regard, we were unimpressed by the Cabinet Office’s role in co-ordinating policy development and found the work of the inter-ministerial group on clean growth to be opaque.
Disappointingly, DEFRA policies aim to cut air pollution to the legal limits, although it is known that actual threats to health and the environment are evident at much lower levels. DEFRA policies therefore lack ambition, making little attempt to calculate whether cost-effective means can be developed to meet real-life demands representing much tougher targets. Such calculations could be based on robust evidence about the benefits of cleaner air against the costs of policies needed to achieve it, such as imposing constraints on polluting industries.
The Committee demonstrated that enhanced information flows are required within DEFRA if the contribution and value of clean air to society is to be identified and acted on. We also identified that DEFRA policies must begin to incentivise voluntary action rather than regulation. Mandating lower pollution is clearly not the most cost-effective method of encouraging a general focus, and it typically results in a compliance-focused approach by industry in relation to specific activities, rather than the development of a more generalised approach that seeks to accrue benefits associated with a more positive state of affairs. The Committee found DEFRA’s overall approach to reducing pollution likely to result in a compliance culture.
Emission reduction targets should be based on scientific evidence and strategies for pollution reduction based on effective cost-benefit analyses. Ministers must set out with absolute clarity the actions required across Government if the public are to be reassured that the Government are committed to improving air quality substantially. It is worth noting that parts of London, such as Oxford Street, now represent the most polluted environments in the world. The scale of the challenge facing the UK Government in England on emissions is immense, but the public will be interested to know that the UK Government are largely not addressing it.
In particular, the Committee was told that DEFRA’s plans for clean air zones will impose a one-size-fits-all category D model on cities from Southampton to Leeds. In London, there are also plans for an ultra-low emission zone, but our evidence demonstrated that few in power appear to understand what that means. We also heard evidence suggesting that the UK Government must give local authorities greater control to implement policy flexibly, in order to tailor measures better to local circumstances. For example, we took evidence suggesting that cities would find it more effective to limit vehicle access at certain times of day or target specific bus routes rather than to implement less considered blanket bans on access.
It was therefore remarkable for us to find that the UK Government have planning powers to levy charges discouraging the use of vehicles in specific areas only for the five cities with the highest levels of pollution, although it is known that dozens of identifiable areas breach current EU pollution limits. That finding sits at odds with many developing nations, and indeed with policies being implemented now to address pollution in cities such as Athens, Paris, Rome and Madrid. If the UK Government are to avoid having their air quality policies left in tatters, DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government must fund wider programmes such as those supported by the local sustainable transport fund, which has demonstrated that it delivers benefits cost-effectively.
We also looked at specific measures to reduce emissions from shipping, agriculture, the building industry, public transport and cars. We endorsed the UK Government’s support for a wide range of technologies, including the provision of fiscal incentives such as lower fuel duty rates for cleaner fuels. We viewed positively new technologies such as gas-powered or hybrid vehicles and fully electric vehicles that can offer solutions for different transport needs. Sadly, however, the UK Government appear to be taking a technologically passive approach that is inhibiting support for the necessary research, development and implementation of low-emission technologies.
Indeed, the UK Government’s response to our inquiry has been disappointing, if not lamentable. Not only have they failed to address the Committee’s recommendations, but they recently lost two cases in the High Court in respect of their failures to implement appropriate measures to limit pollution. On 8 December, the European Union initiated legal proceedings against the UK Government for their failure to apply penalties against Volkswagen and, more worryingly, for failing to disclose full information to the EU Commission. Those failures and omissions are instructive. They are also a damming indictment of ineffectiveness—all the more so since the Minister herself told the Committee only this week that air quality was her “top priority”.
We have found that DEFRA’s approach is based on predictive assumptions that are too cautious. A history of failure to translate theoretical standards into cleaner air means that it must keep its assumptions under review. At the current rate of change, it will be many, many years before ultra-low emission vehicles replace all the types of vehicles and heavy plant currently causing pollution. Faster progress could be made if further measures were introduced to encourage people to buy newer, perhaps unfamiliar and in many cases more costly, technologies. The UK Government must rise to that challenge or face the prospect of losing further credibility in the courts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Betts.
While the High Court judgment on 2 November has subsequently reinforced the points made in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report, the Committee must be commended for the seriousness with which it has looked into air quality and not least for taking further evidence on Tuesday. I know that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and the Committee have made a number of recommendations, all of which the Opposition would support or even go further on under our plan for action. I note that the Government have failed to take the advice in the Committee’s recommendations and plan, despite having had 239 days since the report was published to put a plan in place.
The Government’s buzz-phrase about leaving the environment better than they found it is already wearing very thin, as they have had six years to make significant changes in this area and have now been told to do so on three occasions by the courts—the European Court too, we must remember. The Government have been minimalistic in their response and have been told by the judiciary to think again. They have been exposed, not only in their lack of progress on improving our air quality, but in their deliberate attempts to water down improved standards for the 2030 EU directive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) mentioned. The Government sought, through their MEPs, to adjust the ceiling on emissions to give Britain “flexibility” and allowed them to “adjust their inventory” if the country looked likely to breach targets. That is a scandal, and the Government must be held to account for it.
In the light of the Brexit discussions currently taking place, the question of exactly what form of regulation we will have over our air quality in the future is extremely worrying. While we are talking about leaving the EU, we must also be cognisant of what we have heard this afternoon about China’s air quality. If we are signing up to trade deals that will pollute elsewhere around the globe, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned, we should be incredibly concerned. We must ensure that environmental measures are written into all trade deals to improve international standards.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in the case of CETA—the comprehensive economic and trade agreement between Canada and the EU—it is imperative that we build in air quality standards and compliance with the Paris standards, so that investor powers do not simply trump environmental imperatives?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. It is really important that we demonstrate in all our international agreements and dialogue that we can lead on this agenda. I want the UK to be at the forefront, but tragically we are lagging behind.
It is remarkable that, in addition to what has happened, the Government have failed to recognise the weakness in their own plan, despite warnings from the courts to take action over poor air quality. As we have heard, they had to be dragged to the High Court again this year to defend the indefensible: a plan that sought to limit air quality improvements in just five areas outside London, when levels of nitrogen oxides in 37 out of 43 zones are exceeding European standards. We also need plans in other areas to address particulates and ammonia, as we have heard today.
The Government have consistently lacked ambition and tried to avoid their obligations to address this serious health concern. The cost is early mortality. We have heard about the 52,500 premature deaths and about the global scale of respiratory and cardiac disease, which kill 30 times the number of people killed in traffic accidents. The number of people who endure respiratory disease from air pollution has not been calculated, but that is a serious issue too. People are gasping for breath day by day. A young person with asthma, an older person with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—the suffering of those individuals cannot be overstated. I worked in respiratory medicine for 20 years and I can tell hon. Members how life-limiting such illnesses can be. We have also heard about the cost to the NHS of up to £20 billion—ten times what the Government are prepared to put into mitigation processes. The Government’s approach does not really recognise the scale of the crisis. Every life matters, and we need them to use every tool at their disposal to bring about fundamental change on their watch.
Let me welcome the Committee’s work and set out what a Labour Government would do. We would introduce a clean air Act, because we understand the urgency of the matter. We would mainstream environmental standards, not just in transport but across all Departments, and ensure that they are integrated into our industrial strategy. We heard from the Prime Minister this week that, remarkably, after six and a half years the Government have not got an industrial strategy. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about the future of the car industry? As we have heard this afternoon, so many countries, including Norway, the Netherlands and Germany, are making radical changes to clean up their transport systems. They will be decades ahead of us, so it is important that we take urgent measures now. Why did the Government not intervene on their own plans when they learned about the fourfold shortfall between laboratory testing levels and real emissions, and revise their targets? DEFRA should publish the data on real-world emissions and should take seriously the Volkswagen issue, to ensure that those issues do not occur again.
A Labour Government would go further than just talking about scrappage schemes. We know that those schemes provide an economic boost and are very important, but we would also look at a retrofitting programme to give vehicles more access to opportunities to clean up their emissions, and we would put the right financial drivers in the system to achieve that. We would have clean air zones, as many of my hon. Friends have said today—not just in five areas, but right across the 43 areas. We would empower local communities, to ensure that the risk of failure is taken out of the system. We need a “can do” attitude from the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington said, not a “can’t do” attitude.
I was taken by the Select Committee’s astute comment about the “polluter pays” principle. When that principle, which is one of the core strands of the Government’s strategy, applies to buses, it is the passenger who pays, so passengers will opt to use alternative vehicles. Avoiding unintended consequences and closing loopholes is so important. That is the responsibility of the Government, but it has clearly not worked so far.
There are so many things that Labour would want to do to improve the wider strategies. We need proper investment into moving people into walk-cycle strategies, and we need to reform the public transport system, as we have heard from other colleagues. At the centre of all this is economics, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) highlighted. What discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury to ensure that the whole process of cleaning up our air is properly supported, and what was the result of those discussions?
I could talk about agriculture, but the Chair of the Select Committee has made such a good case already. The fact that our air is so polluted affects our whole biodiversity system. Will the Minister say when we will see the long-overdue food and farming plan? It was promised before Christmas; I hope we will see it by then.
Finally, I wish to highlight the issue of measurement. In its response to the report, the Government said:
“Access to data and information is essential to enabling informed choices to be made on the best approaches to tackling the sources of, and reducing exposure to, pollution.”
Why was the air quality monitoring budget in 2011-12 twice what it is now? Why has the number of projects dropped from 42 to 12? It is so important to monitor air pollution, especially around schools, where young people’s lungs are developing and susceptible to pollutants. We have to measure what is in our air, so I want to see that budget restored to ensure that we are taking the right measures in the right places.
Tough action could be taken to clean up our air, and would be taken under Labour. The World Health Organisation describes air pollution as a “public health emergency”. The Select Committee said that the Government have failed to take a coherent, cross-Government approach. The High Court judge said that
“the Secretary of State fell into error”.
We say to the Government: clean up your act and clean up our air. I have been so encouraged by the ambition demonstrated in the debate thus far. I trust that the Minister will build confidence with clear direction today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the Liaison Committee for granting this debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish).
Improving air quality is my top priority and I welcome the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s interest in this matter. Such interest is not unique to the Select Committee. Air quality has improved significantly over recent decades, through the regulatory frameworks put in place by successive Governments, starting with the Clean Air Act 1956 and continuing as we signed up to the international protocols that have been continually revised, usually brought into place by EU regulations. We have supported them. The standards have got tougher and I am determined that we will improve air quality further.
We are showing leadership in driving improved air-quality standards internationally through the Gothenburg protocol. As a result, in common with the rest of Europe, we now have legally binding targets to reduce UK air pollutant emissions by 2020, and to reduce them even further by 2030. The targets will be incorporated into our legislation by the end of June 2018. I will set out further actions in due course, including publishing the UK Government’s air pollution action plan, which includes all pollutants, and we must do that by no later than March 2019.
The Government’s ambition is that ours will be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than we found it, which is why we are developing a 25-year environment plan that will include a strong focus on clean air. Our most immediate challenge, though, is to reduce the number of local pollutant hotspots caused by vehicle emissions. That is why the UK led the development of the real driving emissions test. From next year, vehicles will have to meet emissions limits in real driving conditions across a wide range of typical operating conditions. We have also committed more than £2 billion to increase the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles and to support greener transport schemes. In addition, in the autumn statement we announced a further £290 million to support electric vehicles, low-emission buses and taxis, and alternative fuels. As has already been mentioned, earlier this year we set up the joint air quality unit with the Department for Transport. The unit is focusing on reducing local concentrations of air pollutants from vehicles.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), we are absolutely determined to maintain international leadership on the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles. I recognise the figures he cites for Japan, but we have certainly been the largest market in the European Union this year, and the Government are increasing their support. In answer to my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee, the UK already has the largest rapid-charging network in Europe. Alongside the comprehensive package of measures from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles, we intend to introduce in the modern transport Bill powers to regulate technical standards of infrastructure to ensure the easy compatibility of vehicles, and to require provision at motorway service areas and fuel retailers.
Following the outcome of the judicial review, the Government are developing a new and more ambitious national plan for reducing local concentrations of air pollutants. We are working at pace to update our modelling, in the light of the latest evidence, to inform our plan. Many options are being worked up for us to consider, including fiscal matters. We have established a cross-Whitehall approach, and I have personally arranged to meet Ministers from the Department of Health, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Communities and Local Government. After those meetings and encouragement from DEFRA, the inter-ministerial group for clean growth was reconvened. We have started to meet monthly and are meeting again next month.
Officials from all the relevant Departments are working to consider what policies and funding will be needed to achieve our goals. Members should realise that the focus will be on carbon and air quality; I recognise that, as Members have said, carbon has been the focus in the past, without consideration of other matters. Meanwhile, DEFRA will continue to influence other strategies and policies as they develop. For example, we recently proposed a consultation on the impact of generators, which I suggest may have influenced a significant drop in the number of contracts being awarded for diesel generation in a recent capacity market. We will consult on the revised plan by 24 April, at which point I am sure the Select Committee will want to discuss matters further. The final plan will be in place by the end of July.
Clean air zones are a key element in our approach to reducing local concentrations of air pollutants, and local authorities already have the power to introduce them. I am pleased to say that Manchester is already considering introducing such a zone, without the Government having mandated it to do so. To support local authorities in creating them, and to ensure a degree of national consistency, we have published a draft framework for clean air zones. The consultation on the framework recently closed, and we received more than 200 responses, which we are now considering.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) said that we would end up with a one-size-fits-all category D model, but that is not the case. Clean air zone standards will be varied by need: some will be category B, some category C and some category D. We will be requiring five cities—Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton—to implement clean air zones, and as part of our updates to the national plan we will look at whether we need to mandate more zones. As I said to the Select Committee, our indicative modelling suggests that that will be the case, but I need to discuss matters with the relevant local authorities before announcing anything to the House.
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned some other elements. Birmingham City Council is trialling the conversion of diesel to liquefied petroleum gas with taxis, but I am led to believe that it does not work technically for most cars. I know that costings have been done in the past for income-based scrappage, or a scrappage scheme more generally, but the Transport for London proposal about which my hon. Friend heard would not really work because it was talking about the exchange being for an Oyster card.
Alongside national Government action, I am encouraging local councils to do all they can to use existing powers to improve air quality and deliver real change, tailored to their local communities. Local authorities have opportunities to think about local land use and their decisions on planning, roads and, indeed, the local air quality management areas they themselves declare.
The hon. Lady will be aware that elements of funding are available as part of the air quality grant programme. The sum has increased at least sixfold since the previous grant last year. If we have good enough bids, we hope to work with the Treasury to consider how we can develop that funding further.
I recently sent letters to 230 local authorities with air quality management areas, seeking updates on their plans, and on their plans to move to compliance. From the number and quality of responses that I have already received, I have been pleased to note that positive action is being taken in many places. Mid Devon District Council has taken a lead role in the region’s low emissions partnership; Rushcliffe Borough Council is taking forward a number of transport and educational initiatives, while also reducing the council’s own impacts; and Norwich City Council has recorded a significant reduction in nitrogen dioxide after improving traffic flow and introducing a new fleet of Euro 6 buses. The Public Health Minister and I have written jointly to all directors of public health to encourage them to show their influence on air quality at a local level. The Mayor of Bristol replied to my letter and I am pleased to say I will meet him next month, alongside MPs from Bristol.
There are other matters to consider, such as reducing emissions of particulate matter, which is also an important priority for me. The largest source of those emissions now is domestic solid fuel, such as wood and coal burned in open fires and stoves, the use of which has increased significantly in recent years. I am considering a range of options to address this issue, and as a first step I plan to engage with stove manufacturers and retailers to understand the issues and identify where improvements could be made, through industry-led action on cleaner appliances and fuel. In particular, one of the messages that I would like to give out before the Christmas holidays is for people to think about the choice of wood that they use when they have open fires, and to use wood with the lowest moisture possible, to reduce the production of soot and dust.
With regard to farming, our target is to reduce ammonia emissions, which have already decreased significantly over many years. However, we know there is more to do. As a first step, DEFRA recently launched a farming ammonia reduction grant, to encourage the agriculture sector to help drive reductions in ammonia emissions.
I note the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton raised on the use of fertiliser and grass feeds. DEFRA is also looking at greenhouse gas emissions, working with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to drive forward efficiency gains in the beef sector via the beef genetic improvement network.
My hon. Friend also referred to construction, with regard to non-road mobile machinery. We have worked closely with the European Union and the legislation on that area was published in September 2016.
I recognise that the decision made by Greenwich Council was unpopular with the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). According to the Mayor of Greenwich’s website, the decision was considered for call-in by the Mayor but he decided not to. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton will be aware that our right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, has committed to look further at what can be done on shipping emissions, which I am sure is good news for air quality, not only on the Thames but around the country.
My approach on this issue is not to play the blame game or pass the buck. As was pointed out, a previous Government incentivised diesel vehicles, to cut carbon. I could casually blame them, but I just do not see the point of doing so. I do not blame local councils for this matter, but alongside our national strategy we need to take local action. As I have said before, improving air quality is my top priority and a top priority for DEFRA. We are committed to improving air quality across all levels of Government, to deliver the improvements that are needed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has pointed out, co-ordinated action is absolutely needed, and I can assure him that that work is under way.
In that work, we have the backing of our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who just last month said to the House:
“We have taken action, but there is more to do and we will do it.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2016; Vol. 616, c. 887.]
I thank the Minister; the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell); and the “shadow Minister” from Caithness, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan)—I have elevated him, but he is a very good member of the Select Committee. I also thank the four other members of the Select Committee who are present today; I very much welcomed their support.
I also very much welcomed what the Minister said, because we do not want there to be a third court case that the Government lose, so that we perhaps end up being fined by the European Union for not meeting air quality targets. Nobody benefits from that—not our population, not anyone.
In our inner cities especially, there is a real problem. We will really have to work across Government together, we will have to work with local authorities, and we will have to address the situation in our inner cities. The problem is that although the number of electric vehicles is going up, they still make up only about 1% of our vehicles. In Norway, about 25% of vehicles are electric. There are lots and lots of ways to go. We talked about buses and taxis. But we must make sure that we all work together, because in the end when a man, woman or child is walking down our streets in London or across the inner cities of this country, they do not try to work out, “Is it local government, or is it the Government? Who is responsible?” All they want to have is clean air.
We can get there—I am certain we can—but we will have to put more resources in place. We will probably have to use a little more taxation in order to change people’s views on what vehicles they drive. I accept that, as the Minister said, diesel vehicles were promoted by the last Government, as well as this one; but I think we have got to start to put that into reverse—literally. I look forward to seeing the Government come forward with plans in that regard, because when they present their plans, first in April and then finally in July, we will need some real plans to tackle air quality, so that we are not back in this room, or elsewhere in this Parliament, debating this issue year in, year out, while too many people’s health continues to be affected by very poor air quality.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of Session 2015-16, Air Quality, HC 479, and the Government response, HC 665.