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Air Quality Strategy

Volume 624: debated on Monday 24 April 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on the publication date of the Government’s air quality strategy.

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

Our actions have enabled the UK to make significant progress on improving its air quality since 2010. We now have lower emissions of the five key pollutants: volatile organic compounds, sulphur dioxide, ammonia, particulates, and nitrogen oxides. However, because of the failure of Euro vehicle emission standards to deliver expected improvements in air quality, the UK is among 17 European countries, including France and Germany, that are not yet meeting EU emissions targets for nitrogen dioxide in parts of some towns and cities.

We are taking strong action to remedy that. Since last November, my Department has worked jointly with the Department for Transport to update the Government’s national air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide. We have updated the analytical base for the plan to reflect new evidence following the Volkswagen scandal and the failure of the EU’s regulatory regime to deliver expected improvements on emissions. The plan adapts to these new circumstances by setting out a framework for action.

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

Nearly 40 million people in Britain live in areas with illegal levels of air pollution. Two thousand schools and nurseries are close to roads with damaging levels of fumes, and NHS experts estimate that poor air quality contributes to 40,000 premature deaths every year. The situation has gone from bad to worse on this Government’s watch, and has escalated into what the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee calls a “public health emergency”. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is indeed a public health emergency?

Given the gravity of the situation and the fact that the Secretary of State has known about today’s High Court deadline for months, why did she choose to request a further delay to the publication of her air quality plan at 7 o’clock on Friday night? Will she clarify whether she had in fact already applied for an extension before the election was called? It is unacceptable for her to hide behind the election to delay publishing her plans. Cabinet Office rules are clear that purdah is not an excuse to delay acting on vital public health matters. Will she confirm that the plans are ready for publication? If she agrees that this is a public health emergency, why the delay?

Are not the Government doing everything that they can to avoid scrutiny because they are missing their own commitments, have no strategy and yet again want to kick this issue into the long grass? How can we trust the right hon. Lady’s Government to maintain air quality standards after we leave the EU when they have done everything possible to avoid scrutiny on existing standards and had to be dragged through the courts?

If the Government fail to publish their plan today, within the first 30 days of a Labour Administration, we will. Only a Labour Government will legislate for a new clean air Act setting out how to tackle the air pollution that damages the lives of millions, but this Conservative Government continue shamefully to shirk their legal responsibilities and are putting the health of millions at risk.

I think that all Members right across this House agree that air quality is a significant concern. I have already set out some of the strong actions that this Government have taken, in spending £2 billion since 2011, to try to improve the situation.

The hon. Lady is exactly right: we have our draft air quality plan for NO2 ready. She asked why we have a late extension, and I can absolutely explain that to her: in the course of developing our draft plan, it became clear that local authorities would have to play a central role in delivering the final air quality plan, so the Government initially sought to defer publication of the plan and the launch of the consultation on it until after the purdah period for local authority elections. Since that application was lodged, the Prime Minister has called a general election, and a further period of purdah commenced on 21 April. As the hon. Lady will know, Governments normally seek to avoid launching consultation exercises during purdah periods. It is absolutely vital that we get this done, and our intention is to publish the plan on 30 June. She says that a Labour Administration would publish such a plan within 30 days, but that would actually be later than the date on which this Government intend to publish it.

I want to make it very clear that we have now entered a period during which we are strongly advised not to publish consultations. We are therefore trying to put in place a very short extension, which we do not believe will make a difference to the implementation of our plans, while at the same time safeguarding our democracy.

I urge the Secretary of State, along with all Ministers, to work on the air quality plan with the very greatest urgency after the general election, because we have waited a very long time for it. Many of the problems with diesel actually started under the previous Government, and we need to clean that up. A scrappage scheme—for not only our diesel cars, but buses, taxis and many other forms of public transport in our inner cities—is absolutely essential if we are to clean up air quality, especially in our inner cities.

My hon. Friend is, of course, exactly right. We have now been working on this specific plan for several years. We published a consultation for clean air zones in 2015. The fact that emissions from diesel vehicles have far exceeded what was expected has been extremely difficult. The EU regulatory regime did not show effectively what the real levels of emissions were, and this Government have pushed for improvements to the assessment. We have been planning the draft air quality plan for a consideration length of time, and we will publish it just as soon as we can.

I thank the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) for securing this urgent question on the Government’s air quality strategy. I agree with her concerns entirely.

This is not a political issue. All our constituents need to breathe, and they want an air quality plan based on good scientific evidence to ensure that people no longer have to breathe toxic air in their communities. The Government have had a five-month window to address illegal air quality in relation to the strategy. Does the Secretary of State agree that hiding behind a general election cannot be an excuse for failing to address what is, as she has just mentioned, a vital health issue? She has said that it is “vital” to get this through, so why the delay?

I can only repeat that I absolutely agree with Members that this is a vital issue. We have spent the past five months looking very carefully at the real world, as well as laboratory tests, to find out actual emissions so that we have the right consultation. We do not expect any delay due to propriety rules to lead to a delay in implementation. We are seeking a very short delay to preserve our democracy, in accordance with guidance from the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team.

Does the Secretary of State agree that there is growing concern about emissions that can damage health and lungs in particular? Will she make it a high priority to limit soot and smoke from public service vehicles, on which she has most influence?

My right hon. Friend is exactly right to raise this issue. The Government have invested a huge amount in retrofitting buses and taxis. Other measures include limiting medium combustion plants, which I was very proud to put in place when I was Energy Secretary, to try to reduce other emissions. My right hon. Friend is exactly right that we need to tackle a number of different emissions. This plan deals with nitrogen dioxide emissions and we will publish it as soon as we can.

Opposition Members will monitor carefully whether such pre-election sensitivity applies to the announcements or consultations that the Government welcome to the same extent as to ones that cause them embarrassment. Once the UK leaves the EU and the Commission is no longer able to levy fines on the UK Government for failing to act with due speed on the premature deaths of 40,000 people a year that are caused by toxic air, who does the Government expect will be levying fines and initiating cases against the Government for air quality breaches?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is a very significant and serious issue, but I find his suggestion that the threat of EU fines is the only reason why the Government might be motivated to deal with it rather distasteful. We absolutely intend to deal with the issue to ensure that the air is cleaner for the people of our country and that we are the generation who leaves our environment in a better state than we found it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just people but sensitive landscapes, such as the nationally designated area of outstanding natural beauty of the Chilterns, that should be protected? Such areas should also be positively recognised for their role in the battle against poor air quality, including by harnessing the potential of our trees and ancient woodland.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, who always speaks very strongly for the Chilterns. She is right to do so as it is a beautiful area. Air quality is of course vital not only for humans, but for our lovely landscapes. Preserving the contribution made by our trees, peat lands and so on is a very important priority.

Southampton is one of the 10 cities threatened with an infraction under the air quality regulations. It is also one of five cities, under the Government’s December plans, to introduce clean air zones, and Southampton’s local authority has been really assiduous in moving forward with its plans. While it has received grants, it has also put in a great deal of its own money. Is it the Secretary of State’s advice that the city council should now go easy on its plans because the Government cannot get their own together?

I was in full agreement with the hon. Gentleman until that last bit. Of course not. I was going to praise the work of Southampton City Council, which has received significant Government funding for its clean air programmes. It is doing a good job and should continue to do so. To be clear, as things stand, clean air zones can be implemented by any local authority. It should therefore be in the interests of all local authorities to do whatever they can to improve air quality for their local communities.

Should not the air quality plan be seen in the wider context of the environment and tax changes? Is it not the case that the Government are in a more difficult position than they would be otherwise because of the legacy of the wrong-headed tax changes made by Labour? As a result of the ridiculous tax changes made under Gordon Brown, we more than doubled the number of diesel cars and increased the number of diesel vans to 3 million.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is interesting that several of Gordon Brown’s and Tony Blair’s advisers have come out in recent months to say that they were wrong to encourage the uptake of diesel vehicles to the extent that they did. Even the shadow International Trade Secretary has admitted that

“there’s absolutely no question that the decision we took”—

on diesel—

“was the wrong decision.”

This Government, as ever, are trying to clean up the mess that was started by Labour.

Emissions from industry are a major contributory factor in poor air quality, but great strides could be made to improve air quality in areas such as Teesside if the Government backed carbon capture and storage. We have been promised a Tory policy on that since the Tories ditched the funding two years ago. When will we get it?

As a former Energy Minister, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have always been clear about the fact that carbon capture and storage will play a part in our future plans, but that has no impact on the NO2 plan that we are talking about today.

The Secretary of State has clearly set out the reasons for the delay, but in the intervening time, may I encourage her to strengthen our policies to encourage people to get out of their cars altogether? May I also urge her to read an article in this week’s edition of The BMJ that clearly sets out the growing evidence of the benefits of active commuting, particularly by bicycle? Will she encourage us to get Britain cycling?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. The Government are a huge supporter of sustainable transport projects. We have invested £224 million in cycling since 2013, and £600 million in the delivery of transport projects across 77 local authorities through the local sustainable transport fund. As my hon. Friend says, we must do everything that we can to protect the quality of the air in our cities, and that includes changing the way in which people travel.

Having already congratulated the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), I am now delighted to congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on his successful completion of the marathon yesterday. Despite that, he has sprung to his feet very impressively.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State and other DEFRA Ministers will be well aware of the challenges facing Camelford, in my constituency, which was recently subjected to an air quality assessment, and which is in the very early stages of being granted a bypass. I hope that the Secretary of State will support me, and the local community, in our bid for a new bypass in Camelford.

I would love to be able to offer my hon. Friend a new bypass, but unfortunately that is outside my powers. I wish him luck with it, and I, too, congratulate him on his amazing achievement yesterday.

If the present rate continues, there will be seven more dead people in Slough by the date on which the Secretary of State publishes the air quality plan. The whole point of purdah is that announcements should not be made unless they are significant in the context of urgent health issues. Is this not an urgent health issue? What will the Secretary of State say to the families of those seven people who will die before she even publishes?

As the right hon. Lady says, poor air quality is a public health issue. That is why we are taking urgent action, and we will ensure that a short delay in the timetable will not result in a delay in the implementation of the plan. By doing that, we will tackle this public health issue as quickly as possible without prejudicing our democratic process.

The need to safeguard public health is one example of a possible exceptional circumstance in which consultations could be published during purdah. However, that would generally apply only in the event of an unexpected public health emergency—such as, for example, contaminated food—which needed to be dealt with instantly, and this instance does not fall into that category.

Can the Government confirm that their approach to this issue remains technology-neutral, and that, in the context of hydrogen specifically, they will do what is necessary to ensure that we do not fall behind, for instance, Germany and California when it comes to cleaning up this terrible problem?

I can confirm that we are technology-neutral, and as part of our industrial strategy we are consulting on how to become a world leader in ultra-low emission vehicles of all types. There is a very good story to tell there; there is more to be done, but we are making good progress.

Air quality standards are breached regularly in my constituency from Chiswick, to Brentford, Isleworth and through to Hounslow. Do my constituents not deserve better on this issue, especially as the Government want to push ahead with runway 3 at Heathrow, which will only make the problem significantly worse?

I met the Mayor of London in my first week in office to discuss clean air, because the hon. Lady is right that it is a huge priority in all of our cities but particularly London, where there is rightly a huge focus on it. The Mayor is implementing the excellent work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) when he was the Mayor of London, and that continuity should continue to be a cross-party co-operation to solve what is a very serious issue for all of us.

Does my right hon. Friend share my sadness at the lack of contrition displayed on the Opposition Benches, given that Labour’s unquestioned adoption of policy in the early part of the last decade resulted in a massive increase in the number of diesel vehicles, making the air in places such as Westbury in my constituency considerably more toxic?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. A number of advisers and, indeed, serving Members on the Labour Benches now admit that their decision to promote diesel between 2000 and 2008 was not the right decision. The decision to promote diesel was a great shame, because we are now trying to deal with some of the consequences of that. It is important that we have cross-party co-operation to try to make sure that we tackle what is a very significant issue.

As we all know, air pollution contributes to the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people, but do I take it from the Secretary of State’s previous answer that she thinks air pollution is only a public health issue and is not categorically a public health emergency?

Clean air is a top priority for this Government. We have been working on our new proposals for the last five months and are ready to go with them. We are now seeking a very short deferral to meet the propriety rules around purdah, but we do not expect that that will delay the implementation of our plans to deal with what is a very significant and urgent concern.

I wore an air quality monitor as part of the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into air emissions. It showed that the Mill Hill Broadway bus station had levels of pollution as high as Oxford Street’s, which is a huge concern for my constituents. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that some directly elected mayors will use this as an opportunity to introduce congestion charges on motorists who were told to buy diesel vehicles, not use that money for air quality, and in addition take money from DEFRA for addressing the same problem?

The Prime Minister has made it very clear that this Government are on the side of ordinary working families and businesses. She has said that we are very conscious of the fact that past Governments have encouraged people to buy diesel cars and that we need to take that into account when looking at what we do in the future.

May I, in the nicest possible way, put the Secretary of State right on this? She has had to be dragged to the House to make this statement and has been putting off major decisions for the future on important issues right across her Department, but may I put the record straight just on the facts? My constituents will not understand when children are being poisoned now, when pregnant women are being poisoned now and when pedestrians and cyclists are being poisoned that she is making some obscure reference to purdah to stop us doing something about it. I remind her that it is two years since the Volkswagen scandal broke, and she has done nothing in those two years.

In truth, what this Government did was to lead the EU in sorting out the emissions calculations, to make sure that they were accurate. A few years ago, the EU’s wrong-headed emissions assessments relating to the VW cheating were just that: they were wrong. Subsequently, this Government have led the way in pressing for better calculations and assessments. We have been working extremely hard to get our plans ready, and this will be a very short deferral to comply with propriety rules. We will publish our plan as soon as possible after the general election, after which we do not believe there will be any delay in implementation. That will take place in the shortest possible time, because this is a very important issue.

You will want to know, Mr Speaker, that on Friday, I launched the new double-decker fleet for the X3 bus service that runs from Salisbury to Bournemouth via God’s own towns of Ringwood and Fordingbridge. The fleet combines convenience and comfort with lower emissions than those from the lawnmower that I pushed round my garden on Saturday evening. If the Secretary of State wants to break the unrelieved tedium of the purdah of which she has spoken over the next few weeks, I recommend that she joins me in breathing deeply the fresh air of the Avon valley on the X3 service.

It is always of interest to learn about the right hon. Gentleman’s domestic activities and to discover that, to his great credit, despite the receipt of his knighthood, he remains truly a man of the people. I am only sorry that we do not have photographs of him pushing his lawnmower around, but I suspect that it is only a matter of time.

I hope that my right hon. Friend has an electric lawnmower to go with his electric buses. He will be aware that, in the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced £150 million to support low-emissions buses and taxis—including support for retrofitting buses and for boosting the UK retrofit industry—to ensure that wherever I go in the country, I will be able to breathe deeply and enjoy the non-fumes from new, low-emission vehicles. This is incredibly important and it is this Government who are taking action.

The Secretary of State might have met the Mayor of London, but it is he who is taking action on air quality while her Government sit on their hands. Does she agree with Sadiq Khan that this is the biggest environmental crisis of our time? If so, will the Government review one of their worst environmental decisions—to build a third runway at Heathrow?

The hon. Gentleman is exactly wrong to say that this Government have not taken action. I have given countless examples of how we are taking action. We have recently issued more than £3.5 million of grants to particular councils for particular projects. It is this Government who are taking action. As I have made clear, we have seen significant reductions in all five of the major pollutants in recent years. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the expansion of Heathrow, that will take place only provided that the air quality can be ensured—

Does the Secretary of State agree that pollution is a serious problem, but that for the Mayor of London to demonise the drivers of diesel cars and to use pollution concerns as a smokescreen for fleecing motorists through more taxes is not the answer, particularly as Transport for London figures show that diesel cars represent 10% of the problem? The Mayor should be dealing with 100% of the problem, not just 10%.

My hon. Friend is exactly right to say that all councils that have air quality problems will need to tackle them and to deal with 100% of the problem. As the Prime Minister has said, a number of people were encouraged to buy diesel cars by the last Labour Government, and we want to take those people’s needs into account so that we do not end up penalising them for decisions that they took in good faith.

The latest figures show that new cars are failing to filter out polluted air, and that the air inside them can be up to 10 times more toxic than the air on the footpath because the ventilation in the cars is not working correctly. The Secretary of State has given us a timescale for the consultation process and the comeback from it. Can she give us an idea of when the legislation will come to this House for endorsement?

The timetable we have set out to account for purdah is that we will publish our plans on 30 June, with a final plan by 15 September. Legislation will come into place as soon as possible afterwards, but we will be able to start straightaway on the work that needs to be done to come to comply with that plan.

Good choice, Mr Speaker. Electric vehicles will reduce emissions in our city centres and improve urban air quality. Without support for renewables, however, any air quality plan simply shifts pollution from urban to rural areas because such electric vehicles need to be plugged into the grid to charge. Does the Secretary of State agree that support for renewables is key when we consider future electric vehicles and should be included in any air quality plan?

I am sure the hon. Lady would agree that this Government have done more to support renewables than most others. We have a good track record on boosting renewable electricity generation, and we want and expect to see the majority of recharging taking place at home at night, after the peak in electricity demand. Home recharging should be supported by workplace recharging for commuters and fleets, with a targeted amount of public infrastructure where it will be most used, but I am sure she will also be delighted that in the 2016 autumn statement the Chancellor announced a further £290 million to support electric vehicles, low-emission buses and taxis and alternative fuels.

Unfortunately, Glasgow is still something of an air pollution hotspot. Byres Road in my constituency and Hope Street in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) are both particularly affected. There is a city action plan, and we hope if and when the Scottish National party takes control of the city next week, or the week after, it will bring a breath of fresh air. Does the Secretary of State welcome the action of local campaign groups such as Action Hillhead and the Glasgow University climate action society both in raising awareness and in encouraging people to take local action to improve air quality in their area?

I am always delighted to welcome the actions of local voluntary bodies to try to change the way people travel and to encourage the take-up of good, healthy cycling and all the rest. Why not walking where we can, too? Poor air quality is often the result of people needing to use their own vehicles, vans and so on. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that air quality policy is a devolved matter, so our plan is a shared plan between all four nations of the United Kingdom. We will all be publishing that as soon as we can.