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Air Pollution

Volume 650: debated on Thursday 29 November 2018

The only statutory air quality limit the UK is currently failing to meet is on roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide. Members will be aware of our plans to combat air pollution. A £3.5 billion investment has already been set aside, but we are now working with 61 local authorities to tackle their exceedances. I have directed local authorities, including Sheffield, to achieve compliance in the shortest possible time. Some £495 million has been specifically set aside for those councils, but I will take legal action if necessary to make sure that councils do what they need to do.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but she will know that at least 4.5 million children are growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate matters, with long-term implications for their health. UNICEF is now calling for the Government to introduce legally binding limits to meet the World Health Organisation recommended limit values for air pollution by 2025. Will Ministers consult UNICEF to discuss how that can be achieved?

The issue of particulate matter has grabbed my attention ever since I became a Minister in this Department. It is soot and dust, in essence, and one of our challenges is that a lot of particulate matter is naturally generated; for example, it is sand or sea salt. There are a number of different issues that we need to tackle, and we will continue to work with local authorities to bring the level of particulate matter down, because the Government are very conscious that we need to make sure that the most vulnerable in society, including children who are still of growing age, get the best possible start in life.

The Minister has acknowledged the challenge Sheffield faces. We have multiple sites where nitrogen dioxide levels exceed legal limits and threaten the health of our people. Sheffield’s council has ambitious and innovative plans to tackle the problem, but its resources have been drained by eight years of deep cuts. Will the Minister commit to provide the funds we need to clean Sheffield’s air, and will she meet me and representatives of the council to discuss our plans?

Sheffield City Council could start by stopping cutting down trees, which is not good for the environment and costs money. However, it is making good progress with its plan, and it is considering introducing a charging clean air zone—of course, it has had the power to do that since 2000. It is being funded by DEFRA to make sure it gets on with its plan—it will be able to bid for further funding, but it is being given the funding it needs to do that.

The Government are rightly tackling air pollution, but the proposed diesel ban is having the unintended consequence that people are hanging on to their older, more polluting diesel vehicles rather than investing in the new, cleaner generation of Euro 6 standard models. Will the Minister commend cities such as Birmingham for proposing a distinction between the newer and older models in their low emissions zones, and will she urge London to do the same?

My right hon. Friend is right. It has been a pleasure to work with Birmingham City Council, which is making reasonable progress on producing its plan. There is no doubt that “dieselgate” had a massive impact on people’s willingness to do what the Government were recommending, so it has not had the intended consequences. We will continue to work with car manufacturers, and the Chancellor has changed vehicle excise duty to ensure that people are incentivised to buy the cleanest possible vehicles.

The burning of biomass makes a major contribution to air pollution. The Government have estimated that 1.7 million lives are lost every year because of the burning of biomass, but they have now stopped making those calculations. Why?

I am not aware of the figure to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred. I am conscious of the impact that burning has, which is why we have a consultation about the domestic burning of household smoky coal, wet wood and similar materials, but I will look carefully into the issue that he has raised.

Pollution is not just a matter for city centres; it is also about major roads. Around the M1 in my constituency, levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution have got so bad that, for the first time ever, the Department for Transport is bringing in variable speed limits just to deal with pollution. It is also looking at installing barriers to absorb NO2. What involvement does the Minister’s Department have in that? Does she think that those measures will be successful, and will she report back to the House on their effectiveness in due course?

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), and I work closely together on this issue. My Department and the Department for Transport have a joint air quality unit, and I am in regular contact with Highways England about its progress on improving air quality on the strategic road network. I welcome the work that it is considering to change speed limits and to install the barriers to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The Government’s plans to tackle air pollution are unravelling into a shambolic and piecemeal mess. Exposure to fine particulate matter is linked to poor health, including asthma, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, and new evidence shows impacts on diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. We must ensure that we have the highest standards of public health, so will the Minister tell us how she will enshrine the World Health Organisation’s limit on fine particulate matter into UK law?

We have already agreed targets that are now in law regarding PM10 and PM2.5, and we are well below those targets. We will continue to work on this. I know that the House is eager to see the outcome of the clean air strategy, which I expect to be published shortly. I can assure the hon. Lady that this issue is close to my heart, especially the question of particulate matter, because I am very conscious of the impact that it can have. However, we need to be careful when we read some of the reports, because there is often a correlation link but not necessarily a causal link, which means that we still need to do research on these matters. I am pleased that the Department of Health and Social Care, through Public Health England, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are undertaking that research.