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I beg to move,
That this House has considered air pollution in London.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I am very grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate on the incredibly important topic of air pollution in London.
No one can fail to be moved by the big, beautiful, beaming smile of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose life was so tragically taken at the age of just nine as a result of London’s poor air quality. I pay tribute to Ella’s mother Rosamund, who, in the face of such a personal tragedy, has campaigned relentlessly for the true cause of her daughter’s death to be recognised. The landmark verdict from the inquest recording the cause of death as air pollution has reverberated around the country and marks a silent public health crisis unfolding in the capital city and beyond. As a London resident and MP, but also as the mother of two young children, living close to Heathrow airport and half a mile from a busy dual carriageway on which several local schools and a college are located, I have a moral and personal duty to act. We must ensure that future generations do not die prematurely because of the air that they breathe.
The coroner in Ella’s inquest stated last week that
“there is no safe level for Particulate Matter”
and called for a change in the law. And this is what I am doing today: I am asking the Minister to commit to introducing Ella’s law, which would introduce legally binding limits on air pollution in the UK, in line with World Health Organisation guidelines. This call is supported by the Royal College of Physicians, the British Lung Foundation, Asthma UK, Friends of the Earth and many, many more.
The Conservative Government stated in 2019, when they published their clean air strategy, that
“exposure to the pollution still present in our atmosphere is one”
“the UK’s biggest public health challenges, shortening lifespans and damaging quality of life for many people.”
Yet robust action and commitment to tackle this silent killer has not followed.
This debate is focused on London, where a staggering 99% of the population live in areas where particulate matter exceeds WHO limits. Up to around 4,100 early deaths each year in London can be linked with air pollution. Central London is one of the most polluted places in the UK and is currently the main area failing to comply with the legally binding limits set by the EU, which the UK is committed to. Worryingly, research by the Environmental Defence Fund found air pollution to be on average 19% higher at inner-London primary schools than at those in outer London, exacerbating existing health inequalities—and we have seen the devastating impact of those inequalities during the pandemic.
Anyone can be affected by air pollution, increasing the risk of developing a lung or cardiovascular condition and even stunting lung growth in children, but air pollution can leave those with lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, struggling to breathe and at risk of having potentially life-threatening attacks and flare-ups. Various studies suggest that it can increase the severity of covid-19 as well. About 500,000 people are estimated to live with COPD in London and about 120,000 live with asthma.
I am grateful to the House of Commons digital engagement team for seeking feedback from the public in recent days about the impact of air pollution on their lives. I thank the more than 700 respondents to the survey. I have some of the quotes that came back from London residents. Brendan said: “Air pollution has hospitalised two of my nephews and I am now very concerned about its impact on my very young daughter. Pollution along my street can feel choking when diesel vehicles are left idle there, and my own curtains are left blackened from the air that comes in through the gaps in my windows.”
Jenny said: “My son was born and grew up in Holloway, where his nursery was on a busy main road. He suffers from mild to moderate asthma, which sometimes causes him to have to stop physical activities and laughing too much, due to getting short of breath and a tight chest, which is sad to see in an 11-year-old.”
Karen said: “I live next to Heathrow airport, the most polluted area in the country. Most days, even sunny ones, I find it hard to breathe as I have asthma.”
That is why we need radical action, starting from the top, with national Government setting much more stringent air-quality targets and resourcing regional and local authorities to implement measures on the ground that will clean up our air.
At a London level, it would be churlish not to credit the Mayor of London for taking action on air quality during his time in office and improving levels of air pollution. The ultra low emission zone has cut nitrogen dioxide levels by 40%. However, it is fair to say that much more needs to be done, starting with scrapping plans for the Silvertown tunnel, which will only increase the number of vehicles on the road, driving up emissions. The approaches to the Blackwall tunnel have among the worst levels of air pollution in London. Shockingly, plans are not yet even in place to monitor particulate pollution around the proposed tunnel. The Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, Luisa Porritt, has stated that the Silvertown tunnel is the Mayor’s “dirty little secret”. If he is serious about improving London’s air quality, that proposal must be scrapped.
Just 4% of London’s buses are electric, with only 400 all-electric buses in service in a fleet of 9,000. We fall well behind other cities internationally. With Transport for London and the Department for Transport negotiating a long-term settlement, I urge the Government to push for commitments to increase take-up of electric buses in London.
At a local level, many councils have been seeking to build on the increase in walking and cycling and the reduction in car use during the pandemic, through improved active travel infrastructure, such as additional cycle lanes and school street schemes. Since the Liberal Democrats were elected to run Richmond Council in 2018, there has been a particular focus on cracking down on cars idling, especially near schools. The legislation on idling, however, is toothless and merely creates an offence not to comply with instructions from a traffic officer to stop idling—the idling itself is not an offence. Will the Minister look at how the law can be strengthened in this area?
I am also proud that Richmond Council has the highest number of electric vehicle charging points of any outer London borough. I am disappointed that Transport for London has stalled its programme to roll out more EV charging points.
For south-west and west London and neighbouring counties, a major source of air pollution is Heathrow. The airport has a significant impact on my constituency. While the Department for Transport has considered aviation pollution only within a two-kilometre radius of the airport, plenty of research suggests that ultra-fine particles sometimes travel far greater distances from airports, with a reach of 10 miles from airports elsewhere around the world. Furthermore, the surface transport to the airport is a major contributor to air pollution in the area.
Despite the heavily publicised announcement last week that aviation emissions will be counted towards the UK’s sixth carbon budget, the Conservative Government have made no moves to cancel their plan for a third runway at Heathrow airport or update their aviation national policy statement, which remains in favour of Heathrow expansion. If the Prime Minister is serious about air pollution and climate change, it is time for him to make good on his promise to scrap a third runway.
Although this debate has focused on London, I would like to briefly add some national context about the size of the problem. Air pollution contributes to diabetes, dementia and heart disease, and can even cause problems for children in the womb. Public Health England has estimated that the cost of air pollution to the NHS will be approximately £1.5 billion by 2025, and £5.1 billion by 2035. Research by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation has found that over 8,500 schools and colleges are in places with levels of PM2.5 that are above World Health Organisation guidelines, yet an answer I received to a written question revealed that there were only three air quality monitoring sites in Birmingham, two in Manchester, and some 19 in London. Given that these are our biggest and most polluted cities, I would welcome feedback from the Minister on whether she thinks this level of monitoring is adequate.
The House of Commons digital engagement team also heard from residents in Newcastle-under-Lyme, who have also been very active on my Twitter feed in recent days, highlighting the impact of pollutants from Walleys Quarry, which have caused some to be violently sick and triggered asthma attacks two to three times a day for some children. Others in the north-east highlighted the impact of wood-burning stoves, and residents in the south-east raised the impact of Southampton airport. It is clear that we need national-level action on what is a national problem, and is felt acutely in London. Even this year, in a case that started before Brexit, the European Court of Justice found the Conservative Government to have systematically and persistently breached air pollution limits. As we are no longer bound by the EU’s air quality rules, we are likely to see even less accountability for their refusal to tackle this problem.
The Environment Bill provides the ideal opportunity for the Government to act and to introduce Ella’s law, yet the Conservatives have been so unambitious in merely stating that the Government will set themselves a PM2.5 target by 2022. They have said absolutely nothing about the level of ambition that this target will achieve, or whether it will be stronger than our previous target or provide adequate public health protection. The Bill has been delayed yet again, and even before this current delay, some 354 Conservative MPs voted against an amendment to introduce limits in line with WHO guidelines. As well as the potential health gains, there are economic gains to be had. The Confederation of British Industry has estimated that a £1.6 billion annual economic benefit to the UK could be realised by meeting WHO guidelines.
Targets and limits are not enough. They need to be accompanied by action and money to support cycling, walking, and public transport use, as well as greener vehicles. That is why, as part of an ambitious green economic recovery plan, the Liberal Democrats have proposed an £20 billion community clean air fund to boost new walking and cycling routes, new light rail and tram projects, expansion of bus routes, conversion of bus fleets to hydrogen, council-led clean air zones for congested towns and cities, and extra electric vehicle charging points. After a year, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that public health should always be a priority for the Government, yet the Prime Minister continues to look past the fact that poor air quality is contributing to up to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. We owe it to Ella and her family to take action now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for having secured this incredibly important debate.
Prior to covid-19, polluted air was contributing to over 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. That is a truly shocking statistic, and the British Lung Foundation has previously stated that air pollution is the main environmental threat to public health in the UK. Despite this, under Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty, London has made progress on this issue. Between 2016 and 2019, there has been a 94% reduction in the number of Londoners living in areas exceeding the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide, and a 97% reduction in the number of state primary and secondary schools in areas exceeding the legal limit. This, in part, has been achieved by the rolling out of the ultra low emission zone, along with funding to clean up London’s taxi fleet and almost £53 million of grants to take older, more polluting vehicles off the roads, in hand with schemes to make walking and cycling safer and easier.
In addition, the school streets initiative, implemented to varying degrees across London since 2018, has also been a great success. Under the scheme, local authorities can put a temporary restriction on roads outside schools to turn them into a pedestrian and cycle zone during school drop-off and pick-up times. In one year alone, Lewisham Council created 26 school streets, with studies showing that they can reduce air pollution by up to 23%. Meanwhile, Bromley has managed to adopt only six streets as of September 2020. With no traffic camera enforcement, the scheme can easily be breached without punishment for offenders. There is inconsistency across the capital, often depending on the make-up and inclination of the local authority.
We must remember that children are particularly vulnerable to breathing polluted air and that those who grow up in polluted areas are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood. With this in mind, the school streets scheme should be rolled out across all of the capital, and boroughs should receive the necessary dedicated funding from central Government to ensure that it can be properly implemented and enforced.
While a lot of progress has been made in London since 2016, 99% of Londoners still live in areas exceeding the World Health Organisation recommended guidelines for fine particulate matter, otherwise known as PM2.5. These are pollutants that are 30 times smaller than the average human hair and can settle in our airways and get into the bloodstream. There is no safe level for this particulate matter and breathing it is one of the largest risk factors for an early death, with around 4 million people a year across the globe dying early from breathing it. In London, the figure is nearly 4,000 early deaths a year.
As the hon. Lady noted, one of these deaths was the heart-breaking case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. She lived near the south circular road in Lewisham, just outside my constituency, and was exposed to excessive levels of PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide. In 2013, Ella died aged just nine, which is tragic. Tireless campaigning by her family led to the landmark ruling last December by Southwark Coroners Court that air pollution made a “material contribution” to Ella’s death. This was the first time that toxic air had been given as a cause of death in the UK. The coroner said in his ruling that Ella had been exposed to pollution principally from traffic emissions in excess of the World Health Organisation guidelines.
In his prevention of future deaths report, published last Wednesday, the coroner said:
“The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.”
We have already mentioned that in 2019 air pollution contributed to over 4,000 premature deaths. If we are to tackle this awful statistic, the Government must follow the recommendations set out by the coroner and set legally enforceable targets to bring PM2.5 below the harmful levels set by the WHO. We cannot wait any longer.
In October last year, I called on the Government put this in the Environment Bill. That was refused. At Committee stage, the Opposition also voted to amend the Bill to include this, but again the Government refused. Without proper targets enacted now, how can we expect to meaningfully reduce this threat? What will it take for the Government to finally listen and include these measures?
Air pollution is a silent crisis that has gone on for far too long, but it is currently being left to local authorities already on tight budgets to sort it out. Local government cannot tackle this on its own. This is a national problem that requires the Government to lead on it and provide the necessary support. I hope that today’s debate will highlight the seriousness and urgency of the issue and push the Government to make the concerted effort that is needed truly to tackle this public health emergency.
Thank you, Mrs Murray, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing it, and thank her for doing so.
I want to speak about point source pollution and the need for comprehensive planning law that crosses boroughs to protect lives. Redeveloping sites, building new affordable homes and giving people places to live are good. We need more housing, but it is not always simple to make those sites habitable. We need new laws to protect the people who are already there, which may mean delaying or not redeveloping some sites, but it is for the good of everyone.
In air quality, there is a concept of total load. In London, that is already high The background or baseline level of air pollution that we suffer daily makes us more susceptible to local increases. In areas such as my constituency, polluting activities have been grandfathered in, and many of my constituents have not seen the air quality improvements that so many others have enjoyed. That is just one face of the systematic racism that black, Asian and minority ethnic people encounter; their health is so often sacrificed for the benefit, economic or otherwise, of others. Environmental justice means not letting that happen and not tolerating pockets of more polluted air because it is hoped that people in those diverse areas might complain less. Getting away with it is not justice. It is racism.
Many sites that companies such as Berkeley Group are so keen to redevelop are deeply contaminated with poisonous chemicals, so that even when they are redeveloped carefully, and even when there is proper monitoring, the total load is driven higher. While on the site itself limits might not be exceeded, people living around it will be exposed to dangerous levels of pollution and their lives will be put at risk. That happens today in my constituency and many others. PM10, mentioned earlier, and PM2.5— particulate measures for which there are really no safe limits—build up from traffic, the Southall gasworks redevelopment by Berkeley Group, the tarmac factory in the next constituency, smaller building sites and other businesses. While each of those factors may itself be within a safe limit, they combine to create a totally unsafe state.
Planning, therefore, has to cross borough boundaries and consider the other industries and activities in an area before permitting building and redevelopment. A modelling system that took all the different pollutants into account would still be unfit for purpose if it did not liaise across boundaries. That approach would mean delaying some redevelopments when one was already going on in the same area. More importantly, it would mean that some would never go ahead because the total load in the area was already too high. Environmental justice cannot be secured by the millions in need of it until the planning process puts the real lived experience of people at the heart of the system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to attend this incredibly important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on calling it.
The problem of poor quality air is a source of major concern to the constituents of Richmond Park. The air pollution in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames exceeds the legal limits for nitrogen dioxide and PM10 levels. We know that the overwhelming contributor to poor air quality in Richmond is motor vehicles, and that we see the worst examples of exceedances along our major roads. In the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, more than 4,000 people live in areas where levels of nitrogen dioxide exceed legal levels.
In Richmond Park, we are all immensely fortunate to live in close proximity to the park and enjoy all the benefits of the extensive green space that it offers. However, the downside is the huge constraints it imposes on traffic movements, especially on the western and northern sides, where traffic is confined to a limited number of roads between the park and the river, and further constrained by the railway line and a large number of level crossings. The almost relentless congestion that ensues creates poor quality air for everybody. I am committed to supporting any measure that can address it.
I am really pleased that both local authorities, led by Liberal Democrats, are taking positive action on combating poor air quality. The main priority is to encourage people to reduce the number of car journeys they make by making alternatives safe and accessible. To that end, both councils have made significant investments in walking and cycling routes to make active travel a more attractive option for residents across Richmond Park. We already have fantastic routes across the park and by the river, and work is ongoing to make road cycling safer, such as through introducing 20 mph speed limits.
We need to see continued investment by the Mayor of London into bus routes and for bus travel to be affordable and accessible. That is why I opposed the Department for Transport’s attempts to force children and young people to pay for travel on public transport, which would have resulted in more young people being driven around by their parents. I encourage Transport for London to increase and extend bus routes, especially in the Barnes area, which has been so badly affected by the closure of Hammersmith bridge. The closure of the bridge is the main contributor to congestion in East Sheen and Barnes, greatly contributing to poor air quality in those neighbourhoods, and I take the opportunity again to call on the Government to come up with a funding solution for the repairs.
The Liberal Democrats’ excellent mayoral candidate Luisa Porritt has made clean air in London a cornerstone of her campaign, calling for new road pricing schemes and for rewilding our roofs and public spaces. I am pleased to say that we are already enacting similar schemes in Richmond and Kingston, introducing greater biodiversity into our verges and green spaces. There is no doubt that close proximity to Heathrow also plays its part in poor air quality in west London. The Government must make a clear statement that further expansion of Heathrow cannot be permitted to go ahead both because of the impact of increased poor air quality on the communities that surround the airport and because expansion cannot be compatible with the Government’s net zero targets.
It was highlighted to me when I spoke to officers at the local councils about the challenges of combating air pollution locally that what local authorities really need is the power to create clean air zones that would put greater restrictions on activities such as using wood-burning stoves or driving polluting vehicles. What is needed is a new clean air Act. Think about how transformational the Clean Air Act 1956 was and the difference it made to London’s air. Within a few years, the type of pea-souper smog that killed as many as 4,000 people in its worst incarnation, in 1952, was virtually eliminated. There is no doubt that modern pollutants and those smogs of 70 years ago represent an equivalent risk to human health, as the case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah so tragically illustrates. We need to take the same approach today, prioritise clean air and take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that we can all breathe freely.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this hugely important debate. It is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney). We share many of the same concerns, having a similar type of air quality in our areas.
Air pollution is also one of the biggest health challenges for my constituents in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields. It is the issue raised most frequently with me on the doorstep. Just last week, a resident showed me her stairs: she has painted them white, but she showed me how black they get, constantly, because of the air pollution coming through her door. If we could see that air pollution, I think we would take this far more seriously. It is the silent killer.
One of the first things I did after being elected was to establish the Putney Environment Commission, bringing together local residents and stakeholders to develop solutions to poor air quality, which is one of the main issues raised by all the Members. Putney High Street is frequently ranked among the worst-polluted streets in the UK. I am saddened to know that I walked my children to the local primary school in Wandsworth every day for 15 years without realising the damage that I was doing to their lungs. King’s College London research shows that children’s lungs are stunted by up to the size of an apple by the age of 10, which cannot be repaired; it is permanent damage. In London, 9,400 premature deaths a year are attributed to poor air quality. This is a health crisis. Road vehicles account for half of this pollution, but cooking and heating with domestic gas accounts for 14%. It is a social justice issue too, with many of the poorest residents living on the highly toxic, most-affected roads but not having cars themselves.
What are some of the solutions? First, we need more measurement of pollution. What gets counted counts. We need more monitors to measure pollution levels in far more places. The whole Borough of Wandsworth has only seven continuous monitoring stations. We need far more. Secondly, we need to stop the plans for Heathrow’s third runway. We cannot look the health crisis in the face and continue the plans for that third runway, which will result in millions of tonnes of carbon dumped across London.
Thirdly, do not give up on the green homes grant. I hope we will hear from the Minister about the replacement for that grant, which was scrapped only a few weeks ago. There needs to be an easy incentive for homeowners to insulate and switch to green energy, developed in conjunction with mortgage providers, because there needs to be financing for this; with the building industry, so that builders can deliver it; and with education providers, so that they can train people to perform green jobs. We need that not only for social housing; I would like to hear from the Minister how the green homes grant will be replicated for private homeowners and commercial buildings.
Fourthly, we need to decrease vehicles on our roads and increase cycling, with more safe storage—we need more cycle hangars. Wandsworth Council installed only 21 new bike hangars last year, out of a total of 60 across the whole borough. It is just not enough. We also need safe cycle routes. During his first term in office, the Mayor has overseen record-breaking growth in London’s cycle network, which has been fantastic to see and to join in on myself and with my children. He has delivered 260 km of high-quality, safer cycle routes. We need to do more, but we are seeing the results, with the number of people cycling increasing dramatically in the past year.
Fifthly, we need more school streets. They really work in encouraging parents to stop driving, or to drive to a different area, increasing safety on our roads for our children. I congratulate Albemarle, Our Lady of Victories and Granard primary schools in my constituency on their successful school streets, where everyone takes part.
Sixthly, green buses are another excellent example of delivering on policy to cut pollution. The low-emission bus zone, which goes along Putney High Street, for instance, introduced by the London Mayor and the London Assembly in 2017 has reduced the nitrogen oxide pollution on the High Street by 87%—a dramatic reduction. We need more of those green buses.
Seventhly, the extended journeys caused by the closure of Hammersmith bridge have increased pollution dramatically across Putney. I hope to hear from the Minister about when the Government will agree funding for its repair.
The Mayor has committed to 80% of all journeys by 2041 being walked, cycled or made via public transport, while also putting in place a zero-emission bus fleet by 2037. He has also committed to making London a zero- carbon city by 2030—faster than any comparable city. Thanks to this bold work, toxic air in central London has reduced by 44%, and 94% fewer Londoners are living in areas that exceed the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide.
With full support, these levels can come down, so we need to see more work from the Government. The Environment Bill, for example, should include a legally binding commitment to meet World Health Organisation guideline levels for fine particulate matter pollution by 2030 at the very latest. I have spoken to the Minister about that, having been on the Bill Committee with her, so she knows that I am calling for it. It is not too late, but the Bill has been massively delayed. When will it be passed? When it is, let us see that air pollution target in it, and let us see the difference that it can make.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I hope that she can assure colleagues that London will get the resources that it needs to continue to tackle the deadly scourge of air pollution and build on the progress that has been made in the past four years.
Air pollution recalls images of 1950s smog, or even of far eastern cities where people were into wearing masks long before we were, but this silent killer is still very much with us, accounting for some 9,500 deaths per annum in the capital alone. Thanks to the tireless campaign of the family of the late Ella Kissi-Debrah, air pollution has been attributed for the first time ever on a death certificate.
How do we reverse the UK’s long-standing, illegally high air pollution? First, we should stop Heathrow expansion. It is incompatible with the UK’s net zero targets. Why add to what is already Europe’s biggest CO2 emitter, which is doing enormous damage to my constituency and to that of my near neighbour the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) through air and noise pollution? We know that in the new normal we will do things differently, and Zoom works for business meetings, so why not save those air flights for sparingly used leisure travel? The expansion of Charles de Gaulle airport in France has been stopped; we should do the same.
Secondly, we should stop new road building. It induces demand. Thirdly, we should stop lying to the public—remember the VW emissions scandal, and what the people who bought diesel cars were told, among other examples. Fourthly, the cycle to work scheme needs an overhaul to include larger firms and to be a genuine incentive, not just a faff. Children should be included, too.
Fifthly, we need more proper, dedicated, segregated, permanent cycle lanes, not the pop-up things that come and go and do not join up to anything else. Sixthly, we should re-examine low-traffic neighbourhoods, recognising that all streets matter. My borough has loads of them—they appear seemingly every day. This weekend there was a march against them; the police say that there were 2,500 people there, and others have estimates either side of that. That just shows the danger of having no pre-implementation consultation on very dramatic changes to people’s lives. In our borough, every street is residential. Cutting off direct access to every side street and to the ladder-type roads that join them means that all the cumulative traffic goes on to main roads. People there already suffered with unacceptably high air pollution; now they are living in permanent traffic jams.
Covid has highlighted health inequality, and we can see air quality as a social justice issue as well. Opening windows in extreme heat should not be harmful to our health, as we have seen in the last year—especially when the public health advice is to ventilate. There needs to be consistency in the consultation. My borough is still unclear about how it will be evaluated whether it works. It is also unclear whether people who live in a zone can go the most direct way to their own property by car: in the Hounslow bit of Chiswick they can, but they are also popular in Ealing, where the opposite applies.
Seventhly, we need free public transport. My late parents were a two-car household; it was freedom passes that did away with that. Eighthly, we need more high-speed rail; I have to say that I have issues with the HS2 company itself, but let us not get into that—it is a debate for another day. Ninthly, we need more taxation on big businesses that are heavy road users and use air freight. I am thinking of companies such as Amazon, which pay less tax than you and I do as it is, Mrs Murray. Tenthly, as Bob Dylan did, let’s go electric and encourage people to do the same with home heating, cooking, cars and all those things.
Good things are happening; I do not want to be too negative. We have seen e-scooter trials—I think they are being rolled out all over the capital—in the hon. Member for Twickenham’s borough and in mine. I feel like calling the hon. Lady a friend even though we are in different parties, along with everyone else who has spoken in the debate—they are all friends—and it is funny how there is no one from the Conservative side in the debate, apart from the Minister, who is obliged to be here. Other good things are happening. Where London leads, everyone else follows. I know they are doing city-centre charging in Bath, Birmingham, Newcastle and Oxford, in loads of places. Again, London has set the template there.
We have seen over this past year that people are prepared to make behavioural change in the face of a crisis, but we need to be proportionate and realistic with such changes. Another big figure from the last year is George Floyd. Let us not forget that his last words were, “I can’t breathe,” which also alludes to air quality issues. Let us not let his killing and Ella’s death have been in vain. It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. In London, the greatest city on earth, clean air should be a right not a privilege.
It is pleasure to serve under you today, Mrs Murray. It is also very good to see the Minister for the third time today as we discuss issues of real importance to our planet and the environment. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important and timely debate. Indeed, I thank all those who contributed and provided such thought-provoking contributions to today’s excellent debate.
Air quality is one of the most important policy areas in the Minister’s inbox and one of the most important issues facing all our constituents the nation over. The facts are there for us all to see and they show just how damaging toxic air is to our communities and its disproportionate impact on the health and wellbeing of our people. Covid-19 has highlighted these inequalities and has again disproportionately impacted those living in areas with the worst air pollution. I have said it before and I will say it again: the Government are weak on tackling toxic air and weak on the causes of toxic air.
Air pollution is bad for everyone, but for the 12 million people in the UK who live with a lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it poses a real and immediate threat to health. A spike in air pollution levels can lead to symptoms getting worse, flare-ups and even the risk of hospitalisation. We now know from the coroner last week that it leads to death, too. There is robust evidence of a clear link between the high levels of air pollution and increased numbers of patients with breathing problems presenting at hospitals and GP surgeries.
As I said, air pollution can worsen existing health inequalities and people living in the poorest areas are often the most exposed, reinforcing unequal health outcomes for deprived communities. It can also contribute to health inequalities later in life. Children living in highly polluted areas are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood and my hon. Friends the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson) have highlighted this eloquently today.
If you do not mind people marking their own homework, you will be satisfied with the UK currently meeting the legal limit for PM2.5. However, this is only because our legal limit is more lenient than a limit recommended by the international health community. The UK legal limit for PM2.5 is more than twice as high as the World Health Organisation recommendation. Scientists have not been able to identify a level of PM2.5 that is harmless to breathe, so we need the strongest possible action, much of which was reflected in our amendments to the Environment Bill—amendments that were voted down.
It will be no surprise to you, Mrs Murray, or to the Minister that Labour takes air quality matters seriously. We can see that in the leadership shown by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who has worked so hard to deliver real results since he was elected in 2016. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham for giving him that credit. Indeed, air pollution in London has plunged since he became mayor in 2016, with a 94% reduction in the number of people living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. The number of schools in such areas has fallen by 97% from 455 in 2016 to 14 in 2019. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Putney for highlighting that fact.
Last month, the Labour party held a clean air summit—the first of its kind to be hosted by a major party—and the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), and I set out our demands for a clean air Act. Labour’s clean air Act would establish a legal right to breathe clean air by ensuring the law on air quality was at least as strict as the WHO guidelines, with tough new duties on Ministers to enforce them and grant new powers to local authorities to take urgent action on air quality—powers that councils across London need, and need now.
It is not just me expressing concern at the Government’s inaction as that concern is felt by members of the Minister’s party. I welcome the recent report produced by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). The Committee said that the Government need to increase their urgency and ambition on objectives for air quality, and the Chairman said:
“The problem will only get worse if the Government ignores the extent and urgency of this health crisis. Its disappointing response ignores the most important recommendations set out in our report, but we hope that the Environment Bill will still be amended to set more stringent targets for tackling pollutants.”
I could not agree more, and I encourage the Minister to join the Chair of the Select Committee in getting behind Labour’s demand to write the WHO guidelines into law.
All colleagues will know of the devastating way in which toxic air played a part in the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013. Once again, we send our thoughts and prayers to her family, particularly her mum, Rosamund, and all those close to her. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for her animated speech highlighting the plight of Ella.
In December 2020, the coroner ruled that Ella had died as a direct result of air pollution. Indeed, he said that he believed air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death. We can do something about this if we want to, so may I invite the Minister to work with me and Labour colleagues and with Members across the House to make the Environment Bill fit for purpose by writing the WHO guidelines into law? I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Twickenham and others across the House to deliver Labour’s clean air Act, and the Minister is more than welcome to join us. The future of our planet and the lives of Londoners depend on it.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I thank all hon. Members for taking part in the debate and thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing it. Like her, I have a great interest in the issue, as do all of us who have spoken today. We know that air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health. Although air pollution has reduced since 2010—there is no doubt about that—there is a lot more to do. That is why we have a clear ambition and policy agenda to improve air quality, backed up with significant investment.
The hon. Lady made many points about how to tackle air pollution and the issue of air quality, but it seemed quite clear that she is perhaps not aware of how much is going on and how much the Government are putting in place, backed by funding. We are taking this matter extremely seriously, which I hope to make clear in the debate. Of course, we never accept that there is not more to do. On that issue, many of the measures being introduced in the hon. Lady’s constituency come from funds that the Government have set up and allocated, particularly to local authorities. We should recognise that.
I want to refer early in my speech to the case of Ella Kissi-Debrah. We have all referred to it and we are all aware that the prevention of future deaths report was published last week. We will be considering it extremely carefully, looking at the recommendations and responding in due course. As ever, my thoughts and all our thoughts are with the family. We referred to that this morning in our debate.
I have met with Ella’s mum and really value her views and comments, and ideas that we can work on together. To be honest, the inquest was a horribly stark reminder of the impact that air quality can have on our families. It brought the issue right to our back door. I have a son who had chronic asthma as a child, and eczema—they are all related—so it is something I am aware of. I will cover the target setting a bit later, but I want to stress that we will put health centre stage and there will be a strong focus on people’s exposure to pollution, in particular the more vulnerable. That matter was referenced especially by the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma).
I was interested in the responses to the digital engagement survey as well, and I have met many of the health charities to which the hon. Member for Twickenham referred—the British Lung Foundation, the British Heart Foundation and Asthma UK. We are working with all of them to ensure we get things right.
I will now turn to London, because the debate is about London. I am aware of the air quality issue not only in our capital city, but in other cities and towns across the country. We can all agree that London is a large and vibrant city that faces its own unique challenges in tackling air pollution. However, our programme of action will improve air quality here in London, as it will elsewhere.
It is important to highlight that the Mayor of London is responsible for air quality in the capital. He has received funding from central Government to implement measures to improve air quality as part of the 2015 £5 billion transport funding settlement. In addition, London has received further funding for specific projects totalling almost £102 million, including more than £10 million in 2019 to clean up London’s buses, and £530 million has been available for plug-in grants up to 2023, as well as favourable benefit-in-kind tax rates for zero emissions.
The hon. Member for Twickenham raised the issue of clean buses. I think she will agree that an awful lot is being done about clean buses and that there is much funding. She also mentioned the issue of engine idling, which we discussed a lot when I was a Back Bencher, but local authorities have powers to tackle engine idling and should use them. The hon. Lady and other Members might be interested to hear that we announced two electric bus terminals back in January, which were Coventry and Oxford, so we will all be looking at how they work and whether we can learn lessons from them.
The expanded ultra low emission zone in London is being introduced by the Mayor of London in line with his responsibility to tackle air pollution. His responsibility —just as with the Government—means that he has to put the necessary measures in place to bring London into compliance with the legal limits for air quality as soon as possible. That is why, obviously, he is introducing that whole raft of measures. For a number of schemes, we will provide support for the cost of upgrading to nitrogen oxides or NOx-compliant vehicles.
The hon. Member for Twickenham touched on monitoring. I think she asked why there had not been more of an increase in better monitoring. Indeed, there is a great deal of monitoring. We are working with our expert air quality group on how to evolve monitoring, to keep looking at it so that we meet the needs that will align with our new targets, which we are setting in the Environment Bill. In oral evidence, Professor Alastair Lewis, a great expert on this, stated that it is really important that we give due consideration to ensure that the network is fit for purpose, alongside setting the new targets—the monitoring must make sure that we are held to account on our new targets.
I want to touch on the clean air strategy, the Environment Bill and some of the wider air quality issues at the national level, which are also relevant to London. We published our clean air strategy, which the World Health Organisation welcomed as an example for the rest of the world to follow. People keep knocking it, but the World Health Organisation has itself held the strategy up and said, “This is a great document.” The strategy aims to cut air pollution and to save lives. It focuses on emissions beyond road transport, setting out the comprehensive action required by all parts of Government and society to reduce air pollution and the impacts on public health.
We have made progress in reducing pollution from several sources, such as, and more particularly, reducing industrial pollution. We have a clear pipeline of action to continue reducing emissions to improve air quality for all, including by controlling emissions from domestic burning, establishing new air quality targets and tackling emissions of ammonia, which come from agriculture.
I want to touch on domestic burning, because it is a major source of pollution, which includes the fine particulate matter that is identified as the most harmful pollutant to human health. New legislation restricting the sale of the most polluting fuels used in domestic burning comes into force on 1 May 2021—very soon. It will restrict the sale of traditional house coal and small volumes of wet wood and high-sulphur manufactured solid fuels. This was a key commitment in the clean air strategy and it will also make a difference in places such as London, where so many people now have log-burners.
Our landmark Environment Bill delivers other key aspects of the strategy. Of course it is progressing through Parliament and it will be back soon; we expect it to receive Royal Assent in the autumn. Let us just look at the targets first. The Bill introduces a duty on Government to set a legally binding target for fine particulate matter, demonstrating our commitment to take action on this pollutant, and it also includes a duty to set at least one additional long-term target for air quality, which shows further commitment.
The long-term target will work alongside the concentration target to reduce the public’s exposure to PM2.5 across all parts of the country, including London—that is how many people in a given area are subject to a particular amount of PM. I think it will be a really important target for tackling more specific areas. The dual target is supported by experts and we will ensure that action is taken, using it to help the public health issues. Those issues have all been mentioned by hon. Members who contributed today, for which I thank them. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), the hon. Member for Twickenham, of course, and the shadow Minister all touched on this issue of the targets.
I only have a few minutes left, so I really want to press on, because I also want to mention other things alongside the targets in the Bill. There is some significant change for local authorities. The Bill will ensure that they have more effective powers and a clear framework for tackling air pollution in their areas. That includes updating the current smoke control area framework, to make it easier for local authorities to enforce by making smoke emissions in their areas subject to a civil regime rather than a criminal regime. They will be able to police much more carefully what is going on with fuel burning.
We are also introducing the concept of air quality partners, who will be required to work with local authorities to develop collaborative action plans to reduce pollution levels where they are above required standards. We have already held a call for evidence on this, regarding which public bodies should be designated as relevant public authorities, which would then become air quality partners. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall touched on this issue regarding new developments; I think that this is exactly what he is calling for and it will be very helpful—[Interruption.] I think Madam Chairman is asking me to wind up my speech.
We have so many other funds that are committed through our NO2 plan—£3.8 billion, with £880 million to support local authorities, which is very important, and we are updating the local authority framework for that. Also, we have myriad funds for transforming cities, for green buses, and for cycling and walking, which so many people touched on. We aim to double cycling and walking by 2030, so we have massive ambition in that regard.
I cannot comment further on Heathrow, which was mentioned by many Members, but we will have to abide by all of our air quality obligations in whatever we do.
I will close now and sum things up by thanking everyone for raising these issues. I think we all agree that health is absolutely crucial and that we have to tackle this air pollution issue, but I hope that I have set out clearly that we have the measures in place to do that.
I thank all the hon. Members who participated so thoughtfully in this debate. I think that there was unanimity in the Chamber about the need for urgent action, and the Minister has been given a very strong message for her Department for Transport colleagues from several Members here about Heathrow expansion, about the step change that we need on public transport—I appreciate she said that measures are being taken, but we need to go much further—and indeed about Hammersmith bridge, the message on which came from both my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). I thank the hon. Member for Putney for raising the important issue of domestic fuel and heating, and for expressing the disappointment about the scrapping of the green homes grant.
However, there is also unanimity—certainly on the Liberal Democrat and Labour Benches—for a clean air Act or Ella’s law. That needs to be implemented and it also needs an independent environmental regulator with teeth to implement it.
On the point about not legislating for WHO guidelines on air pollution, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, when he was the Environment Secretary:
“We have got to ensure our Environment Bill includes a legally binding commitment on particulate matter so that no part of the country exceeds the levels recommended by the WHO”.
I ask again: if the Government are so committed to tackling air pollution, as the Minister has made out this afternoon, why will they not commit themselves to legally binding targets that can be implemented?
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).