Motion to Take Note
To move that this House takes note of the case for improving air quality in London.
My Lords, I recently watched a wonderful old film, “Genevieve”, which was made in 1954 and starred a very young Kenneth More. In one scene two characters are driving through the countryside on the London to Brighton road. Their car breaks down so they stop on the side of the road next to an open field. They ask each other whether any other car could be expected to come past them on the London to Brighton road so they could be saved. I do not think there would be any such concerns on the A23 today.
In debating air quality, I declare an interest as the chairman of the GATEway autonomous vehicle project advisory board. I also have an unusual number of past interests. I have been a trustee and was deputy chairman of the British Lung Foundation for 12 years and there I learned that lung diseases are mainly diseases of poor people. For many complex reasons, debilitating lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known by the catchy acronym COPD, are predominantly found in those on lower incomes. A very large number of people are subject to periodic exacerbations of their COPD, which is painful, frightening and extremely expensive for the NHS to ameliorate.
I also spent nearly 20 years as the chief executive and then chairman of the company manufacturing the London taxi and selling it in London with diesel engines. I am very glad that the new rules for London taxis will require them to be zero emission in the future and I will buy one the moment it enters production. I also spent seven years striving to make a pure electric delivery vehicle to deliver goods in London and other cities, where the only pollutant was the carbon dioxide produced by the driver. It was a marvellous vehicle and we were very grateful to Tesco, UPS and FedEx for their support but unfortunately, although we made 400 vehicles, the idea came far too early and we had to shut the company down after enormous losses. Having sold too few electric trucks, I then decided that there was only one product that people actually want and that is a zero-emissions politician.
Before we can deal with a problem we first have to recognise it as one. That means being able to measure it. How bad is the air quality in London? Air quality problems come from carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates and all those poisons come from cars. What can be really damaging are particulate matter. They are measured by their diameter and the smaller the particles the more easily they are absorbed into the lungs and the bloodstream. PM2.5, emitted from cars, is especially damaging. As well as causing respiratory illnesses, smaller particles that go into the bloodstream can cause cardiovascular illnesses. There has even been particulate matter found in human brains, with air pollution having links to Alzheimer’s disease.
We have only recently been able to reliably measure PM1 and even PM0.1 and just as we have discovered that PM2.5 can do more damage than PM10, we should all be nervous of the effects of these even smaller particles. However, the dangerous gases and particles do not come from cars alone—central heating and gas cooking hobs can produce large amounts. Cars produce pollution in complex ways. It is not just the fumes pouring out of the exhaust that bring down air quality. For example, one of the largest sources of particulates is tyre and brake wear. When your tyres wear down, where does the rubber dust go? It is likely that it goes up into the air and into the lungs of passers-by. In a busy city such as London, there is often traffic stopping, starting, braking and accelerating. All of these actions increase tyre and brake wear.
In a study done recently in Ontario, researchers proved that although the average pollution recorded was one figure, this was an average of a very wide range. You can have dreadful concentrations of pollution that will not be detected. Urban design makes sure that no wind tunnels are formed between buildings, but it is wind movement that stirs up stagnant air. It is perfectly clear that you can get a wide variety of readings of particulates in different parts of London but they also vary with the weather, the wind and the design of the streetscape. We watch out for new buildings that cause wind tunnels to be formed among skyscrapers, but it is perfectly possible that such a wind tunnel is mixing up pollution and blowing it away. Perhaps we should look out for the reverse—buildings that slow the dispersal of pollution. Sensible urban design will be a key part of ameliorating air pollution.
I have recently been carrying an air quality meter and although the air quality in this House is fine and pretty good on the roads around it, when you go into Westminster Underground the meter goes mad—it goes up by about 100 times. This may be because the ventilation system of the Tube is 100 years old and the tube is dirty. Does the Minister know whether the new Crossrail system has a ventilation design that will eliminate dust and particles? Will he ask the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants about the potential dangers of air pollution in the London Underground, who should be warned and what else should be done about it? I know the mayor has started to look into this issue but more work needs to be done.
For a long time big landlords have had standby diesel generators so that their trading can continue if electricity service is interrupted. Occasionally these would be started and run for a short time if only to check that they were in working order. An unexpected by-product of the recent rules to enable private producers to feed-in electricity into the grid is that it is apparently now economic for such department stores and office blocks to run their generators and be paid for it. Bizarrely, we are now generating electricity through medium-sized diesel generators in the centre of London.
Do we have the right regulations to deal with the emissions produced? Small local generators in the centre of London cannot be the right answer. So, therefore, are we asking the right question? As you can tell, the sources of pollutants are wide-ranging and identifying the type of pollution is complex. However, the impacts are brutal, and so my main request is for more serious effort to go into research. We need research to be done to find out which of the exhaust particles and those from brake and tyre wear that are emitted from cars do the most harm, and in combination with which other factors. We need research into the unexpected behaviour of pollution. We also need more research into other forms of public transport as it is not easy to say that all Londoners would be better off on the Tube, or, indeed, on a bus or a bicycle. Then, once we know, we can act.
The Great Stink of 1858 was one such time when noble Lords were moved to act when the smell was apparent in and around this House. Thanks to Bazalgette, the solution of new sewers solved the problem. Perhaps this generation of Parliament, which is breathing in the air just as its predecessors suffered from the Great Stink, can take action with similar good results.
We know that poor air quality in London is a big issue. This can be traced back to the early 2000s, when the only thing we concentrated on was carbon dioxide. That led to the introduction of preferential tax treatment for cars with diesel engines as they emit less carbon than petrol cars. However, they emit much more particulate matter, which has a catastrophic impact on health. Drivers, commuters, walkers, cyclists—all Londoners are at risk.
There are some exciting new inventions being tried out by Westminster Council, notably pollution-eating paint and generators powered by footfall. It was encouraging to see action taken this week against drivers who leave their engines idling while picking up their children from school or collecting someone from the shops. Leaving an engine running is often because the driver is trying to control the temperature of their car, but, of course, the effects of it can be harmful to passers-by. The safest thing to do then might be for everyone to work from home—but, of course, hiding away is not the answer.
What can we do? At the moment, many cyclists wear masks, which are quite often sold with the words “anti-pollution filter” as part of the marketing. However, they are usually ineffective. For one thing, for a mask to work properly it would need to sit so tightly to the skin on one’s face as to require suction. That is not a comfortable or desirable solution. You often see pictures of the citizens of Beijing—thousands of people—all with masks around their mouths and noses. It can certainly cause problems for deaf people who lip read. It seems to me that this is more important politically than it is as a preventive measure. The striking visual of a city’s workers, shoppers and families all wearing masks makes it hit home just how bad the smog is in Beijing and that it must be tackled at source.
In Beijing, everyone has a headache from the pollution. When I was there I wondered what would happen if I filled a jam jar with the city’s air and then brought it back through customs. However, rather than cause trouble for our border staff, I instead looked up the rules for shipping certain substances. Royal Mail prohibits the shipping of nitrogen dioxide within the UK and internationally. Indeed, it is listed alongside toxic and infectious substances such as arsenic, cyanide, Ebola, mercury, mustard gas, pesticides and rat poison as being prohibited for posting and shipping. My noble friend the Minister may reassure me that it would not be illegal as it is only a trace amount, but I could not find this exception in the regulations. Why are people expected to breathe traces of nitrogen dioxide on London streets when it is prohibited for posting and classified in the same bracket as deadly diseases and chemical weapons? The department has been accused before of trying to talk down the importance of this poisonous subject.
Electric cars are another game changer. The technology is getting more impressive by the day but we need continuing research and development to ensure we reach a stage where they are genuine viable alternatives to cars, vans and lorries. More kerbside space could also be dedicated to charging infrastructure.
However, more conventional cars are improving nowadays. Manufacturers routinely spend as much on the exhaust system as they do on the rest of the engine. So replacing an old car with a new car is likely to be the best thing an individual can do, which argues for a scrappage scheme to get rid of the old, badly maintained vehicles.
We must also be mindful of the Volkswagen scandal. The idea that other car companies were totally ignorant of VW’s actions is questionable. Car companies all buy each other’s cars to find out what makes them work so well. Were they actually ignorant of how VW were doing it, or did they cover up their findings and not blow the whistle that could have saved many thousands of illnesses? Real-world testing will also be essential.
Autonomous vehicles will also be important in this fight. They will drive at steadier speeds than human drivers and will almost certainly reduce the amount of particulates emitted from constant speeding up and braking. There are clever new devices to monitor driving and, hopefully, improve it.
We could also look further into the success or failure of low emissions zones. The Mayor of London’s modelling shows that bringing in the ultra-low emission zone from 2019 would result in a 20% reduction in the expected NOx emissions levels.
We also hear campaigners argue for more bicycle lanes in London. That would be great to improve the safety of cyclists, but the population of London is increasing, with road capacity decreasing. By slowing down cars, cycle lanes are causing pollution that is now being breathed in by the cyclists themselves. While they are being constructed, traffic delays are caused. This means more pollution.
Just as they now announce the pollen count and the UV intensity on weather broadcasts, perhaps there should also be announcements of pollution levels. Just as those with skin conditions might stay in to avoid high UV levels, government advice is now sometimes given that people vulnerable to lung problems should stay indoors and avoid the dirty streets. I think it is the people who normally drive polluting cars who should stay indoors.
The first Clean Air Act received Royal Assent on 5 July 1956, 61 years ago almost to the day. It was transformative. It changed our outlook on air pollution and set the framework for future action. However, of course, there is still more work to do. That is why I am so pleased to be debating this vital issue. It is clear that air pollution is a silent killer. We now need more research into these health effects and the solutions available. We have an opportunity to mark the 61st anniversary of the first Clean Air Act by pledging to take even more steps to improve air quality. I beg to move.
My Lords, I offer my warm congratulations to the noble Lord not only because he has initiated this debate but on giving us such a comprehensive and technically informed tour of the issues involved. I need to declare an interest as the current honorary president of Environmental Protection UK, which is the successor body to the National Society for Clean Air, one of the campaigning bodies that produced the Clean Air Act 1956, referred to by the noble Lord. My noble friend Lord Hunt, who will speak later in the debate, is also a former president of that organisation—not as far back as 1956, but nevertheless he made a significant contribution to it. I look forward to his speech.
As the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, said, the 1956 Act was a great landmark. It effectively removed smog and pea-souper fogs from London and thus transformed this city. But I have to tell noble Lords that the Government of the day were not initially persuaded of the necessity for such an Act. I have before me a confidential Cabinet committee paper, admittedly not a scoop because it dates back to 1953. In it Harold Macmillan, then the Housing Minister and a brilliant one in that role, did not initially take air pollution very seriously. Indeed, he was at his most disdainful and cynical. I shall quote him directly:
“Today everybody expects the Government to solve every problem. It is a symptom of the welfare state … For some reason or another, ‘smog’ has captured the imagination of the press and the people. I would suggest that we form a Committee. Committees are the oriflame of democracy. There are some short-term things which we have done; and can do. There are some longer-term solutions … We cannot do very much, but we can seem to be very busy—and that is half the battle nowadays”.
Eventually Harold Macmillan changed his mind, but only after another three years of vigorous public campaigning as well as the work of the committee of inquiry set up under Sir Hugh Beaver. Of course, later in his life Macmillan claimed the Clean Air Act as one of his great successes.
I now fear that more recent Governments, including the current one, have been as complacent as Macmillan originally was. Unfortunately, as the noble Lord has just said, there are still dangerous although invisible substances in our atmosphere which have yet to be tackled effectively and which again affect in particular the poorer communities within our population. Large parts of London still exceed EU standards for NO2 and World Health Organization standards for both NO2 and ultrafine particulates. These are damaging to cardiovascular health and can cause respiratory diseases. Although the calculations are complicated, they are thought to have caused up to 10,000 equivalents of death in London alone.
I take some responsibility as I have been both a Transport Minister and a Minister in Defra, and I briefly held the portfolio for air quality. Subsequently, I served on the board of the Environment Agency, which has responsibility for non-vehicular emissions. There has been some success in limiting point-source emissions but very little in relation to vehicular traffic. Moreover, the standards we have in place have been dramatically revealed to be inadequate. The Volkswagen scandal revealed a huge subterfuge in the motor sector to the detriment of the population at large, despite more rigorous EU standards and increasingly well-evidenced and assertive reports from medical and public health authorities.
Even the powers that we have had, we have failed to use. It is 20 years since I took legislation through this House to set up low-emission zones, but it has hardly been used. In London we now have the basis of low-emission zones and we have the mayor’s new air quality strategy as well as work being done in some London boroughs of all political persuasions, to which the noble Lord referred. All are attempting to do something about the problem, but we need to do significantly more. The theme of my speech today is that it is important that the mayor’s strategy is followed through so that the zones can be expanded and enforced, but a national strategy is needed to back that up. The mayor’s powers are limited and the lack of a national strategy has already twice been exposed in the High Court as inadequate in terms of the Government’s responsibilities under European legislation and under their own commitments.
Pushing all the responsibility on to local authorities, as the current draft strategy does, will not work. They need the staffing and the resources to deliver. That is even more the case in cities outside London which face greater challenges. However, the Government are going backwards on that as well. Of the 17 cities they first thought needed attention, it is now proposed that only five will go forward in the national strategy.
The scope of the powers also needs to be addressed. Although road transport is the major contributor to pollution in London, it actually accounts for less than half of it, as the noble Lord indicated in his speech. He referred to stand-by diesel generators, and indeed stand-by generators of any sort as well as decentralised energy sources and other forms of heating. Another example is off-road construction machinery. All of it contributes to pollution levels. These need to be addressed by the mayor, who does not actually have the power to do so very effectively.
There are of course trade-offs in this. The noble Lord referred to the biggest of them, which is between climate change objectives and air quality objectives and the overriding commitment to fuel efficiency and thus carbon saving. That has led to what in retrospect was a mistake when the balance of taxation was changed in favour of diesel vehicles. That has aggravated the situation significantly, so technology and regulation must catch up. We need to take a holistic approach. It should not be impossible for the motor industry, even using current technologies, to produce filters that can tackle carbon and other emissions which are damaging to public health. Technology ought to be able to provide solutions and regulation has to back it up.
Other choices such as wood burning are allegedly also carried out for environmental reasons. I have my doubts about wood burning myself because I think that it is more of a lifestyle choice, and it is an increasing contributor to pollution in London and elsewhere. There are other trade-offs in relation to road safety. The noble Lord referred to the dust produced by braking and how some road humps actually contribute to increased air pollution by vehicles. However, the humps save lives, so we need road design that can contribute both to road safety and improve air quality by reducing pollution.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. Do the Government accept the findings of the King’s College study which calculates a mortality equivalent of 9,500 deaths in London? Do the Government have figures for the number of staff and resources in local government, the Environment Agency and Defra and how they have reduced over the past few years? What has been the effect of that? Can the Minister tell us what will happen after Brexit, given that infraction proceedings will no longer be the enforcement mechanism? How will the Government enforce air quality standards? Again after Brexit, will the Government base policy on the same standards as the EU or will they adopt the WHO standards, which are more stringent? Will Volkswagen and any other transgressors face US-style penalties if they in effect distort testing results both on-road and off-road in the way that company did? Why is there no scrappage scheme for older diesel vehicles, and will all new diesel motors be subject to on-road, real driving tests, with those failing being banned? I have a number of other questions but I shall put them in writing for the Minister; these are enough to be going on with.
I hope that the dismissive tones of Harold Macmillan 64 years ago are not echoed by the Minister’s boss, Mr Michael Gove. In my capacity as president of EP UK I have written to Michael Gove urging him to set up a wide-ranging, high-powered independent clean air commission with the immediate task of helping to prioritise and allocate resources across government to ensure the effective enforcement of existing measures, and more particularly to develop a forward strategy and a new clean air Act. At the beginning, Macmillan was dismissive of experts; the current Secretary of State has been known to be similarly dismissive. In the end, Macmillan took their advice. The 1956 Act was, in retrospect, one of the few successful legacies of the Eden Government—a Government who, noble Lords may note, were an otherwise somewhat controversial and short-lived Conservative Administration, so it ought to have some attractions for the incumbents. I hope they adopt a more aggressive stance on this. It will be a real legacy that will benefit hundreds of thousands of citizens in London and beyond.
I know that we are preparing to leave the European Union, but I start by recognising that it is Europe that has kept the pressure on successive Governments over air pollution standards—or, rather, tried but on the whole failed, given that we have been breaching agreed limits for a long time. In 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the Government to produce a new air-quality plan to better evidence how they would meet nitrogen dioxide limits. Following production of this plan, the Government were again taken to court by ClientEarth and required to provide a better plan by the middle of this year.
The Government could usefully take a leaf out of the various London Mayors’ innovative approaches to tackling the problem. Nowadays, London’s pollution is caused largely by transport emissions, whereas past pea-soupers were caused by burning coal. Thus I welcome the mayor’s recent transport strategy, which promises a wide range of interventions to tackle air pollution. But sorting out air quality is potentially complex and expensive. It can be caused by dirty engines, traffic jams, narrow corridors or dips. It can be blown in or blown out by the wind. Pollutants need accurate measurement and we need to understand their impact—something we failed to do with diesel. Finally, we need to invest in electricity infrastructure, ideally renewably sourced, and manage congestion alongside renewing vehicle fleets. Above all, what is needed is an honest commitment to sorting out air quality and a pragmatic plan to work through some of those issues—in particular, to take the beam out of one’s own eye before pushing that cost on to other people.
One-third of nursery schools in the capital experience nitrogen dioxide levels that threaten children’s health. My children grew up in Putney, where the high street was one of the most polluted streets in London. Causes included polluting buses, a narrow, high corridor and congestion. While Transport for London took a while to recognise that they were a major contributor, I am pleased to say that the corridor has recently become a low-emission bus zone, and more of these are to be rolled out. But while there is enough electricity to support a few hundred buses, 10,000 electric buses would require not only a new power station but many sub-stations, along with cabling to individual bus garages.
I am an investor in a company called Vantage Power and therefore declare an interest. This company has developed hybrid electric engines that are a practical halfway step to getting to all-electric buses, enabling buses to run through the most polluted parts of London in all-electric mode.
It is important to tackle congestion and cleaner vehicles at the same time. When the original congestion charging zone was introduced, nitrogen oxides decreased by 8% and particulate matter from diesels by 15%. It is self-evident that idling engines in traffic jams are not a recipe for clean air. So, ironically, as was alluded to earlier, while encouraging cycling helps, putting a cycle lane down the Embankment, which causes serious congestion, both adds to the pollution and pollutes the cyclists. A better-conceived cross-London cycle lane would have had cyclists going diagonally across Hyde Park, rather than riding alongside congested traffic.
I turn to the area around Heathrow. Planes cause pollution at two levels: in the sky and on the ground. Here again, congestion is part of the story. Most aircraft landing at Heathrow go into holding stacks before landing, significantly increasing pollution—something I hope runway three will help to sort. But of course we need to sort clean fuel, too. At ground level, the majority of the pollution is caused by vehicles, specifically those going to and from the airport and those on the M25 and M4.
Modal shift is one of the answers and I should again declare an interest as chairman of Heathrow Southern Railway, which is seeking to build a stretch of track alongside the M25 to join Heathrow to the railway tracks going south-west out of Waterloo. That would save more than 3 million vehicle trips a year. But the Government and the mayor could be much more ambitious about using congestion charging and raise money at the same time. People pay to use motorways overseas and a more ambitious programme would see congestion charging in London taken right out to the M25 to include road pricing on both the M25 and the M4. Current technology would enable the pricing to be flexed at different times of day so that congestion is minimised, as in Stockholm. At the very least, some such congestion and emission zone could be introduced in the immediate neighbourhood of Heathrow, in parallel with increasing public transport to the airport.
In passing, I am delighted to note an initiative by Heathrow to subsidise 6,000 staff buying more environmentally friendly cars. I also note Uber’s pilot scheme of 60 drivers using electric vehicles last year. The lesson from this was that Uber drivers sacrificed around 10 hours driving per week due to the insufficient range of the cars and the lack of availability of on-street charging points.
I conclude by repeating my request for a genuine commitment by all parties to improving air quality for the sake of children living in London. To sort this overnight would be impractical and expensive, but there is no reason why we cannot have a pragmatic plan to work through the challenges and improve over time—ideally not too much time. For instance, beyond hoping that engines get cleaner quick enough and that car companies do not cheat in the emissions tests, what will national government do about congestion and polluting vehicles on the M25 and the M4? How ambitious will London government be in introducing flexible congestion charging and providing electricity infrastructure for buses and cars? What will councils do to manage pollution on their local streets? Will they make their residents pay for driving polluting cars? Finally, I look forward to the Government’s announcement on surface access to Heathrow later this year, which is one part of this jigsaw.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this important debate and on the extremely knowledgeable way he gave us a complete dissertation on all aspects of air pollution. I cannot aspire to copy that, so I shall concentrate on diesels.
I would never buy a diesel car in a million years. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister may appreciate this, because when I was a little boy on the farm in the highlands of Scotland, we could go into the car shed, start up the petrol-engined car—the only type available in those days—and potter around in the shed for about half an hour before the fumes became a bit much. When one went into the tractor shed and started up a diesel tractor, one was overcome by noxious fumes in about 30 seconds flat. We all knew that diesel engines were filthy things and that they were only good for lorries, combine harvesters and tractors, where one wanted good traction and incredible pulling power at low engine revs. The poisonous fumes did not matter because the vehicles were out in the countryside in the open air.
So when Gordon Brown in the last socialist Government started to give huge incentives to people to buy diesel cars, I was astonished. I assumed that somehow the experts had cleaned up diesel and I was not aware of it. But they had not cleaned it up at all. It was typical in my experience of Parliament of single-issue pressure groups such as Friends of the Earth demonising one issue such as carbon and then blackmailing the Government—all Governments—into promoting diesel, even though it was a killer in other respects. So, before we hear too many demands that this Government must do more to deal with diesel pollution, can we have at least one word of apology from Gordon Brown, other socialist politicians and the lobby groups for the evils they inflicted upon us, all in the name of saving the planet?
Now we are stuck with far too many diesel vehicles, including all the criminal Volkswagens for which British drivers have not received one penny of compensation—I believe that Porsche vehicles are equally guilty. However, that is a matter for the Minister for Transport and not for my noble friend.
In London, the problem is even more severe, for two reasons: an over-preponderance of filthy London buses and unprecedented congestion caused by cycle lanes. Last Saturday afternoon, traffic around Westminster was completely snarled up—I suspect that it may have been some of Mr McDonnell’s anti-democratic henchmen marching to try to bring down the Government. On Horseferry Road, I counted eight open-topped tour buses with a total of six passengers between them, each bus belching out a mass of diesel fumes. Add to that the five ordinary buses, which had about 12 passengers between them, and then the half-dozen tour coaches, and the air in Horseferry Road was positively toxic.
We hear demands to penalise diesel car drivers—but they are not the main problem. The average MPG of a diesel car is 40 to 50—some are now even up to 70—whereas the MPG of a bus is six, with a 10 to 13-litre engine. When we get more hybrid and electric buses, buses will cease to be a problem—but all older buses will then most likely be converted to open-topped tour buses. I can accept that commuter buses, carrying passengers to and from work, should access bus lanes and have a favourable tax regime, but I can see no justification whatever for tour buses to carry on blocking London streets, not paying considerably more for the privilege and causing incredible pollution. I challenge any noble Lord tomorrow, even if it is a wet day, to find a single tour bus that is even half-full. There are too many of them and they are killing Londoners.
From January next year, I understand that all new London cabs will have to be battery powered. That is a noble aim, but I fear that TfL is not nearly ready; there are not sufficient charge points and the battery distance of 100 miles is not good enough. A trip to Heathrow and back will put cabbies out of action for an hour, even if they can find a charge point to recharge their batteries. I suspect that we will see a large drop in the number of taxis. They will be replaced by—I am quite happy to use these words—the rotten and corrupt Uber company, whose drivers will face no penalty for driving diesel cars. TfL may end up putting decent London cabbies out of business and letting them be replaced by unqualified, uninspected drivers who have no clue where they are going.
I also feel strongly because, if Uber succeeds in putting London cabbies out of business, people like me and others in wheelchairs will never get a taxi again, since Uber does not have to provide a single wheelchair-accessible taxi. It is not allowed to discriminate if you book such a taxi, but it does not have to provide any, whereas all London cabs—current diesel ones and the new electric ones—are wheelchair accessible. I am conscious that I am treading on dangerous ground in talking about taxis in the presence of my noble friend Lord Borwick, who is an expert, but I hope that my remarks are not too wide of the mark.
I have the great privilege to serve on the Council of Europe. I missed all the Queen’s Speech debates last week because I was attending the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. There, as in Paris, I saw tens of thousands of cyclists and not a single one in Lycra and a racing helmet—except for tiny little toddlers wearing a helmet in a sort of wheelbarrow attachment on a bicycle, and they were quite cute. It was a pleasure to watch those cyclists: men and women of all ages, in normal clothes, riding elegantly with their heads held high. It was almost reminiscent of those pictures one saw of people riding penny farthings in the old days.
In France, they can ride on the pavement, and I have never felt so safe in my life—as opposed to taking my life in my hands when trying to cross to 1 Millbank and encountering some of the thugs on bikes mowing me down on the pedestrian crossing. How have we got it so wrong in this country and the French so right? I did not see a single racing bike handlebar in Paris or Strasbourg. Everyone rode with their head held high and their head much higher up than their bottom—there is nothing more repulsive than the sight of the Lycra-clad louts in London with their bum in the air and their head between the handlebars. That is not an air pollution problem, but it leads to an attitude whereby some cyclists regard London and other parts of the country as a racing track.
I have lived and worked in London since 1979 and have always considered it the greatest capital city in the world. Now our dedicated cycle lanes are destroying it and completely jamming up traffic. A former 20-minute taxi ride from here to Euston station now takes 45 minutes. To go to London City Airport, I instruct the driver to go south of the river and use the Rotherhithe Tunnel. It is many more miles and costs me more, but at least I get there in half the time it takes trying to use the Embankment, which is now a no-go zone. Most of the time, the cycle lanes are empty. Vehicles cannot use them because they have huge kerbstone barriers.
There are also red lines everywhere. Wheelchair users cannot flag down a taxi on the Embankment because it is down to one lane either way, with red lines. If a cabbie breaks the law to stop, they will jam up the traffic for ages as wheelchair users get into the taxi. Why in the name of goodness did TfL not do with cycle lanes what it did with bus lanes, with a big white line separating the cycle lane from the rest of the road and a requirement that cyclists have priority from 7 am to 10 am and from 4 pm to 7 pm? That would have worked perfectly. Instead, London has created dedicated racing tracks for cyclists who ignore red lights and pedestrian crossings, while tens of thousands of motor vehicles—buses, lorries and cars—sit jammed in traffic and belching out petrol and diesel fumes. It is probably too late to change the system now. We cannot adopt the French system because our cycling culture is now so ingrained. It seems to me, as a victim on various pedestrian crossings, that cyclists feel that they have a God-given right to cycle as fast as they can on dedicated tracks, and to hell with pedestrians and other road users.
It is not often—if ever—that I have praised the French in the past, but I envy them their cycling and pedestrian culture, where we all share the same space and respect each other’s right to use the road. Thus I am afraid that air quality in London will not improve until we tackle polluting London buses and change our cycle-lanes policy. But can we hold our breath that long?
My Lords, I must declare an interest: I have just recently become chairman of the British Lung Foundation, of whose board of trustees the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, was a member for a long time. Since that charity has done a great deal of valuable work in trying to promote better air quality not only in London but in the UK generally, I thought it right that on my third day as chair of the trust I should speak on this subject, although I am no expert on it.
I want to begin by discussing the public health dimensions of the crisis that we face in air quality in our big cities, especially in London. No one can any longer be complacent about this and assume that it is a problem faced only by cities such as Delhi, Beijing or Shanghai. I will not go into all the details of the scientific evidence—the noble Lord provided the House with an excellent summary of these issues—but want to pick up one point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, in mentioning the EU. The EU has done an extraordinarily important job in tackling how we measure pollution in our cities as well as producing a scheme to try to regulate it.
It is a sad reflection of the situation here that the people of London are exposed to pollution which far exceeds EU limits. Around an eighth of the total area of London is above the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide. According to the WHO’s definition of safe levels of particulate matter, air in 90% of the city is considered toxic to breathe. Moreover, Defra’s own modelling shows that not just London but as many as 40 urban areas in the UK will have toxic and illegal air by 2020. This crisis urgently needs to be dealt with.
The implications for public health are enormous. First, air pollution contributes to the development of lung conditions. Incidentally, lung disease is already the UK’s third-largest killer after cardiovascular disease and cancer. Too few of us are aware of this fact. Toxic air is a major contributor to developing a lung condition. Children are particularly vulnerable as their lungs are still developing, and those growing up in high-pollution areas are four times more likely to have poor lung development. Many suffer from chronic asthma, and their lungs may well be damaged for the rest of their lives. How can we expose vulnerable children to suffering of this sort which is wholly preventable? Moreover, those children and adults in deprived areas—as the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, said—are more likely to be exposed to poor-quality air.
Secondly, toxic air exacerbates the suffering of those who already have a lung condition. The symptoms of those with COPD—which, again, the noble Lord referred to; an extremely unpleasant long-term chronic disease—or asthma become worse, sometimes leading to hospitalisation, just because they breathed air outside. Why should they spend their lives inside? Those with cardiovascular disease are also at risk of suffering from coronary attacks which can lead to hospitalisation due to exposure to high levels of traffic-related air pollution. The Department of Health and NHS England say that public health and the prevention of disease is a high priority. Here we have an area of ill-health that is preventable, yet the Government have done far too little about it.
The cost of this is enormous. Estimates suggest that around 40,000 deaths per annum across the country are attributable to toxic air, and in London it contributes to 9,400 early deaths per annum. The direct costs to the NHS in London are extremely high, given the several thousand hospital admissions caused by air pollution every year. The overall economic cost could be as high as £3.7 billion, according to a recent study by King’s College London.
I turn now to the challenge this poses for the Government and will ask the Minister a number of questions. Before doing so, I salute the work of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, for deciding to attach very high priority to improving air quality. He has already announced a number of measures for tackling the problem. However, he cannot do this alone. The Government must play their part and not simply pass on responsibility to local authorities, either in London or elsewhere in the UK. As my noble friend Lord Whitty said, solutions require national as well as local policies.
My first question is: why were there no provisions for a new clean air Act in the Queen’s Speech? We heard a little about the history of the earlier Clean Air Act and I think it was in the Conservatives’ manifesto, so why are the Government going through a two-year Parliament with no such Bill? This is urgent. Moreover, it would attract cross-party agreement. I hope the Minister will not say when he replies that there is no room for anything other than Brexit-related legislation, when we are told that currently the Government are struggling to find enough business to fill parliamentary time.
A clean air Act should help to promote greater understanding of the need for clean transport, including more walking and cycling. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, was a bit unfair to cyclists. I accept that there are some dangerous cyclists, but many are far from dangerous and are doing the right thing in cycling to work or to meet friends rather than getting in their cars. While I am attacking the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, he was also a bit hard on Gordon Brown—the “socialist politician”, as he described him. It is fair to say that, when government advice was given that it would be better to buy a diesel car rather than a petrol car, that was based on what was the scientific consensus at the time. I am sure he regrets that now, as many other people do who were involved in giving that advice, but the Prime Minister alone cannot be taken to task for it.
A clean air Act ought also to establish new legal limits on pollution, based on the WHO’s standards. It could also introduce a targeted diesel scrappage scheme—to which the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, and my noble friend Lord Whitty already referred—to help local authorities get the most-polluting vehicles off the road. What do the Government plan to do in this respect? This seems a really important, burning issue. There is also a need for new fiscal incentives. Vehicle excise duty and company car tax should be further adjusted to encourage people to purchase the lowest-polluting vehicles, to deal with all three of the main sources of pollution: CO2, NO2 and PM emissions. Following the Vauxhall scandal, already referred to, the regulation of vehicle manufacture may also need some tightening up. Electric cars surely need to be introduced more quickly, with greatly increased numbers of charging points than exist at present. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister could address these issues in his reply.
Finally, we need more charging clean air zones or ultra clean air zones, especially around schools. Many children in London go to schools massively affected by pollution because they are located on main roads. Should we not introduce fines for those who selfishly run their car engines when they are stationary—in all clean air zones but especially outside schools?
There will not be enormous public resistance to any changes. According to a survey commissioned by London Councils, 76% of Londoners believe that tackling air pollution should be a priority, and nearly half of them said that poor air quality had affected their health. Many also said they would accept that changes are required in their own behaviour in order to improve the air that we breathe. Please will the Government get on with it—research, yes, but some action as well—and move on from the rather pathetic response they gave to the High Court’s ruling that they should publish a plan on how they will deal with non-compliance with EU laws on air quality? Will they confirm that, after Brexit, UK courts will be able to enforce the relevant legislation?
As a Londoner, I am proud of this great city, but I do not want to be ashamed of it in respect of this most basic of human rights: that the air we breathe should be clean.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, for instigating this debate. It is very timely, and possibly even a bit late, because we are already experiencing such incredible pollution levels here in London. It has been years since I have talked about air quality, which is in the title of the debate, because we do not have air quality—what we have is air pollution. It is very important to understand that we already have quite damaging levels of air pollution. I have worked on this issue for about 15 years because an eagle-eyed co-worker of mine spotted that we were likely to get EU fines if we did not reduce our pollution—even then, in about 2002.
It has been quite difficult listening to some noble Lords in the debate without shouting quite loudly—the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, pre-eminent among them. It was not people like Friends of the Earth and the environmental campaigners who lobbied so hard for the diesel vehicles. It was in fact the EU, which, seeing the problem with heavy carbon loads and trying to reduce our carbon emissions, listened to the diesel car manufacturers such as Volkswagen and then pressured our Government to do the same. So we have to understand that, although the EU has been incredibly good about getting us to try to clean up our act, it was also the instigator of the problem in the first place.
Noble Lords have already talked about the horrors of air pollution and the fact that it affects particularly the young and the already unwell, so I will talk about the solutions that we should look at. There are two solutions in particular that I will highlight and would like a response from the Minister on. The first is having a new clean air Act and the second is to talk about traffic reduction.
I am not rubbishing the small measures. The small measures are incredibly important as well. Air pollution is a very complex issue and we need a lot of solutions and ideas. We have to think about turning off engines outside schools. We have to think about techno-fixes such as cleaner cars and cleaner fuels. We should also think about the luxury cruise ships that come up the Thames and try to park at places such as Greenwich. They are incredibly polluting. There is a programme on Channel 4 tonight which says that people are more exposed to air pollution on those ships than on London’s roads. That is slightly worrying. Apparently, levels of pollution on these cruise ships can be equal to those in Delhi and Shanghai, which is really quite disturbing.
On the clean air Act, the fact is that Brexit will impact on every single area of our lives, creating endless trauma—no doubt—but also the chance to improve things. We will need our own laws and our own enforcement mechanisms and agencies. It is an opportunity to create a body a bit like the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, with its own staff, legal powers and a culture of independence from the Government. We need that sort of body to look at the environment, and clean air in particular. Brexit means that we have the chance to do new things and to create a new clean air Act with new standards and limit values—a clean air Act that will freshen our filthy air and let us all breathe easier.
Of course, London Councils has made the point that, although we are talking about London in this debate, pollution does not respect legislative boundaries. What London is experiencing today, other cities and towns are experiencing as well. The problem will only get worse. If we can fix it here in London, other places can learn from our example.
I am impressed with the Mayor of London’s list. Obviously, I would like it to go faster and be larger and more expensive, but he is on the right lines. Transforming the bus fleet is going to be incredibly important to cleaning up. I do blame Boris Johnson for some of the dirtier buses that we have. He chose not to have the cleanest buses. He bought us buses that actually are not fit for use. But I harbour only a small antipathy towards him for that. Other people have done just as much, although during the Olympics he tried to clean up our air pollution so that it would conform to EU limits by putting pot plants along the Olympic route. There was only one emissions testing facility, which was on the Euston Road, and the intake pipe was something like 18 feet up, and anybody who knows anything about pollution knows that the worst pollution is lower down. Previous mayors have done their bit. Ken Livingstone brought in the congestion charge. Boris brought in the wonderful cycle lanes, which are doing so much for London. Now Sadiq Khan is bringing in a whole raft of measures. For me, it is not a pick-and-mix list; every one of those things has to be done.
The European Commission currently has the power to fine the UK Government for failing to protect the health of their citizens. We need a replacement UK body with similar clout. The Environment Agency and Natural England are under the thumb of Defra and cannot offer the necessary protection to people or planet. We also need a body that can be sued by victims if it sets the bar too low or fails in its job of enforcing standards to protect human health and the natural world. All these things have to be taken into account in our Brexit negotiations and in the repeal of the laws. They have to be contemporaneous so that we do not just move into a situation where we have nothing protecting our environment.
On traffic reduction, all levels of government have failed to deal with the air pollution crisis over the past two decades. Labour, Conservative and coalition Governments failed to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels to the legal limit, which we were meant to do by 2010. None included traffic reduction in national plans, despite that being the most direct, fastest and most straightforward way to cut pollution.
The new bike lanes have been a success and now carry as many people as the Victoria line. They have replaced car traffic and relieved pressure on public transport, but we need more of them to reduce pollution to legal levels in London. People often fail to understand that every cyclist is somebody who is not taking up a seat on public transport and is not using a car. We should be welcoming cyclists. The reason we have protected cycle lanes is because our roads are dangerous. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, talked about how wonderful things are in France with no Lycra and no helmets. Why do people wear Lycra and helmets on the roads in London? It is because they can be dangerous. I do not wear Lycra or a helmet, but I get criticised for not making myself visible. I was once stopped by a taxi driver who said, “What do you think you’re doing? You look just like a pedestrian”, as I was wearing normal clothes on my bike, so you cannot please everybody. Cycle lanes also mean a healthier population. They encourage people to get exercise. Even if you are breathing the polluted air, you are still not breathing as much of it as car drivers, whose air intake is much lower. We will have cleaner, healthier people if we have more cyclists.
The Government have lost two court cases for failing to produce a plan which would enable us to reduce pollution to the legal limit. ClientEarth has done an amazing job on this. It is getting harder to take the Government to court to get a judicial review, but it has done it. The Government are in the High Court again this week. A Government’s highest priority should be to protect their citizens. Why are they dragging their feet on something as dangerous as air pollution? We have a national health crisis, not just at the moment for people who are experiencing respiratory problems but down the line with all the children, who have small lungs, who will have breathing difficulties in future. For some reason, the Government find this impossible to visualise. Why is public health reliant on the dedication of a voluntary organisation such as ClientEarth? Why have official bodies charged with protecting our health been silent and failed to act? I do not want to put ClientEarth out of business, but the success of its actions has highlighted the enforcement vacuum at the heart of the UK’s environmental policies.
ClientEarth’s successful court action in British courts has relied upon advice from the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. Whether those reference points are still to be part of British law post Brexit depends on the so far rather confused negotiations. We should know. We have to have enforcement mechanisms, legal opportunities to sue and our own enforcement body.
Will the Minister say whether a clean air Act is going to be government policy? Do the Government see the sense in traffic reduction?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend on his success in the ballot and on initiating this debate. It enables us to raise a number of issues, particularly in relation to Transport for London, which is very difficult to do.
Many years ago, I had to drive home through what turned out to be the last real pea-soup British fog. It was a terrifying experience. I could barely see past the front end of my car. It brought home to me just how terrible the pollution at that time was. As my noble friend rightly pointed out in his opening speech, it was followed by clean air legislation and over the years there was a considerable improvement in the quality of air. However, the other night I drove from the other side of the river to Piccadilly and that brought home to me very forcefully how terrible the level of pollution now is. I had to suffer it because in the course of that journey I was diverted all along the Embankment, right the way back. With the journey I had to take, the pollution which the car I was in was creating was very serious, due to the diversions. I stress as strongly as I can that the policies being adopted by Transport for London are making a very considerable contribution to the problems which we are facing, and I will deal with four particular aspects of it.
The first is roadworks. We constantly see serious congestion and pollution caused by roadworks which have no one working on them. This can go on for a very long time. We had a classic example the other side of Parliament Square in Great George Street, where Transport for London had decided to bring in a bicycle lane. It started the initial work, and the capacity of the road was reduced as a result. For weeks, absolutely nothing happened and the pollution and congestion got worse and worse. This was typical of the way in which roadworks are begun without a clear plan to make sure they are carried through without an interruption, creating disruption as a result of the work which ought to be done not being done. It is very important to stress that that level of roadworks should be worked on 24 hours a day. Clearly, there will be increased costs, but none the less, it will greatly reduce the amount of congestion and pollution if instead of just working a few hours a day, we concentrate on them on a 24-hours-a-day basis.
The second thing I want to talk about, as other noble Lords have done, is bicycle lanes, because it is clear that the action being taken on these has substantially reduced the capacity of roads in London and is increasing congestion. For example, on Lower Thames Street, they must all have died of carbon monoxide poisoning long since. The bike lanes have been sectioned off so they cannot be used by other traffic under any circumstances.
I spend a great deal of my time in The Hague in Holland, and bicycle ownership per head there is far greater than it is here. They have bicycle lanes but they have not found it necessary to cordon them off in the way which is done in London, and they therefore have not suffered from the problems which we are suffering from. They back up the lack of barriers by a law which says that if you are a motorist and hit a cyclist, it is automatically your fault. However suicidal the cyclist may be, that law is enforced. None the less, their approach to bicycle lanes has been vastly better than the one which we have adopted in London.
I do not know what we can do about the situation. It is going to be very difficult, given the huge amount of money being spent on bicycle lanes, to put the matter right. We have seriously to argue, given that the number of cyclists using them outside the rush hour is very small, whether some forms of vehicles should be able to use them during the off-peak periods. It is also arguable that there is a serious problem here as far as emergency services are concerned, if there is a terrorist attack, because of the lack of space on the roads for emergency vehicles to get to any particular incident.
Thirdly, I turn to the question of buses. A few days ago I had occasion to drive from Westminster to Dulwich by way of the Oval and Camberwell Green. I had a very long journey with masses of pollution, and the reason was that there were enormous queues of buses. It was the middle of the day and there was virtually no one in them. The queue was some seven or eight buses long. Some of the buses were duplicate numbers because the old story, “You wait for hours and then they all arrive together”, is certainly true. It seems clear to me that the number of buses polluting and causing congestion in the middle of the day ought to be reduced, but there appears to be no plan for organising them in a way that would ensure that we did not get vast queues of buses causing problems.
Lastly, I turn, as my noble friends did earlier, to the question of minicabs. I found to my surprise some time ago that there is apparently no one who is able to control the number of minicabs. Minicabs now are not the old traditional kind of locally based cabs; they tend to be, as noble Lords have already referred to, Uber, an organisation that I believe is banned in a number of countries. There is an enormous increase in the number of minicabs adding to congestion. I do not know whether the Minister can tell us how many minicabs are now on the roads, what the increase has been and how that compares to the number of black cabs, but it is becoming a serious problem and adding to congestion.
Overall it is very difficult to raise these matters with Transport for London. More and more it is the case that TfL has become largely unaccountable. For example, I do not really know how one can get in touch with it about a specific blockage or roadworks not being worked on. TfL needs a helpline that would enable people to ring in and bring to its attention the many ways in which congestion is increasing in London, because one cannot get at the people who are responsible for controlling these matters.
Again, I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate. It has been extremely helpful. I hope we will manage to get a better policy regarding traffic in London.
My Lords, I welcome the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Borwick. Air pollution is now an intrinsic aspect of most large cities around the world. It damages the environment and greatly affects the health and habits of citizens as well as the operation of the city’s transport and other operations, and even the economic functioning of major cities. The important point for this debate, which focuses on London, is to realise how air pollution is quite complex and keeps changing, as urban citizens have experienced and protested about around the world. I declare my interests as a director of a small environmental company, a former president of the National Society for Clean Air and a former director of the Met Office.
My own experience began in the London smog of December 1952, when thousands of open fires in Whitehall offices, where my father worked, were belching out so much smoke that it was dark at midday. However, medical research—which I studied a bit because I used to lecture on this—showed that the carboxyhaemoglobin in the blood of policemen actually decreased during four hours of traffic duty. This is a little quiz: why? Because those policemen were not smoking. This showed that four hours in the worst air pollution that we could ever have was a lot healthier than four hours’ smoking.
The health effects of the 1952 smog were very serious, of course, particularly for non-smokers, with hundreds of thousands of people dying prematurely from asthma and other lung diseases. After the clean air legislation in 1966, coal burning was progressively replaced by cleaner oil heating and by vehicles producing fewer particles in their exhausts. Urban pollution became less visible but, by the 1970s, different gaseous pollutants in the urban atmosphere, such as nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, were increasing. These were produced more by road vehicles than by the reducing number of local power stations, which had been important in earlier times.
Photochemical reactions stimulated by solar radiation produced ozone and nitrogen dioxide and a yellowish haze in the atmosphere, which was extremely bad for some people’s breathing and produced serious associated health effects. As European urban pollution was beginning to resemble that in the United States, where they were familiar with the phenomenon in Los Angeles, the health standards for acceptable levels of air pollution in Europe were established, based on advice from the World Health Organization.
Europe introduced selective subsidies for particular types of vehicle engine, based on differing environmental criteria. European Governments also focused on reducing adverse climate impact associated with carbon dioxide emissions by subsidising and encouraging the use of diesel engines, even though this amplified other pollutants with significant health effects, as other noble Lords have commented. Different standards were adopted in Japan in the 1980s, where diesel engines for private vehicles were banned, as I noted in my visits—and I never bought a diesel car. In 2016, the UK Government changed their policy to discourage diesel private cars—but diesel car tax still tends to be lower than petrol car tax.
The next important policy change was to focus on measuring and then reducing the concentration of vehicles producing air pollution in city centres and other locations of higher pollution, such as highways, crossroads and around airports and ships—as the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, commented. The research showed how air pollution from road vehicles breathed by people in the streets and in vehicles was highly concentrated in such locations, because the pollution was emitted near the ground—as other noble Lords have commented—quite unlike the pollutants dispersed from rooftops and power stations before the 1960s, which effectively spread all over the city. These low-level emissions of pollution meant that cleaner, healthier areas could be established in cities where concentrations were markedly lower, and this has benefited cyclists. But children walking in streets next to traffic are exposed to high concentrations, as has also been mentioned.
There is a terrible story of an eight year-old child living near a very busy crossroads in Beijing, which was reported in all the newspapers in Asia. This child was found to be suffering from lung cancer at that age because of the very high concentration of pollutants on the crossroads where she lived. In the UK, particulates will become more of a threat in future.
I should say that the European Environment Agency, the director of which is a British colleague of mine, reported on its website in November 2016 that air quality was slowly improving all across Europe, but that it is a large health hazard. The figure it gave last November was 467,000 deaths per year.
Following other countries, UK legislation enabled London in 2003 and other cities to restrict private traffic in such critical areas by the congestion charge, while allowing public vehicles and taxis to avoid the charge. As the London Taxi Association, which I spoke to, emphasised, this policy has not produced smooth running of traffic or low air pollution. Excessive numbers of minicabs—50,000 was the number I heard—and goods vehicles are permitted, with high pollution emissions, as has happened in the past two years.
Apparently, from a reply to my recent PQ, HMG have no policy to limit the number of road vehicles—not even in urban areas. Is this really true? In other words, are we just to have more, more and more traffic with no limits? Is there no policy even to think about a limit? Perhaps the Minister could clarify that point.
There are other ways in which the impact of air pollution could be minimised. In London, individuals and the public are provided with current air pollution information and forecasts for the next day or two ahead. For example, there is www.airtext.info—and I declare an interest as helping in that. That is provided by local authorities in London and also used by the Mayor of London’s office. By the way, the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, could download it if he wanted to; he commented that he was unable to find information about air pollution every day, but it is there. That information can enable those suffering from health effects to use drugs or other remedial measures, such as dealing with their exercise or not going out. Regional forecasts are also provided by the UK Met Office and the European Centre in Reading.
Over the longer term, urban government organisations should relate their consideration of air pollution to the future development of their cities and regions. In recent decades, London has been successful in its development of Docklands and the green and water spaces for the Olympic areas, although it has not been so successful in its multistorey housing, in making London greener or in transport planning, as other noble Lords have commented. For the future, we should expect lower pollution from ground-level and underground transport and from aviation transport, together with electric propulsion. If vehicle emissions cannot be suppressed, there should be high-tech cleaners within buildings to reduce air pollution. Dyson now has this invention, which is widely used in Asia.
For the future, there need to be more effective fora for all the interconnecting aspects of the London environment—perhaps like the high-level academic and government conference held at UCL in 2002, which also included schoolchildren and then then Mayor of London. We need more such events.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was right to remind the House that London is in breach of EU standards, but let us put that in perspective. London is not alone in the UK, and its air quality is better than the other great capital cities of Europe, such as Paris, Brussels, Rome, Madrid and Athens. This is a European problem as well as a London problem, and it affects the other parts of the UK.
Much has been done in the last 70 years to improve air quality. It has been a long-standing problem, and noble Lords have referred to that—but even though air quality is hugely improved on what it used to be, I still noticed the difference when I commuted regularly down from Scotland to London on Monday morning, and was very pleased to get back up north on Friday.
We tackled the smog problem, and I recall being the Minister in charge when we did great things on unleaded petrol and the large plants directive regarding emissions from power stations, and things like that—all improving air quality. I say to my noble friend that he should not expect any thanks from the environmental lobby. It will criticise, criticise, criticise, and as soon as you do what it wants it will not thank you—it will go and find something else to berate you about.
We then move on to carbon dioxide and the Labour Government making their mistake about diesel cars. A few years ago, when I was on Sub-Committee D, the EU Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy Committee, I tried to persuade everybody that we ought to do a report on air pollution—but as we had just taken on energy we thought that would be a more appropriate subject. I wish that we had done air pollution, as I wanted.
Now the focus has moved to nitrogen dioxide—I shall call it NOx from now on—and particulates. Undoubtedly, there is a problem, but there is considerable hype and scaremongering on this matter. It is important to base action on facts. I thoroughly support what my noble friend Lord Borwick said, and thank him for introducing this debate. We must have better research and facts. It cannot be easy for any Government to take action when you have companies such as Volkswagen producing misleading figures and local authorities not reporting them. If local authorities are not reporting them in the UK, just think how much worse it is in Europe.
Tackling the problem that we face with air pollution in London has to be done at all levels. It has to be done at international level—and by that I mean the EU. It has to be taken at national level, by our Government, and at local level through the local authorities. We as individuals all have an important role to play. We need to take far more responsibility for our decisions. There are EU directives in force, but because of lack of facts it is debatable how far they are applied and agreed to at the moment. The Government have legislation in place and only in May this year they issued the clean air zone framework.
With most air pollution in London coming from diesel vehicles, the Government have a definite, important role because they can alter vehicle excise duty and tilt it towards getting us all to use better, non-polluting, zero-emission cars. I do not support the idea that has been mooted of a diesel scrappage scheme. I have a diesel car, but diesel cars are not great offenders in this problem: there are many worse polluters. If the Government are going to spend taxpayers’ money, they should give it to encourage a range of technologies and let the private sector develop those best suited for the future. Do not pick winners.
I too ask my noble friend whether the Clean Air Act 1993 is still fit for purpose or if it is time it was updated and a new Bill brought forward. No noble Lord has referred to what I thought was a very good report by the Institute for Public Policy Research on solving London’s air pollution crisis. Interestingly, it makes most of its recommendations at local level, for the mayor and the 32 boroughs of London. On the subject of what the mayor should do, it should be remembered that not all the pollution is London-generated. About 75% of the particulates which affect London actually come in from outside its boundaries. The causes of pollution vary between central London and Greater London and, therefore, the problem has to be addressed in different ways. For instance, NOx from aviation and railways affects Greater London but has minimal effect on inner London. However, as other noble Lords have said, road transport is the prime offender and, within that sector, TfL buses are the main culprits. TfL is the responsibility of the mayor: how will my noble friend hold him to account on implementing the necessary strategies which should be done at local level, not by the Government?
After buses, the next worst polluters—which no noble Lord has mentioned—are our own domestic gas appliances. It is the responsibility of all of us to update our appliances, in particular our boilers. Does my noble friend have any suggestions as to how this can best be done? Is there a Government scheme that is going to encourage or persuade us to update our gas appliances, which are huge contributors to the NOx problem? That is a situation in which we as individuals have a role to play. There has been talk of public health and children; the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, mentioned it in relation to Putney. Have noble Lords ever stood back and looked at people standing at a traffic-light level crossing? They are all on the traffic verge, practically in the road, absorbing all the fumes. A few sensible ones are standing at the back of the pavement: even three yards would make a huge difference to a child’s health. We do not seem to understand the fairly obvious thing: you want to get away but when the lights go green you still have plenty of time to cross.
I agree with a lot of what my noble friend Lord Blencathra said about cycle lanes in London: they increase congestion. My noble friend Lord Higgins was absolutely right to say that this is a huge problem for the emergency services. This problem will increase and we will suffer from not only the bicycle lanes—and more are going be put in—but the indignity of the whole thing being ripped up in the not too distant future. Solving our air pollution problem is not a quick and easy matter; it is a long-term process. All Governments have tried hard to do it, some more effectively than others. My noble friend and his department will try hard. What we need to do is give him every support to do so at the national level and encourage the mayor in particular to tackle it at a local level and drive this forward.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, on achieving this debate. It has been an excellent debate with lots of interesting comments and statements.
I start by paying tribute to Simon Birkett, who runs Clean Air in London. He has kept air pollution in the public eye and produced a mass of statistics over many years. If we are to have a sensible debate about air pollution, we have to have the right data. Simon has recently produced what I think he calls a Birkett app. If you have the right type of phone, you can look at the Birkett IndexTM—I suppose that means trade mark—which gives the air pollution levels and the percentage of deaths attributable to PM 2.5 in local authorities and regions of the UK. Simon looks at the average over 10 years or so of deaths attributed to different public health risks. Smoking comes top with 80,000 in England. Air pollution comes second with 29,000 in the UK, so it is not totally comparable. Alcoholism accounts for 15,000 to 22,000 deaths, obesity 9,000 and road traffic accidents just under 2,000. It is important for people to understand the comparators and where the data have come from if we are to have a proper debate.
All the arguments focus on the need to reduce traffic, particularly in London. It is interesting to note that a lot of noble Lords have talked about ways to reduce other people’s traffic so that they can get through quicker, which is a natural reaction. However, we have to ask ourselves whether we have the right to drive in London where and when we like, probably at minimum cost to ourselves. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, talked about roadworks. However, I think that some of those around Parliament recently have been caused by the utility companies, which are a bit of a law unto themselves.
As many noble Lords know, I am a cyclist. Cyclists have come in for a bit of a bashing tonight from a number of noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, talked about cycling in The Hague. I have cycled in The Hague and it is very nice. There are some cycle lanes and places where you can feel safe. However, one of the things about The Hague is that there is not much traffic around, and that must make it a great deal safer. I cycled across Paris a couple of weeks ago between the Gare du Nord and the Gare du Midi. There is a segregated cycle lane most of the way, very like the cycle lanes here. However, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, correctly said, the law is different on the continent. If a cyclist gets hit by a vehicle, I think that the driver of the vehicle is already at least 50% liable before the circumstances are investigated. A long time ago in your Lordships’ House, I suggested that we should change the law here. I was given a pretty rough time by some of the Law Lords, who said that would mean that somebody was guilty before they were proved innocent, or the other way round. But it has contributed to the antipathy, which is often there, between cyclists and motorists. It would be much better if there were no antipathy and everybody behaved with respect to other road users. One of the cycling groups I am involved in is starting a campaign to persuade cars to keep at least a metre and a half clear of cyclists on main roads. In London that is of course impossible, because there is too much congestion. However, we have to look at all the types of traffic here. Buses have come in for a lot of abuse today too. Trains have not been abused yet—I will talk about them in a minute.
In the rush hour, that cycle lane along the embankment is very full and congested; I sometimes feel in danger going down it, while at other parts of the day it is less congested, as are the buses and the roads. However, the benefits of cycling start and finish with people not feeling frightened on a bicycle, and the segregation achieves that. They made a mess of the cycle lanes through the Royal Parks, which is one of the reasons why there has been a delay in Great George Street; the Royal Parks bit of the cycle lane was about two years late, whatever you think about it, and that has caused a lot of problems. It is the same with buses; if we had electric buses, people would use them. The concentration of people you can get in a train, a bus or a cycle lane is rather higher than you can get in one car. I therefore come back to the question: should we not restrict people’s ability to drive their own cars around London and other cities?
Nobody has criticised white vans or trucks yet, but maybe some of my colleagues will do that in winding up. They also cause quite a lot of pollution. I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. We are trying quite hard to get more freight on the rails into city centres. Sometimes it comes in passenger trains, sometimes in roll cages—such as supermarkets have delivered—or in the guards’ vans of trains; there are various examples of that, including crabs and lobsters from Penzance. However, where do you transfer the freight from the train into, hopefully, an electric vehicle or possibly even for cycle delivery for the last few miles into the centre of London? That would create a large reduction in emissions, but there needs to be somewhere to transfer the freight, such as a consolidation centre. The cost of land around the mainline stations is high, and that challenge has not yet been addressed.
The last aspect is the building sector. There are concrete mixing plants, which everybody sees around London and other big cities; there is a big one just outside St Pancras station, which supplies a large amount of concrete buildings in London—it might even supply HS2, if it gets built from Euston. The materials come in by rail—that is quite environmentally friendly—but then you have big concrete trucks going around London. They are diesels, and generally pretty efficient, but it is difficult to know how that could be transferred to electric in the short term anyway. But the biggest problem we have is in the link between the policies and the planning, which is a problem in London and many other places.
I will give an example. We have talked about the ultra-low emission zones in London, we have plans to ban older HGVs from London, which is probably a good thing, and there is the transport strategy. However, while the transport strategy acknowledges the future needs of housing and infrastructure development—which means all these building materials—in over 200 pages it includes not a single reference to air quality and the congestion benefits of rail freight. That seems a bit odd.
The last point relating to this issue is that there are many little concrete batching plants around Greater London. The railway delivers the aggregate and sometimes the cement as well, and it is mixed on site and delivered locally, but there are more and more cases, including in Stratford and Bow in east London, where local authorities allow residential developments next door to these plants. The residents then obviously complain about the noise and dust, and they want them closed down. We either have these little terminals around London and city centres that can receive the materials by rail from the batching plants, which make the asphalt and so on, or they are brought in from 50 or 100 miles away by truck. It is a planning and policy issue, and I hope that when the Minister responds, he will say that he will look at it again. I hope that we can have a meeting about it later because it is quite a serious problem. There are these lovely terminals, which have been there for years—working 24/7, as they have to—and then people build a house or a block of flats next door to them and the residents complain and want to restrict the opening hours of the works.
I have very much enjoyed listening to and participating in this debate, and I look forward to the noble Lord’s answers.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, for raising this important topic.
Many noble Lords in this debate have referred to the health issues associated with high levels of air pollution. Although there is a very good case for needing more research, a lot of statistics are available that make a strong case for being seriously worried about the health implications of the current situation. Road transport is responsible for many of the current problems. Diesel creates 40% of London’s nitrogen oxide emissions and PM—particulate matter—creates a similar level of emissions across London. It is not just a case of having difficulty in breathing, as one might immediately think; these emissions also cause heart attacks, as the British Heart Foundation makes clear. In London, three-quarters of a million people have cardiovascular disease, and research shows a strong link between ultra-fine PM and poor cardiovascular health.
So far, the attention given to NOx levels has been focused only on where we have breached EU levels, but even short-term inhalation of high levels of PM increases the risk of heart disease within 24 hours of exposure. The UK’s current legal limits for PM are much less stringent than the World Health Organization recommends, and the WHO says that there is no safe minimum level of PM that can be inhaled.
I take this opportunity to emphasise the importance of the role of the EU, as the noble Baroness did earlier. The big question that I ask myself is: would there have been anything like the emphasis on air pollution that we see today if it had not been for EU emission levels?
On these Benches, we largely support the actions taken by the Mayor of London. We support his ideas for an ultra-low emission zone and additional charges for polluting vehicles, but we believe that even more should be done. In one important respect, we part company with Sadiq Khan, and that is in his support for a new Silvertown road tunnel. This would simply generate even more traffic. What we need in London is more public transport river crossings and more walking and cycling bridges east of Tower Bridge, not another bridge to take yet more traffic.
The Liberal Democrats went into the election with a comprehensive plan for tackling these problems, not just in London but throughout the UK, because it needs a comprehensive approach. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that road traffic needs to be deterred; it needs to be excluded at some times of the day. Diesel needs to be discouraged and phased out, and alternatives need to be encouraged. It is a complex issue because some things can be done immediately—for example, a ban on idling vehicles could be done almost instantly and air pollution signage in polluted hot spots could also be done very quickly. We need to make sure that there is more thorough and effective monitoring. Other actions would take a bit longer, such as the introduction of a targeted diesel scrappage scheme—which we support—with a requirement that, in order to participate, you need to replace your diesel with an ultra-low emission vehicle. I declare my usual interest as the owner of an electric car.
It would take longer, of course, to insist that charging plugs for electric vehicles are a universal shape but, as someone who regularly suffers from what is called “range anxiety” when I am in my electric car, I am very pleased to see that that proposal is in the Government’s Bill on this issue. I am also pleased to see that there are other proposals to encourage a wider number of electric charging points. In Canada, they use lamp-posts for electric vehicle charging points; that would be one way of opening up the ownership of electric vehicles to people who do not happen to have a drive. Why should ownership of electric vehicles be restricted to people in one sort of housing?
Increased congestion is, of course, a huge problem. It is the source of many of the problems we face, and tackling it is vital. The plethora of private hire vehicles, with the popularity of Uber, has had a major impact. The rules for London taxis state that, from this year, all new cabs should be zero emission. I believe that should apply to all private hire vehicles within, say, five years.
Also causing congestion is the growth in home deliveries. There are lots of solutions to the problem of the white van coming to deliver your parcel from Amazon or whoever—there are drones and, I saw in the newspaper last week, electric bikes with a cab on the back for small deliveries. There is the possibility of delivering outside busy hours or delivering not necessarily to your home or your office but to collection points. There is no reason why small vans should not switch to electricity fairly rapidly, but HGVs and large vans are a problem. One answer has to be hydrogen, another has to be biofuels and rail freight is obviously important.
The same applies to buses. At the moment, electric buses are relatively heavy and can have a limited range, but there are options available and the technology is moving very fast. In Britain, electric bus orders are in the low-single and double digits in most places. However, in China in the city of Changsha there are 14,000 electric buses either on the streets already or on order. TfL has a massive network of more than 9,000 buses. Removing all the diesel buses from London would have a significant impact on air quality. It is a pity that TfL has been slow in rolling this out, although it is doing some good work now.
I do not join the chorus of anti-cycling comments we have heard today. It is vital that we encourage more cycling and more walking. I am always interested in the criticism of cycle lanes because it was Boris Johnson’s big idea. Too much blame goes to poor old TfL, which is carrying out his instructions. However, they are making a real difference in encouraging new people on to bikes, and many of those new people are cycling to work and no longer driving their cars. That is important.
There are two other problems. One is the need to find an alternative to diesel auxiliary engines used for refrigeration in, for example, supermarket lorries. Transport refrigeration units are not included in the terms of the clean air zones or in London’s ultra-low emission zone. However, it is vital that they are included in the future because they are disproportionate emitters of both NOx and PM. If a truck has a diesel TRU, its overall NOx emissions are likely to be as much as six times higher than an ordinary truck, and its PM will be up to 30 times higher. Such trucks are serious polluters. The Government should prohibit the use of red diesel in auxiliary TRUs and abolish the perverse subsidy for the use of red diesel.
Ships are also a problem. Mention has been made already of cruise ships. There is an article in the Times today which emphasises this issue, highlighting heavy levels of pollution from ships. Any new wharfs for liners berthing in the Thames should use offshore electric power.
None of the plans for Heathrow show the kind of revolution that London needs in order to avoid pollution from the surface transport that will be needed and generated by a third runway. There is serious work to do on this.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, for instigating this debate today and for once again giving us the opportunity to take stock of the action we still need to take on this critical threat to public health in London and the UK. I agree with a great deal of what he said, and in particular with his analysis that we should base our policy on the best scientific evidence available. However, that should not be an excuse for inaction. I think his message was that we should have both—and I agree with that. I am also grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. As ever, we have had a debate of considerable knowledge and authority.
I disagree with the several noble Lords who think that the problem is cyclists, buses and even pedestrians getting too close to the kerb rather than private car owners. The solution in city centres is a rebalancing of all of that. It is not just about tackling air quality but is a bigger issue of quality of life. As long as we have private cars driving into and clogging up city centres, they will not be pleasant places to live and work. That is a real challenge for us. We have to rebalance that in everyone’s interests.
I declare an interest. I am a member of the development board of ClientEarth, the environmental legal charity that has been pursuing the Government through the courts on this issue. I am proud of the work that it does, both in the UK and globally, in holding Governments to account for delivering their environmental obligations under existing laws. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that I do not think any environmental charity has to apologise for the laudable objective of trying to save the planet.
As noble Lords will know, ClientEarth has been able to demonstrate to a number of courts, including the Supreme Court, that since 2010 the UK has had illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air. Over this period, the Government have done little to tackle the problem. The courts, quite rightly, ruled that as the Government are already in breach of the legislation, they have a duty to get the levels of nitrogen dioxide down below the legal limits in the shortest possible time. To do that clearly requires urgent action on a scale deliverable in that shortest possible time and technically evidenced to show that the return to legal limits is indeed a likely outcome.
Noble Lords would have thought, given the public health implications, which are well known, that the Government would have shared this sense of urgency and acted appropriately. Instead, as we know, various draft air quality plans have been produced that, it is obvious to most observers and to the courts, only partly address the problem. They lack sufficient urgency and are based on unsubstantiated assumptions. I argue that the latest draft again fails to meet the very reasonable tests that have been set. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and other noble Lords in asking why the Government are still dragging their feet on this.
The latest draft air quality plan—which, incidentally, the courts had to insist was published—sets out proposals for clean air zones in the most highly polluting towns and cities in England. It is at best a partial response. For example, it does not address similar issues in the devolved nations. In addition, the Government’s own technical support, which accompanied the draft plan, makes it clear that charging vehicles entering clean air zones is the most effective way of reducing pollution. But the Government are failing to heed their own technical advice. Instead, their draft plan says that charging should be introduced only as a last resort. Equally, the draft fails to offer increases to vehicle tax for polluting vehicles, or a targeted diesel scrappage scheme. The Government’s lack of leadership on this and the Prime Minister’s continued reluctance to act on diesel cars means that thousands of lives will continue to be put at risk.
Why is this so important? A number of noble Lords have drawn attention to the growing evidence of poor health and premature deaths linked to polluted air. I welcome my noble friend Lady Blackstone to her role at the British Lung Foundation, which has done a considerable amount of work over many years to raise awareness of the health dangers. There have been various statistics quoted about the health dangers. King’s College London estimates that there are 9,416 deaths a year in London alone and we know that children’s health is particularly vulnerable to damage from exposure to traffic fumes. Evidence shows that such exposure reduces lung growth, produces long-term ill health and can cause premature death in young people. Yet at least 3,000 schools are sited within 150 metres of a road emitting illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. The issue is stark and clear.
Meanwhile, British Heart Foundation research has shown that even short-term inhalation of air pollution can significantly increase the chance of a heart attack among those living with cardiovascular disease. As we also heard, the latest research from scientists at Lancaster University has shown that tiny particles of air pollution can even find their way into brain tissue, with all the additional health threats that that entails. All of that reinforces the growing public health concerns about the damage that nitrogen dioxide and particulates can inflict, and makes a mockery of the comments of the GLA’s Conservative adviser Adam Wildman, who wrote of a,
“pollution panic … not borne out by the evidence”.
What needs to be done to bring vehicle emissions to safe levels? I pay absolute credit to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who, unlike the Government, has shown real leadership and is taking tough decisions to clean up the air in London. As we have heard, he has set out plans to make the congestion charge zone a zero-emission zone as soon as possible. He has also set out plans to make London a world leader in clean and sustainable urban transport—both public and private vehicles. More immediately, he is introducing an additional charge for the most polluting diesel vehicles. Incidentally, a recent YouGov poll for ClientEarth showed that more than two-thirds of Londoners believe that owners of higher-polluting vehicles should pay more to travel through London.
The mayor has also raised public awareness of the health risks through mass public information and a new air pollution alert system. All these factors are to be celebrated. Some individual local authorities are also taking matters seriously. Lambeth already has advanced clean-air plans and a range of concrete measures to cut down on car use in its locality. Westminster has introduced £80 fines for drivers caught with idling engines, and there were calls for no-idling zones to be made compulsory outside schools, hospitals and care homes. However, lest we become complacent about this, and as the Library Note helpfully states, many other local authorities are failing even to capture the existing pollution data that they are required to measure under law, let alone taking action to clean up their air pollution levels.
That brings us back to the need for national leadership and a robust plan of action—a point emphasised by many noble Lords. It is clear that the Government need once again to revise their draft air quality plan so that it properly delivers a return to lawful nitrogen dioxide levels across the UK in the shortest possible time. That plan should also include, first, a recognition that local authorities will need help—they cannot do it on their own, as the Government would have them do; there is no point in devolving responsibility to them without help. I agree with my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord Berkeley that an overall reduction in the number of road vehicles has to be part of that solution, particularly in those clean-air zones.
Secondly, while clean-air zones are necessary, they cannot be limited to a select number of towns and cities. There is a danger that such an approach will simply shift the problem elsewhere. As we heard, car fumes do not stay in one area; they move with the wind from one part of the country to another. Thirdly, we need to ensure that motor manufacturers are forced to give accurate test results for emission levels which can be properly verified in everyday road settings. The fact that VW and other manufacturers tricked the Government in the past has still not properly been addressed. What action are the Government taking to tackle that previous subterfuge and introduce proper penalties for any future transgressions by those manufacturers?
Fourthly, we need a scrappage scheme for the most polluting diesel vehicles, increased charges on diesel fuel and greater incentives for car purchasers to opt for low-emission vehicles. Finally and crucially, we need a new clean air Act which could consolidate the complex and disparate body of domestic, EU and international law into one coherent and effective piece of legislation. This would ensure that air quality targets are in force when we leave the EU and give the public confidence that their health concerns are at last being addressed. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too am most grateful to my noble friend for securing the debate. The need to improve air quality is of paramount importance. I have listened carefully to your Lordships, bringing their immense commitment and experience to this debate—although, intriguingly, not with universally shared views. I will of course answer as many questions as I can and promise that on all those questions that I do not answer I will write in detail and as soon as I can to all Members who have participated.
The air that we breathe is vital to everyday life, so its cleanliness is an imperative and it is now for us to grasp this continuing challenge. Air quality has improved significantly over recent decades through the regulatory frameworks that successive Governments have put in place and significant investment from industry. This began with the Clean Air Act 1956 before the UK joined the European Union and will continue after it leaves. I know there have been a number of calls for a new clean air Act. The truth is that there is already extensive existing legislation in place to support action to improve air quality. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, asked what will happen after we leave the European Union. Our strong commitment remains to improve air quality and this will continue after the UK leaves the EU. The great repeal Bill will ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in our own domestic law.
My noble friend Lord Higgins raised the fact that in the last four decades the UK has reduced emissions of all the major five air pollutants. Sulphur dioxide emissions have decreased by 95%, particulate matter by 73% and nitrogen oxides by 69%. This is progress but more must surely be done.
London faces the greatest challenge because of the size and complexity of the capital’s transport networks. Although London has the largest low-emission zone in the world and the largest hybrid bus fleet in Europe, air quality is poorer in London than anywhere else in the country. There were over 4 billion passenger journeys in London in 2014-15, and the figure is expected to grow to almost 4.5 billion by 2020-21. London bus passenger journeys alone totalled over 2.4 billion in 2015-16. This number is greater than the rest of England combined. Only 15% of England’s population live in London but 60% of rail travel starts, ends or passes through the capital. My noble friend Lord Caithness alluded to this.
Tackling poor air quality in all its forms is a top priority. The current focus is, quite rightly, on the Government’s most immediate air quality challenge: to reduce concentrations of nitrogen dioxide around roads. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, referred to this. Yet many everyday activities such as industrial activity, farming, heating homes and generating energy also make a significant contribution to harmful air pollution. So, in addition to urgent action to tackle nitrogen dioxide hot-spots around roads, we need to reduce harmful emissions of other air pollutants. That is why the United Kingdom recently adopted ambitious, legally binding international commitments to reduce emissions of five damaging air pollutants by 2020 and 2030.
A modern economy needs to be a clean one and the Government are determined to build this stronger economy. As we develop our industrial strategy, we must take into account the need for cleaner air and the opportunities presented by moving to a cleaner economy. However, we can all make cost-effective changes to secure cleaner cities and a clean, green economy. Indeed, I applaud the anti-idling campaign days that Westminster City Council successfully introduced, reducing harmful emissions through prompting a simple behavioural change. The noble Baronesses, Lady Blackstone and Lady Valentine, mentioned that. Local authorities have powers to address idling and issue on-the-spot fines. I think that point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.
Almost all your Lordships mentioned the largest environmental risk to public health in the United Kingdom: poor air quality. Tonight, we have stalwarts of the British Lung Foundation and those who understand the impact on heart disease, and I thoroughly endorse all that your Lordships said. This issue contributes to the cutting short of thousands of lives every year. It appears to be a particular threat to the elderly, the very young and those with existing health issues. Those living in city centres, often on the lowest incomes, are most exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.
My department works closely with the Department of Health, Public Health England and their advisers, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. My noble friend Lord Borwick and others referred to research. The committee regularly reviews the latest research and the department reflects its guidance in its policy-making. The air quality expert group also considers current knowledge on air pollution and provides independent advice to the department on the levels, sources and characteristics of air pollutants in the United Kingdom. Daily air quality forecasts provide accompanying health messages to the public, based on the expertise of Public Health England. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, for expanding on this, and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for referring to the Birkett app.
The Government are revising their national air quality plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide, particularly to take account of recent updates in data on emissions from diesel vehicles. The consultation on our revised plan ended on 15 June. We are considering all responses very carefully, including a comprehensive one from the Mayor of London, and will use them to shape the final plan, which we will publish by 31 July. The noble Baronesses, Lady Blackstone and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to vehicle excise duty. The Government will continue to explore appropriate tax treatment for diesel vehicles and will engage with stakeholders ahead of making any tax changes in the Budget this autumn.
Local solutions, based on local knowledge, will always be the best way to achieve improvements in air quality in local areas. Our plan makes it clear that the Government will work closely with local authorities to develop the right solution for their areas. We will work with them to develop and implement measures that will achieve the desired outcomes in the shortest possible time. The plan, and the clean air zone framework that accompanies it, will empower local authorities to make targeted interventions, ensuring that actions have an impact on those areas where nitrogen oxide emissions are highest. The main focus of the plan is tackling nitrogen dioxide but clean air zones aim to address all sources of pollution, including particulate matter. A third of emissions are not transport-related and have an equal component of emissions from gas and non-road mobile machinery, particularly construction machinery.
Tackling air pollution in London is crucial and the Government continue to work closely with the Greater London Authority and the mayor’s air quality adviser. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will meet the mayor shortly specifically to discuss air quality matters. Both the previous and current mayor have taken steps to tackle air quality, between them putting in place a host of London-wide measures to improve air quality and reduce pollution from vehicles, including agreeing the world’s first ultra-low emission zone, cleaning up the bus and taxi fleet, and encouraging more people to take up cycling and walking.
The mayor is putting his significant powers to good use by implementing a broad range of actions to bring nitrogen dioxide levels within legal limits within the shortest possible time. These include: the introduction of an emissions surcharge; launching an ultra-low emission zone in 2019; spending more than £300 million transforming London’s bus fleet, with a commitment to purchase only hybrid or zero-emission double-decker buses from 2018; and requiring all new taxis to be zero-emission capable from 2018. Most recently, the mayor has committed, in his recently published draft transport strategy, to rolling out a series of zero-emission zones in London between 2025 and 2050.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was absolutely right to refer to the balance between national and local. Nationally, the Government have committed more than £2 billion since 2011 to promote the use of ultra-low emission vehicles and support greener transport schemes. We will invest more than £600 million in ultra-low emission vehicles from 2015-20, with a further £270 million announced in the 2016 Autumn Statement. The Autumn Statement package will see £80 million invested in infrastructure, £150 million to support the adoption of the cleanest buses and taxis—my noble friend Lord Blencathra referred to the need for these—and £40 million towards the plug-in car grant.
My noble friend referred to taxis being ultra-low emission and so on. Will that also apply to so-called mini-cabs such as Uber?
To save time I will have to write to my noble friend because there is rather a detailed answer.
This investment will help us to continue to deliver one of the most comprehensive programmes of support for ultra-low emission vehicles in the world.
The Government have also taken steps to incentivise taxi drivers to update cars and have made £20 million available to local authorities to support the rollout of ultra-low emission taxis across the UK by reducing the upfront cost and installing charging infrastructure. Many local authorities across the UK, including the GLA, have benefited from this funding.
I welcome the new £325 million electric taxi factory which opened in Coventry earlier this year, supported by £16.1 million through the regional growth fund. The London Taxi Company factory will have the capacity to assemble more than 20,000 vehicles a year. It will develop the new TX5 model, a zero-emissions taxi, together with other hybrid technology vehicles. I very much hope that my noble friend Lord Borwick will not have to wait long for his own.
Thanks to government investment, a growing private sector and local authority engagement, the UK now has more than 11,000 publicly accessible charge points, including more than 900 rapid charge points that can charge an EV in 20 to 30 minutes. It is the largest network in Europe, but I was very struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said from her direct experience and insight. My noble friend Lord Blencathra and the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, referred to charge points. I am sure there is scope for many more.
A number of noble Lords raised VW, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. It is fair to say that the main reason for the difficulty in meeting nitrogen dioxide limit values is also the failure of European standards for diesel vehicles to deliver the expected reductions in NO2 emissions in real-world conditions. Since 2011, this country has been at the forefront of calls for action in the EU to secure more accurate, real-world emissions testing for diesel cars. This testing will come in from September this year, which I am sure will please the noble Baroness. The other point about VW is that the Government launched an investigation into the real-world emissions of a selection of diesel vehicles from across all main brands sold in the UK. We remain very vigilant and are working on VW.
A number of points were raised about cycling and walking, and I am not going to please any noble Lord because I think there is a balance in these matters. There are zealots who are bicyclists and zealots who are drivers. Indeed, if one prefers any sort of transport perhaps there is an abomination of all other sorts. Having ridden quite a few horses, I can observe on that as well.
To be serious, it is important that we encourage cycling and walking as an investment. It is not only healthy but important to well-being. Those who walk and cycle are avoiding shorter journeys by other means of transport and, as I heard from a noble Lord, they are perhaps avoiding longer journeys. The £1 billion of government funding made available to local authorities to invest in cycling and walking over the next five years will have an overall benefit, although I am very struck by something which we have all experienced: there have been snarls in some of the implementation, which were raised by my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Higgins. In the long term, the more people we can get cycling responsibly and walking, the better.
While road transport is the immediate challenge, it is not the whole picture and we need to work hard to tackle all sources of harmful emissions. The biggest source of harmful particulate matter emissions is the domestic burning of wood and coal. Wood-burning—I think the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to this—contributes between 7% to 9% of London’s fine particulate concentrations. We are working with stove manufacturers, fuel suppliers and retailers to identify where further improvements can be made.
We also know that the energy market is driving a rapid increase in the number and use of diesel generators, which the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and my noble friend Lord Borwick referred to. This is a concern, and we will shortly be publishing our response to our recent consultation on emission controls for stationary diesel generators. Non-road mobile machinery is another source of harmful emissions. London’s low emission zone for construction equipment is an approach that other local authorities may wish to consider. The Government are also keen to ensure that air pollution from ships is reduced, a point the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Randerson, referred to. I have read in my brief about some of the issues in Greenwich. We are signed up to international regulatory standards which will significantly reduce pollutant emissions from ships.
I am very struck by how localised this can be and how often a small piece of action can remove some of these hot spots. These are the areas that we should be looking at. I am also very struck by some of the references to the removal of, or a change to, a traffic light, or the removal of a hump in the road. Some of the microdetails can make a significant difference. We need to look at both the large-scale and the localised issues. We know that further cross-government action is required to deliver improvements in emissions from shipping. We will be working closely with other parts of government to make sure this happens.
My noble friend Lord Borwick asked about Crossrail. I assure him that dust management was included as an integral part of the design. I note the recent announcement and the new review of air pollution levels by the mayor on the Underground.
Much has been done to seek to improve the quality of our air, over quite a period of time, but there is, as I think we have all conceded—I sense the determination of your Lordships—still so much more that we want to and must do. The Mayor of London, and indeed all local authorities, already have a number of tools at their disposal to tackle air quality problems, and we will support them—but not by casting them loose, as I think some of your Lordships might be suggesting. This is going to be a joint initiative and action, but as I say, local authorities have within their powers the ability to do much, with national support as well.
As a number of your Lordships, particularly my noble friend Lord Caithness, said, these are issues where we all have a part to play as individuals: whether we are parents delivering children to school, who can avoid any idling beside the school; or any general idling of vehicles. There are so many ways in which we can change our behaviours to net benefit. Whether it is local businesses, schools, households or delivery services, we need to ensure that we do this and at the same time ensure that the world’s capital—which is how I consider London—is able to continue to prosper.
It is a key environmental objective of the department to secure cleaner air for everyone. It is by working together in partnership, at local and national level, that we can transform not just the quality of our air in London but the lives of millions of people across the UK. We have set ourselves the goal of being the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than the one we found it in. This is a big ambition, to which we remain committed and which, working together, we can and must achieve.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions and most of them for their very kind words about my calling this debate. I thank them all for spending so long on this immensely important subject. Knowing that it has kept us up later than our other causes would have done reminds me that we are actually all working on behalf of lung patients who spend many an evening up, unable to sleep and in pain. We around this House are united in saying that this is a serious subject that needs to be dealt with.
Many noble Lords mentioned cycle lanes. I want to mention a point that has not been made: demand for cycle lanes will change throughout the year. Bicycling in the middle of a snowstorm is a fairly dreadful experience, whereas of course cycling is extremely popular at this time of year. One of the problems with our bus lanes is that they are very fixed. I was very impressed with a Beijing solution of a movable picket fence that can be moved from side to side, making the bicycle lane either bigger or smaller at a moment’s notice. In fact, such a thing might be something that we could look at in the governance of our bicycle lanes; it would be a lot cheaper to build and to alter.
I thank all noble Lords again for their contribution and for joining me in agreeing on the importance of this subject. I beg to move.
House adjourned at 9.51 pm.