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Air Quality

Volume 787: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what short-term action they propose to take to improve air quality in Britain.

My Lords, we have committed £3.5 billion for air quality and cleaner transport. We are helping local authorities to tackle pollution hotspots and have allocated £255 million to accelerate local action to meet concentration limits. Ninety-two per cent of monitored roads will meet limits next year. We are investing in vehicle retrofitting, ultra-low emission vehicles, cycling and walking, and implementing tougher real driving emissions tests. Next year, our clean air strategy will outline how we will tackle air pollution more widely.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. However, will he confirm that, according to the United Nations, air quality in 44 of our towns and cities is such that it is too dangerous to breathe? According to the Royal College of Physicians, last year, the health impact of poor air quality was £20 billion. It is estimated that 50,000 people die each year from poor air quality, of whom 9,000 are in London. Surely we have to do more than the Minister has said the Government will do?

My Lords, the Government take this seriously because we are well aware of the health issues. This issue affects many countries; as the noble Lord will know, 17 other EU member states have the same problem with nitrogen dioxide. We are working very closely with local authorities, particularly those in which we need to make more rapid progress, to escalate the issue, because we are well aware of the health consequences. It is a very serious issue.

My Lords, will the Minister explain to the House whether there are ongoing discussions with motor manufacturers in the United Kingdom, particularly those—there are some—that offer only vehicles with diesel engines while exporting to other parts of the world with petrol engines in exactly the same vehicles? Is it not clear, particularly after what my noble friend Lord Dubs said, that oxides of nitrogen and other particulate matter from diesel engines are the biggest single threat to health in this country, particularly among children, who go to and from school and play and shop at street level, therefore risking damage to their health?

My Lords, I entirely agree with a lot of what the noble Lord said. That is precisely why this country intends to act and why we have invested in the ultra-low emissions vehicle regime. Importantly, we are in discussions with motor manufacturers because one of the problems we have had with nitrogen dioxide is that the driving emissions tests have been on a laboratory, not a real driving, basis. From September this year, all new cars will have to meet emissions limits in real driving conditions.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that diesel cars—I must confess that I drive one—are extremely important in rural areas and for people who drive long distances? Will he ensure that any future false reporting by manufacturers will be penalised, so that the vehicle driver is not left to pick up the pieces? Surely this is an area in which he can work very closely with BEIS.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very strong point. Manufacturers undoubtedly have a responsibility. What happened with Volkswagen was a disgrace. Clearly, we do not seek to punish those drivers who in good faith went for diesel, but there was a dash for diesel, which we all now very much regret.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the Government’s sum of £255 million to improve air quality. Is he aware that Transport for London has a budget of £875 million to improve air quality in London alone? Does he therefore accept that £255 million is a woefully inadequate sum if local authorities are to be enabled to improve air quality and the Government are truly to improve air quality across the whole country?

My Lords, I think I should repeat the first line of my reply: we have committed £3.5 billion for air quality and cleaner transport. We are helping 28 local authorities that need to accelerate their plans so that we can specifically tackle those hotspots. I reassure the noble Baroness that we are very much concentrating on this matter.

My Lords, since 2014 there have been 27 air pollution episodes. That does not sound particularly bad until you realise that one episode lasted 10 days, 300 people died and 1,600 people were admitted to hospital. There is currently no action plan in place for Public Health England. Will the Minister ask it to put one in place, as it does for hot and cold weather?

My Lords, obviously this is a matter on which we have to collaborate and we are, with both the Department of Health and the Department for Transport. Another issue for collaboration is that there are times when half the air pollution in this country comes from abroad. I suspect we send some to them. This is why international collaboration is also very important.

My Lords, the Minister spoke about working with local authorities. Will he be a little more specific about what the Government may outline for local authorities that have schools in very high traffic pollution areas, some of them with playing fields underneath motorway flyover areas?

My Lords, this is very important. The City of Westminster, for example, is concentrating on stopping idling engines outside schools. This is also an area where, under the Environment Act 1995, local authorities have duties to review and assess local air quality. There are provisions around schools, so this should and can be addressed.

My Lords, does the Minister accept Defra’s own modelling, which shows that the most effective measure to reach compliance with the law in the shortest possible time is to introduce charges for polluting cars entering designated clean air zones? Why do the Government not act on their own best advice and expect all polluting local authorities to act on it?

My Lords, under our arrangements in the air quality plan to do with nitrogen dioxide in particular, there are all sorts of ways local authorities can take action, and they have ability to create clean air zones. That is on the statute book and is something we are working on with local authorities. Clearly there will be highly localised solutions to some of these problems with nitrogen dioxide.

My Lords, is it worth reflecting on the fact that the last Labour Government cut the duty on diesel and encouraged us all to buy diesel cars? Will my noble friend not take lectures from Labour on what we should be doing?

My Lords, we now have to deal with a very serious issue. We are not compliant only on nitrogen dioxide; we are compliant in all other areas of air quality. This is one that we need to address. My noble friend is absolutely right that this problem has come about because we dashed for diesel. It is diesel vehicles that have caused the problems with nitrogen dioxide that we are now addressing.