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Air Quality (Designation of Relevant Public Authorities) (England) Regulations 2022

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 24 November 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Air Quality (Designation of Relevant Public Authorities) (England) Regulations 2022.

My Lords, this instrument designates National Highways as a relevant public authority under Part 4 of the Environment Act 1995 as amended by the Environment Act 2021. The effect of this is to place a duty on National Highways to collaborate with local authorities to achieve local air quality objectives.

Air pollution at a national level continues to reduce significantly, with nitrogen oxide levels down 44% and PM2.5 down 18% since 2010, but we know there is more to do. Road vehicles contribute to both nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 in our atmosphere and we are committed to driving down emissions across all modes of transport.

Although it is important that the Government continue to drive action to improve air quality nationally, it is also necessary that we enable local authorities to take meaningful action at a local level. Local authorities rightly have responsibility to review and assess air quality in their areas and to act when statutory air quality objectives are not met. Often, this requires working with partners, so already, through the Environment Act, we have created a more collaborative framework with the concept of air quality partners.

The Act requires all tiers of local government and the Environment Agency to work together, where appropriate, to meet air quality objectives. It also requires neighbouring local authorities to co-operate, where appropriate. The Act sets out powers for the Secretary of State to designate other relevant public authorities as air quality partners. Traffic on the strategic road network, for which National Highways is responsible, has in many cases resulted in local authorities not meeting their air quality objectives.

Following overwhelming support for designation from a public consultation, this instrument would therefore designate National Highways as an air quality partner, requiring it to collaborate with local authorities to address local air quality problems. Specifically, National Highways will be required to commit to relevant and proportionate actions to take for inclusion within local authority air quality action plans.

The actions National Highways will take will be for it to determine and will be consistent with its responsibilities under the road investment strategy. They could include speed restrictions, improvements to road infrastructure or signage to improve traffic flow. Together with clarified duties on upper-tier authorities, this will create a more collaborative framework, bringing all authorities with responsibility for our roads together to co-operate to address excess pollution.

Over the summer, the Government provided newly published guidance to local authorities on how they should work with air quality partners. We will also provide further statutory guidance to support collaborative working between local authorities and National Highways specifically.

In line with published guidance, there is no need to conduct an impact assessment for this instrument. This is because no, or no significant, impact on the private or voluntary sector is foreseen, as this instrument is limited to requiring action from National Highways.

The territorial extent of this instrument is England only, as air quality is a devolved policy area.

I hope your Lordships agree that these regulations are an important contribution to further strengthening the local air quality management framework to enable local action to reduce pollution and therefore reduce negative health impacts. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument. The quality of the air we breathe is essential for the population to remain healthy and fit. We have seen in press reports the effects that poor air quality can have on individuals, from minor ailments to life-threatening conditions, especially for young children.

Part IV of the Environment Act 1995 established the local air quality management framework. This requires local authorities to set an air quality management area whereby they assess air quality in their area and act if pollution levels reach a dangerous level. This is easier said than done. Local authorities find it difficult to achieve air quality management plans as there is often a lack of co-operation on the part of the polluter. This may be a road haulage business or a busy NHS hospital.

This instrument should ensure that National Highways plays a full part in implementing and supporting air quality management plans. The consultation that Defra conducted was extensive and well publicised. Not surprisingly, there was strong support for National Highways becoming the designated body to assist with improving air quality. It does, after all, construct the main highways running through or close to our communities.

Given local authority responsibility and National Highways involvement, one would imagine that close proximity to main road thoroughfares and highways would play an important part in the planning decisions for schools, nurseries and housing designated for young families. However, I fear that this is not always the case.

Although I accept that this instrument does not cover London, which comes under the remit of the Mayor of London, I was nevertheless horrified when the secondary school in London that I walk past on my way to the Tube station was remodelled, allowing it to take in a large number of extra pupils. No thought appeared to be given to the fact that the main entrance was yards away from a busy junction with traffic lights, with the exact time when the children were attending in the morning coinciding with the main commuter rush hour. The quality of the air these children were breathing must have been very poor. It was at least five years before the entrance for pupils was moved away from the main road to a subsidiary entrance round the corner and away from traffic, at the back of the school playground.

There will be many other such examples up and down the country where children and young people are exposed to unacceptable air pollution, which damages their health. Local authorities and National Highways both have a role to play here. Can the Minister give reassurances that this statutory instrument will improve outcomes for those currently breathing poor-quality air? Given that co-operation is defined as being “appropriate”, can he also say what happens when the co-operation is not appropriate? Apart from those two questions, we support this SI.

I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, we support it. She explained why there are so many concerns about air quality standards right across the country and went into the details of some of the challenges that have been facing local authorities around how to tackle this in their area.

We know that air pollution is still a huge problem and a great worry to many people. As the Minister will recall, we recently debated the clean air Bill; that debate demonstrated the huge amount of support for the Government to get on and tackle this seriously.

We very much welcome the designation of National Highways following the Government’s consultation. The Minister mentioned further designations. When are we likely to see any further designations? What will the process and timescale of that be? What came out in the consultation around potential further designations? How will this work with the development of local plans with local government around clean air strategies? In particular, what are the duties going to be to tackle health inequalities?

Finally, the Minister will not be surprised to hear me ask whether there is any update on when we are likely to see the air quality targets, whether they will all be laid together or whether some will be laid first. Will there be prioritisation? What are the targets likely to be? With that, we support the regulations. It is a very important decision to bring National Highways into this.

My Lords, I am grateful for your support for this measure, which is fairly limited in its extent but can have an important effect. As noble Lords will know, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, there are trunk roads under the responsibility of National Highways that go through some very urban areas and have a massive impact on the people living there. I used to represent the town of Newbury. Many Members will remember the issue of the Newbury bypass. Cross-party support in and around the town at the time was predicated on the basis that children were growing up, attending school and living close to areas with extremely high levels of pollution.

That is an example in my head that shows that these regulations are perhaps overdue. In most cases, it is not a problem because National Highways is working with local authorities on their plans, but the regulations place a duty on it that could resolve an issue where there was a lack of support for those local plans.

I can absolutely assure the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that this is a key part of our policy in moving towards a healthier environment. We will see how it works. To answer her points in a bit more detail, once designated as a relevant public authority, air quality partners, including National Highways, have a clear duty under the Environment Act to provide a local authority with such assistance in relation to carrying out air quality functions as it reasonably requests. That is important to answer her question about appropriate requests for co-operation. As public bodies, air quality partners can be expected to comply with their legal duties.

National Highways will also be required to commit to taking action to reduce pollution in the context of local air quality action plans where pollution from vehicles using the strategic road network contribute to exceeding an air quality objective. If proposed actions are not sufficient, there is a last resort power of ministerial direction, which can be used to direct National Highways to make further proposals. I hope that gives some reassurance.

A majority of the existing exceedances of air quality objectives—I think 501 out of 532 in England, excluding London—are for roadside emissions of nitrogen dioxide. We have therefore prioritised ensuring that all authorities with a role governing management of the highways, including upper-tier authorities and two-tier authorities, are brought into the statutory local air quality management framework. A call for evidence held in 2021 established that designation of National Highways was advocated by a clear majority of those responding. This reinforced a clear message we had heard from engagement with local authorities as well. Consideration of future designation of public authorities whose relevance may be more locally specific will follow an evidence-based approach and be subject to public consultation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is absolutely right: air quality remains a serious problem. These issues were aired in the debate on Friday when my noble friend Lord Harlech responded on behalf of the Government.

There is the possibility of further designations as they come forward and the Government remain committed to setting ambitious targets under the Environment Act. We are currently finalising the Government’s response to the consultation and will continue to work at pace to lay draft statutory instruments as soon as practicable. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, will have heard me talk earlier, in response to a Question in the House, about our requirement under the Act to publish our environmental improvement plan in January. That is a target we intend to hit and I am sure she will keep my feet to the fire if there is any slippage on that.

The 2017 NO2 plan was clear that charging for entry into a clean air zone would not be suitable for all locations, particularly those that largely take traffic through rather than into areas. The strategic road network provides main routes for interurban traffic and takes high volumes away from towns and city centres. Charging on key routes could be an alternative and a means by which local authorities, working with National Highways, could implement a meaningful plan. But encouraging drivers to reroute into potentially less suitable local roads could create or worsen air quality issues on them and/or lead to increased carbon and road use issues, so it is really important that these authorities work together and look at it holistically, not just creating displacement of a problem but solving it. National Highways is working with those local authorities which have or are developing plans for clean air zones as part of their NO2 air quality plans.

I repeat my thanks to noble Lords for their contributions. National Highways already works alongside local authorities and has had to consider actions to improve air quality to address exceedances of NO2 national statutory concentration limits on the strategic road network. This instrument clarifies its role in working with local authorities where there are exceedances of air quality objectives locally, which will create a more consistent framework across local authorities. This instrument will make a difference to how local authorities can contribute to improving local air quality in their areas and I commend it to the Committee.

Motion agreed.