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House of Commons Hansard
03 November 2016
Volume 616

  • To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what steps her Department will take to improve air quality after her defeat in the High Court on 2 November.

  • She’s in her diesel car.

  • Order. The hon. Gentleman is chuntering about diesel cars and who might be occupying them, but we have a Minister at the Dispatch Box, and she is a doctor as well. We are going to hear from her.

  • Improving air quality is a priority for this Government. We are determined to cut harmful emissions to improve the health of the people we represent, and to protect the environment. The UK currently meets the legal limits for almost all pollutants but faces significant challenges in achieving nitrogen dioxide limit values. We are not alone in that, as 16 other EU countries face similar challenges.

    We have already achieved significant improvements in air quality across a range of pollutants, but transport is responsible for 80% of nitrogen oxides emissions at the roadside in areas where we need to act to reduce levels. That is why transport has been the focus of our action on air quality. We have committed over £2 billion in green transport initiatives, including supporting the early market for ultra-low emission vehicles between 2015 and 2020. The main reason for the difficulty in meeting NO2 limit values is the failure of Euro standards for diesel vehicles to deliver the expected reduction in NOx emissions in real-world conditions. Since 2011, we have been at the forefront of action in the EU to secure more accurate, real-world emissions testing for diesel cars.

    The Transport Act 2000 gave powers to councils to introduce measures to help to tackle air pollution. The national air quality plan for NO2, published in December, set out an approach to improve air quality and achieve compliance. We are mandating five cities to introduce clean air zones, and targeting the oldest and most polluting vehicles. The consultation on this framework was launched last month to ensure a consistent approach.

    Our plan was based on the best available evidence at the time. We have been pressing for updates to COPERT—computer programme to calculate emissions from road transport—emission factors and got them in September. We said that when we got the new factors we would update our modelling and that is exactly what we are doing.

    I am writing to councils to ask them what they are doing to tackle air pollution. Our local authority grant fund was launched in early October and we are encouraging all local authorities to apply. We will shortly launch a consultation on policy options for limiting emissions from diesel generators. In addition, funding was announced last month to boost the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles. We accept the judgment of the court and will now carefully consider it, and our next steps, in detail. However, legal proceedings are still ongoing, so I may not be able to answer every hon. Member’s question in detail.

    I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that this is a top priority for me. It is a top priority for the Secretary of State. As the Prime Minister said yesterday:

    “We have taken action, but there is more to do and we will do it.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2016; Vol. 616, c. 887.]

  • I thank the Minister very much for that response. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is very much in the dock, but the whole Government need to take action. This is the second time the Government have lost in the courts on the issue of air quality in 18 months: they need to take this matter very seriously. The problem causes up to 50,000 deaths a year—more than 20 times the number killed in road accidents. It is a silent killer.

    The Government’s current air quality plan has only five compulsory clean air zones, but more than 40% of councils breach air pollution limits. The Government need to take rapid action or they will be back in the dock again. In April, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on air quality called for all councils to have the power and the funding to implement clean air zones. Will the Government make that commitment?

    The Government have to look at getting the worst diesel vehicles off our roads quickly. Will the Department consider financial incentives, such as a scrappage scheme and changes to the vehicle tax system? Those changes would have to be made via the Treasury, because successive Governments have been encouraging diesels. That has to be reversed.

    Some 70% of air pollution comes from road transport. Will the Department act now, with the Department for Transport, to promote electric cars and encourage taxi conversions from diesel to liquefied petroleum gas, which can reduce nitrogen dioxide levels by 80%? The court case revealed that the Treasury has been blocking stronger measures on air quality. I have sympathy with the Minister, but will her Department now commit to working with the Department for Transport and the Treasury to tackle this matter once and for all? Clean air should be a right, not a privilege. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

  • My hon. Friend raises a wide range of issues. Let me try to pick up on them. In a parliamentary question, he rightly revealed the number of councils where there are issues. I take this seriously. In my constituency, there are two air quality management areas. That is why I want to work with local councils to do what we can to tackle action locally. Of course the Government will work on issues to tackle air quality nationally, but we need local action. Powers are already available, under the Transport Act 2000, for councils to take appropriate measures, and I will encourage them to do that. Again, that is why we are encouraging councils to apply for help from the air quality fund.

    We are all aware of the issue with Volkswagen and diesel vehicles. We have been pressing for updated COPERT factors. The spreadsheet is exceptionally complicated. It is the biggest spreadsheet I have ever seen in my life. As I used to be chartered accountant, I can assure the House that I have probably seen more than most.

    It is a complex situation, and we are working through it. We are coming up with what we can think of to try to tackle this issue, but I genuinely believe that we need targeted interventions rather than use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Labour Government introduced fiscal incentives that encouraged people to move to diesel. I am not going to complain about that. We are where we are, and the Government and local government must all pull together because we care about the people we represent. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: air quality is the top priority, which is why it is my No. 1 priority in government.

  • Up to 50,000 people die prematurely each year in the UK as a direct result of air pollution, and many more suffer from respiratory disease. This is a crisis and a national scandal—deaths that would have been avoidable if the Government had taken action, and suffering on a mass scale, most prevalent in the most deprived communities. Nitrogen dioxide is a silent killer, but Labour Members will not be silent about this.

    Yesterday’s damning judgment in the High Court shamed this Government, who were told to put an air quality plan in place in 2010. Six and a half years later and following two further judgments in the High Court, the Government have been found wanting. The World Health Organisation and the European Union recognise how serious air pollution is. That is why yesterday Justice Garnham condemned the Government’s poor estimates on emission levels—even after the Volkswagen scandal—and their slow response to addressing high emissions. Urgency is needed.

    I thank ClientEarth for taking the action as there is no time to waste on tackling this issue, as Labour would have done. We cannot afford to allow this to continue or to shift the blame on to councils. This is negligence.

    I therefore ask: will the Government guarantee that, instead of creating just five clean air zones, they will now put in place a network of zones across all 37 out of the 43 areas with high emission levels? Why have they wasted time and resources fighting court cases, instead of fighting air pollution? The High Court judge condemned the Government’s delay in reducing ambient nitrogen dioxide levels. How soon will the Government have in place a comprehensive plan on air quality? How will fuel emission measurements now proceed? Will the Government guarantee that, in leaving the EU, they will not water down air quality standards, and how will this be policed? Will the Government introduce a clean air Act, which Labour has done in the past and will do in the future? Will the Government now clean up their act and clean up our air?

  • As I am trying show in the tone of my response to this urgent question, this really is a top priority. It is not straightforward. We produced a national air-quality plan based on the best available evidence at the time. We now have new factors, and we are updating the model. We are responding to the needs that we have. I have pointed out that a framework is already out for consultation and councils can do this now if they wish. We are mandating. We need to look carefully at the evidence and what the model says about where we mandate further.

    Leaving the EU has absolutely nothing to do with our determination to improve air quality in this country. There is no need for new legislation; we already have powers in place, and we are consulting on new powers.

    We have already reduced nitrogen dioxide by 41% in the last 10 years. We are still taking action to do that. Let us not get into the blame game; otherwise, we could go into the history of Labour and what the Labour Government did on diesel in the first place. That is not worth while. What matters is that we pull together and address this issue.

  • In the light of this judgment and of the fact that car journeys to Heathrow are increasing at a rate of 2 million over two years, how can the Government support more pollution that would come from a third runway at Heathrow?

  • My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport referred to that issue when he came to the House to discuss the Heathrow decision. The Government believe that the Heathrow north-west runway scheme can be delivered without it having an impact on the UK’s compliance with air quality limit values, and with a suitable package of policy mitigation measures. Policies at national, London and local level will help to ensure that the scheme can be delivered in line with our legal obligations in respect of air quality.

  • The Minister rightly says that this is not straightforward, but documents revealed to the court showed that the Treasury is blocking measures proposed by her Department and the Department for Transport that would actually tackle air pollution. The Environmental Audit Committee published a report on sustainability in the Department for Transport, in which we concluded that we had no confidence that the Department would meet either its 2020 or its 2030 target on low-emission vehicles. Given that the autumn statement is imminent, will the Minister now go back and work with the Department for Transport, and, critically, the Treasury, to unblock the pipeline and ensure that we stop dirty diesel?

  • The Environmental Audit Committee does important work in monitoring those ongoing issues. The Department for Transport and DEFRA have been working together, and we established the joint air quality unit earlier this year. I am also meeting public health and DCLG Ministers. As I have said, I am absolutely committed to trying to make a difference in this area.

    The hon. Lady will be aware of the scheme that we launched last month to fund more charging points for low emission vehicles, focusing on taxis as well as cars. Those measures are well under way. I assure her that the Department for Transport takes this issue very seriously and that we will be making further progress, and I am sure that the Treasury has also heard her pleas. Moreover, the Prime Minister gave an undertaking in the House yesterday that we would do more in relation to air quality.

  • I am encouraged to hear that the Minister is making air quality her first priority. I hope that it will continue to be so until the problem is solved, because this is a deplorable state of affairs. I know that the Minister is part of a new ministerial team, but I agree with everything that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). My own constituents have had enough of the current appalling state of air quality. I know that I am in the middle of a big city, but the same applies to many other parts of the country. We need to ensure that the perverse incentives for diesel are stopped in their tracks, and I hope that the Minister will make representations to that effect at the highest level.

  • As my right hon. Friend suggests, the Government intend to continue to encourage people to opt for low-emission vehicles. As for what is being done in London, the Mayor said that he would plant 2 million trees in the run-up to the campaign—[Hon. Members: “Where are they?”]—and I hope that he keeps to his pledge over the next four years, because that will help to improve air quality. I know that the Transport Committee has asked him to appear before it. As I have said, it is important for central and local government to work together to help the people whom we all represent.

  • May I gently suggest to the Minister that talking about sledgehammers and nuts is not really appropriate in this context? Air pollution is the biggest avoidable killer apart from smoking. The Minister needs a sledgehammer, and she needs to take the sledgehammer to the Treasury.

    Given that this is the second humiliating defeat that the Government have suffered in the courts, surely there was a plan to announce some action here, today, in response to that defeat. Where is it? Where are the new measures?

  • As the right hon. Gentleman will know from his time in government, measures take some time to work up. He may shake his head, but I am not going to become involved in the blame game and talk about what happened under Labour, when the number of diesel vehicles on the road increased. What I will say is that I am working closely with officials to come up with the wide range of actions that we wish to take, and I can only add that we hope to announce them in due course.

  • I recognise that my hon. Friend acknowledges that more needs to be done, and I am grateful for her statement. Does she agree that, in seeking to do more to address the problem, we should take the opportunity to use some of our home-grown innovation and technologies?

  • My hon. Friend is right. We should recognise the progress that the United Kingdom has made in respect of low-emission vehicles, and I hope that some of the new incentives will encourage people to think of buying one when they come to replace their cars. The Department for Transport is investigating other technologies as well, and I hope that they will prove fruitful in helping us to tackle this issue.

  • The Mayor of London is making huge strides in cleaning up London’s bus fleet, in stark contrast to his predecessor, and he deserves to be recognised for taking this issue seriously while the Government are failing. However, urgent action is needed to tackle HGVs, private cars and other diesel vehicles. Will the Minister now set up a comprehensive plan at a national level, including scrappage schemes, fiscal incentives and urgent investment in research and development to help the Mayor and others to remove the highest polluting vehicles from our roads?

  • Transport for London had an £11 billion settlement from which it can decide to prioritise certain actions. I do commend the Mayor, who is bringing forward measures more quickly, particularly on buses. We need targeted interventions rather than, perhaps not a sledgehammer, but comprehensive schemes which may not be the best use of taxpayers’ money in tackling this critical issue.

  • Air quality in Malton and Norton is often at dangerous levels. Will the Minister join me in urging North Yorkshire County Council to develop and implement a clear strategy to deal with this problem?

  • I agree with my hon. Friend. Local councils know their communities best and can come up with good schemes where they work with local home and business owners. Of course, the national Government have their part to play; we have published our air quality plan and are updating our modelling, but local action with the help of a proactive local MP is good news for constituents.

  • The Minister talked about nuts and sledgehammers and there being no need for a comprehensive plan, but does she not agree that she needs a proper fiscal strategy to incentivise consumers and producers so that we have a sustainable future, with an infrastructure of hydrogen and electric and a commitment to EU air quality standards, yet she has given us none of those things?

  • I said earlier that leaving the EU has nothing to do with improving air quality, and I stand by that.

    May I clarify something that I said earlier? We have done the analysis on the scrappage schemes. Having just one particular kind of scheme where any diesel car can be replaced would not be the best use of taxpayers’ money because it is not a targeted intervention. I want to be smart about this and use taxpayers’ money effectively so that we can tackle this issue, not just have a comprehensive scrappage scheme which will not help as much.

  • What role can the Government play in pushing the EU to improve the driving emissions test further?

  • I am not going to pretend I am the Department for Transport expert on this matter, but I know that we have been pushing for the last five years to get the real driving conditions actions updated. More is coming out next year, in 2017. We should be seeing action right across the EU, and I am looking forward to that. We will start to see whether those measures have really made a difference in 2019, because it will take a bit of time to bed in, but I can assure my hon. Friend that although we will be leaving the EU, we will continue to make sure that our air quality improves.

  • A Sunday Times investigation last year revealed that 3,000 schools were in areas affected by toxic air pollution, and we know that childhood asthma is massively on the increase. What are the Government doing specifically to ensure that schoolchildren are protected from air pollution?

  • Schools are in local council areas. [Interruption.] I am not blaming local councils; I am trying to say that local councils know how best to work with their local communities in order to make a difference. The hon. Lady will know of various schemes—I am sure they happen in Bristol—such as walking to school. There are powers that councils have today that we encourage them to use; we are encouraging them to apply for the air quality grant fund. That is the kind of proactive action our local councils can take now to make a difference for children.

  • Order. I gently remind colleagues that the business statement will follow these exchanges and after that there are two further ministerial statements before we reach the first of the two debates to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Therefore there is a premium upon time, necessitating brevity from Back and Front Benches alike, now to be brilliantly exemplified, I am certain, by Mr Jason McCartney.

  • Labour-run Kirklees Council keeps forcing through huge housing developments on greenfield sites in my constituency, especially around Lindley, with scant regard for the impact on air quality. Can we please put air quality at the forefront of planning reforms, and can we have a clean air zone in Huddersfield?

  • By the way, there will also be up to 20 minutes on the Select Committee statement, which merely serves to underscore the force of what I have just said.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. In answer to my hon. Friend, I will need to check this—and I might need to write to him—but I think there is already guidance in the national planning framework to ensure that councils are mindful of the impact on air quality and other environmental matters when they consider planning applications.

  • The M1 motorway runs right next to the Tinsley area of my constituency, and NO2 levels there are so dangerously high that Sheffield Council has acted to move two local schools away from the motorway and rebuild a school elsewhere. In the end, however, the council can only do so much, and it cannot prevent pollution from the M1. That needs a national plan from the Government to reduce NO2 emissions from diesel vehicles. When are we going to get one?

  • One of the actions that the joint air quality unit is taking is to work up plans for the strategic road network, and that work is still under way. As I have said, our modelling was based on the best available evidence. A consequence of updating the modelling might be that more areas will come into it, but the strategic road network, including the M1, is on our agenda.

  • According to the World Health Organisation, Plymouth has been named as one of the worst cities in the UK for air quality, along with Saltash in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray). There is an 11-year difference in life expectancy between the north-east of my constituency and the south-west. Would my hon. Friend be willing to meet members of my council to discuss how we can make significant improvements?

  • I am sure that I will make it to the south-west at some point, and hopefully not because of flooding this year. It is always a great pleasure to visit that part of the world. Poor air quality is one of the factors that contributes to early deaths, and I hope that we can work closely with our councils to ensure that we have local solutions that deliver local results.

  • I feel some sympathy for the Minister, who is having to deal with this issue today, because the problem lies with the Treasury rather than with her Department. I have to say, however, that it is a little rich to place this responsibility on local authorities when they are already so cash-starved and struggling to provide education and social care services. Is it not time for the Treasury to stand up and tackle this issue by providing the funds that are so desperately needed?

  • The Treasury has already created incentives to encourage people to move towards lower emission vehicles. I really want to work with local councils to make a difference locally—it does matter—and they can apply to the air quality fund. I do not know the situation in Wales; that will be a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government to tackle.

  • May I urge the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to liaise very carefully with the Department for Transport and the Treasury in the 20 days before the autumn statement to ensure that we get some good news on 23 November? Will the Minister also remember that the reason many people drive older diesel vehicles is that they are on lower incomes and those vehicles are their means of getting to work? We need to bear that in mind when we take action.

  • I recognise what my hon. Friend is saying. The miles-per-gallon rate is much better in diesel cars, and that is a reason to drive them in rural areas where petrol and diesel prices tend to be higher than in cities. We want to ensure that our interventions are targeted to have the best impact. I can assure my hon. Friend that I am not shy about discussing these matters, either with the Department for Transport or with the Treasury.

  • In my constituency, there are four primary schools within 100 yards of the M32 motorway, and another that is bang in the middle of the city. It is not enough for the Government to blame local councils. Will the Minister meet me, the other Bristol MPs and the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, to discuss exactly what funding she will be providing to tackle this problem?

  • I am not blaming anyone. I have already set out that it is good for local councils to work with local communities on some of these solutions. The Government also need to do their bit, and I referred to the work on the strategic road network. There is a fund out there. Councils already know about it and I encourage them to use it. I would be happy for the hon. Lady to come and meet me to discuss the matter.

  • While I applaud the Government’s commitment to introduce clean air zones in five of our big cities, may I urge Ministers to consider introducing them more quickly, because the deadline is 2020, and in more cities and towns? Will the zones be tailor-made and specific to individual needs, such as the A358 in my constituency? Can we also have lots of trees to help as well?

  • The Government are committed to this and are on track to plant 11 million trees over the lifetime of this Parliament. I hope that the Mayor of London keeps to his commitment to plant 2 million trees in London. Some powers already exist, and the consultation on the clean air zone framework is out there. The difference is that we are now mandating five cities to implement clear air zones. I recently visited Derby to sit down with the council leader and go through what is being considered. I assure the House that I will keep encouraging local councils to take action.

  • There are two possible routes for the M4 relief road in south Wales. One, the blue route, would concentrate and increase pollution in the heavily populated heart of Newport, where air pollution accounts for 70 deaths a year. The other scheme would disperse pollution over a wider, less-inhabited area. Will the Minister assure me that she will give her wholehearted support to the black route in order to reduce pollution?

  • I must be careful when dealing with such issues in Wales as they are the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government, but I am sure that officials will have heard what the hon. Gentleman had to say.

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to improve air quality is through innovation and new technology, not through regulation and more taxes?

  • My hon. Friend is right that we must pull on a number of levers. We should be proud of the innovations that we have undertaken, particularly in the development of low emission vehicles. However, we must be serious when addressing this issue. We are working up targeted interventions that I genuinely hope will mean that in a few years we will be celebrating the fact that air quality is improving for everyone whom we represent.

  • The Liberal Democrats have opposed a third runway at Heathrow for 20 years, but the Government are ploughing ahead. What action will the Minister take now to improve the appalling air quality around Heathrow? Will she ensure that the third runway will not be built unless air pollution can be contained within the legal limits?

  • In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias), I set out that the Government believe that the runway at Heathrow can be delivered without impacting on the UK’s compliance on air quality. The Secretary of State for Transport was at the Dispatch Box on 25 October and talked about the Department for Transport, DEFRA and the Treasury embarking on a joint project

    “to identify further ways in which we can tackle the issue.”

    He continued:

    “By the time a new runway opens in the next decade, we intend to have made substantial progress on tackling such air quality challenges”

    not only around Heathrow, but

    “across our nation as a whole.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 164.]

  • In a few hours’ time, I will be returning to my seat of Brecon and Radnorshire, where the air is clear and fresh. I recommend a visit to every hon. Member to replenish their lungs. However, I come to this great city for four days a week. What difference does the Minister think that hydrogen and electric vehicles will have on emissions in cities such as this and across Great Britain?

  • I think they would have a huge impact.

  • I have great sympathy for the Minister this morning because we are all responsible for the mess we are in, and I say that as chairman of my party’s Back-Bench DEFRA committee. Does the Minister realise that the public are far ahead of us on this issue? No one in their right mind would now buy a diesel car. The fact of the matter is that we need a scrappage scheme to get these filthy, belching diesel buses and cars out of our towns and cities. We are choking and poisoning children. That is why we need action now.

  • We are taking action to target our interventions. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman says about scrappage schemes. May I ask whether there are any more MPs left to speak?

  • I ask that because I am really pleased that so many Members in the House today are concerned about this issue, and I hope that we can all become champions on it with our local councils. I am happy to be held to account on this, but we must work together to make sure that we make the difference.

  • It is a very good headline: “Minister wants more questions”. The hon. Lady is setting a splendid precedent.

  • I am very happy to oblige the Minister on that. Does she agree that supporting British industries wherever possible, rather than importing cheap, poorly produced products from elsewhere, is good not only for jobs, but for air quality in this country?

  • As I have just been reminded, Nissan will continue to manufacture cars in this country; we have Toyota in Derbyshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler); and we are already leading the way on ultra-low emission vehicles. Long may that continue.

  • My constituency and the borough of Enfield are bound by the M25, the A10 and the north circular A406, so we have much more than our fair share of dirty diesels powering down our roads. Some of our roads, such as Bullsmoor Lane, are practically an extension of the M25. I do not think my constituents are going to feel reassured by what they have heard today; there has been no specific plan and no money identified from the Treasury. We have had nothing to stop the fact that we have kiddies in pushchairs sucking in this poisonous NOx.

  • I have outlined the fact that the Treasury has already provided incentives to make some changes and that we are looking at the strategic road network. We have to do this on the basis of the best available evidence. We are updating our modelling, and I hope that we will be able to help Enfield Council in due course.

  • Does the Minister accept not only that steps need to be taken, but that a knee-jerk reaction is not needed? We need action that does not adversely affect industry and our economy, but that encourages a reduction in pollution.

  • The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but we do have to have a sense of urgency on this issue, and I am absolutely committed to prioritising it. It is a top priority for me and the Secretary of State. I will echo what the Prime Minister said:

    “We have taken action, but there is more to do and we will do it.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2016; Vol. 616, c. 887.]