I have raised this issue frequently in Parliament, including chairing the Health and Social Care Committee part of the joint inquiry into air quality. I have also recently got Amazon to agree to send their HGVs along the roads which have the fewest number of residential properties on them.
I also recognise that clean air is essential for life, health, our environment and the economy; poor air quality shortens lives, contributes to chronic illness, and is the largest environmental health risk in the UK. I therefore agree that the Government must take action to tackle air pollution.
While it is encouraging that air pollution has reduced significantly in the past decade, there is still more to do. I am therefore pleased that the Clean Air Strategy aims to cut air pollution and save lives, backed up by new primary legislation. The strategy details how the UK will go further and faster than the EU in reducing exposure to particulate matter pollution. It sets out a goal to halve the number of people living in locations with concentrations of particulate matter above WHO guidelines and I am encouraged that it has been described by the WHO as 'an example for the rest of the world to follow'.
The Environment Bill builds on this strategy. It will drive significant environmental improvement and tackle pollution by setting and achieving legally-binding, long-term targets in key areas including air quality, water, and resource efficiency and waste. I am pleased that the Bill introduces a duty on the Government to set at least two air quality targets by October 2022; a target to reduce the annual average level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in ambient air, and a further target to improve air quality.
This action is backed up by a £3.8 billion plan to improve air quality and create cleaner transport. This includes nearly a £1.5 billion investment to support the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles; £1.2 billion to increase cycling and walking and make our roads safer for vulnerable users; and £880 million to help local authorities develop and implement local air quality plans and to support those impacted by these plans. A further £2.5 billion will support a number of cities to improve their local transport systems through the Transforming Cities Fund.
As we rebuild our economy in response to the coronavirus pandemic, I know Ministers will continue to shape a cleaner, greener and more resilient society.
I am also pleased that the Government launched a call for evidence to ensure the full impact that coronavirus is having on air quality can be understood for future policy development. The independent Air Quality Expert Group has now produced a report which found that there were significant changes in the emissions of air pollutants during the initial lockdown period. The full report is available here: https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/library/reports.php?report_id=1005.
The Clean Air Strategy already sets out an ambitious programme of action to reduce air pollution from a wide range of sources, including indoors, and highlights the Government’s objective to raise awareness of the potential impacts of air pollution at home. My Ministerial colleagues are already supporting work on indoor air quality by gathering evidence needed to inform effective policies in the future. The Air Quality Expert Group, with input from members of the Department of Health and Social Care’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, will be publishing a paper on indoor air quality this year, which will focus on fine particulate matter and volatile organic compounds as the air pollutants which are prevalent in indoor environments. I am aware that Ministers have also engaged actively with the research community through the Clean Air Programme, which is part of UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund.
I truly recognise that short-term exposure to elevated levels of PM2.5 can impact health, particularly for vulnerable groups. I am therefore pleased that the Government provides alerts and advice during air pollution episodes to ensure people can access the information and health advice they need in order to minimise impacts. Ministers are also taking action to increase public awareness about air pollution, including through an expanded £8 million funding pot which will be made available to local authorities through the Air Quality Grant scheme.
Under the Environment Bill, the Government will have a duty to bring forward a target for PM2.5 by October 2022. In setting air quality targets, my ministerial colleagues have sought advice from the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) on whether the priority aim should be long-term exposure rather than short-term. COMEAP advised that a focus on long-term average concentrations of PM2.5 is most appropriate to deliver public health benefits. The two air quality targets that the Government plans to set will therefore focus on reducing the long-term exposure to PM2.5 and its associated health impacts, and I am assured that actions taken to achieve these targets will contribute to reducing average daily concentrations of PM2.5.
In January 2017, new legislation came into force with more stringent emission limits for major air pollutants from engines used in machines, such as lawnmowers. I understand that Ministers are considering introducing controls or adopting local solutions where they are required to address emission sources of concern as part of the Government’s Clean Air Strategy. On top of this, a study has been commissioned to improve the evidence base on emissions from non-road mobile machinery and the initial findings of the research will be discussed over the next few months. Finally, I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement of changes to the red diesel tax policy, which will have benefits for air quality as I understand that red diesel is currently a cheaper fuel option for use in off-road machinery. This change will remove the tax rebate available on red diesel used for specific purposes from April 2022, and ensures that the tax system incentivises users of polluting diesel fuel to invest in cleaner alternatives, or use less fuel by making sure that polluters pay for their harmful emissions.
Clean Air Zones are designed to improve air quality, by encouraging upgrades to cleaner vehicles. It is not the same as a Congestion Charge Zone, where all or most vehicles are charged to drive. For this reason, the Government has been clear that interventions such as a CAZ should be delivered as soon as possible, as they are essential to improving our future air quality and public health.
I am pleased that Ministers are committed to ensuring that local authorities have access to a wide range of options as they develop plans to address roadside pollution in a way that meets the needs of their communities.