Neil grills Environment Minister on Air Quality

Neil grilled Environment Ministers in the Commons on Air Quality after their defeat at the High Court. Neil asked the Speaker for an Urgent Question (where a Government Minister is called to Parliament at short notice) after the Government's Air Quality plans were deemed illegal and substandard by High Court judges.

Neil Parish: 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.

Dr Therese Coffey (Minister responsible for Air Quality): 

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.”

Neil Parish: 

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.

The full transcript can be found at this link. You can watch a video of the Urgent Question at this link: