Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. Do you think it is a good policy to require local authorities to develop local air quality action plans given that at paragraph 4.7 on page 36 it says that most local authorities believe they have inadequate expertise?
  (Mr Bender) It is difficult if it is something that is done centrally. Part of the object of the exercise is to help them develop the expertise to tackle what are, in most cases, essentially local transport issues that are giving rise to these problems.

  101. What you are saying, therefore, is that you are expecting local authorities to acquire this level of expertise?
  (Mr Bender) Yes and we believe that over the last two or three years there has been significant progress in that respect.

  102. This Report is not really about air pollution. It is an example in terms of policy to see how effective the policy is. What are the cost implications to local authorities of acquiring that level of expertise?
  (Mr Bender) I find that a very hard question to answer. The policy issue underpinning this is that there is damage to health as a result of the air quality and, as we were discussing earlier, there are therefore certain policy measures and actions which can be taken to offset those.

  103. One of the key policy measures is local authority action plans and you have no idea what the cost implications to local authorities are of introducing these. That seems to me pathetic in terms of integrity of policy development. Mr Bender, it is you, with respect, who should know that. You are Permanent Secretary of a Department developing a policy requiring all local authorities to develop air quality action plans. They have limited expertise and you are saying that they are expected to acquire it over time with your help and you have not got any idea of the cost implications.
  (Mr Williams) We do not know what the cost implications are for each local plan because we do not know what the plans are yet.

  104. I am just talking about the acquiring of the expertise so that they are no longer in the words of this Report "inadequate" so they become adequate. The cost implications for local authorities in acquiring new civil servants, new experts in order to be adequate in producing local air quality action plans?
  (Mr Williams) I am not sure I can answer that.

  105. Is that not an indictment of the British Civil Service and the way we conduct policy? You have no idea of the cost implications of acquiring the expertise to implement a key strategy on air quality. I am staggered.
  (Mr Bender) I am happy to try and provide the Committee with a note on this issue. It is certainly not something I have come briefed for. I will see what we can provide by way of a note.[2]

  106. That is very helpful. Thank you very much. This is a linked question. Why are up to one-third of local authority air quality assessments unacceptable?
  (Mr Williams) That, I guess, to some extent reflects the learning process that local authorities and ourselves are going through in this process. I think what I would say is that the term "unacceptable" applies to the first cut as a dialogue. The local authority responds with its assessment, we, with our advisers, read it, assess it and get back into a dialogue with local authorities. You have to remember that this is the first time this sort of exercise has been done in the UK so there is a learning process on both sides. This is very much the first phase of assessment. When they finish they are all acceptable, of course.

  107. Paragraph 4.6 in the Report gives an example of the kind of local authority action that might happen—the adoption of Low Emission Zones or fixed penalty fines, for example. Have those Regulations given local authorities the power to fix fixed penalty fines? Have they been drafted yet and, if they have, what is the level of fine that we are looking at?
  (Mr Bender) We will cover that in the note.[3]

  108. A note would be very helpful. This Report is about policy on air quality and pollution.
  (Mr Bender) Yes.

  109. This is not the Environment Select Committee, this is the Public Accounts Committee and we are looking at the integrity and efficacy of policy making of the British Civil Service. Here we have a policy that is going to lead to fixed penalty fines but you have no idea why these regulations have to be drafted or, indeed, whether they have been drafted.
  (Mr Bender) I have not come able to answer that question. I will provide a note.

  110. You do not know whether they have been drafted?
  (Mr Furness) If I am allowed to speak. There was a consultation on a set of draft regulations in October and the regulations are due to be laid in the next couple of months.

  111. Thank you. Some local authorities—I could cite the City of London as one example, or London generally—seem to believe that closing roads is a useful way of reducing pollution. You could argue that also results in more congestion on other roads and greater pollution. Mr Bender, do you believe that closing roads is an answer to inner city pollution or do you believe that helping traffic flows with more roads open is the answer?
  (Mr Bender) It may be a mixture. There is a mixture of getting more people on to public transport and if there is a particularly localised issue then closing a road there may be the answer. That is why these things are better handled at a local level rather than a national level.

  112. But in general terms what will happen to the traffic that would have travelled on that road that has now been closed? Will it just disappear or will it go on to other roads?
  (Mr Bender) That is for the local authority to work out as part of the traffic management scheme. That is why they would not want to look at it totally in isolation from the sort of question you are raising.

  113. So there will be no guidelines coming from your Department suggesting whether or not they should or should not close roads, no guidelines at all will come out of your Department on that issue?
  (Mr Williams) Not in that prescriptive sense because we leave the best solutions to the local authorities determined by local circumstances. What we would do in our guidance, and have done, is to make sure that they address precisely that issue, that if they squeeze the balloon in one area then it does not burst out in another and they look at it as a whole. They need to look at the whole traffic management plan if that is what they have in mind to make sure that they do not make problems for themselves elsewhere.

  114. Do you think that the road closures in London that have been happening over the last five or six years have helped deal with congestion or hindered it? Or do you have no idea?
  (Mr Bender) I do not have any idea.

  115. Another policy where we have no idea how it is affecting people's daily lives. I am flabbergasted by policy development. Mr Bender, you used the number of early deaths brought forward of 24,000 or so as a key reason in answer to my colleague, Mr Osborne. Can you define "deaths brought forward"?
  (Mr Bender) It covers a range of things. It may be an 80 year old brought forward by one day up to someone whose death would be in five years' time brought forward by one day through to an 80 year old dying that day. It covers the range of issues, hence Mr Williams' earlier answer about the range of costs associated with it.

  116. Figure ten on page 23, note three, says: "It is not known to what degree deaths are brought forward. From these acute effects, it is more likely to be by days or weeks rather than months or years." Is that statement true?
  (Mr Williams) Yes. I think I said earlier that there is still a lot of active research going on to try and improve knowledge on that but that is the best estimate at present, yes.

  117. So all these measures, the £1 billion cost which Mr Osborne extracted from you, are all about 24,000 deaths brought forward by a matter of days or weeks? Is that what we are talking about, all this air pollution is preventing people from dying by a few weeks or days earlier than they would otherwise have died?
  (Mr Williams) Or possibly longer. On an individual basis like that it may not sound a great deal but when you aggregate it over the whole population then it begins to be a public health problem.

  118. I have to pay significantly more tax to fund the £1 billion simply to save a few weeks of my life, so I have to reduce the number of holidays I have, the number of new shoes, clothes, cinema trips, quality of food, simply to save myself a few weeks at the end of the day, is that correct?
  (Mr Bender) As Mr Williams said earlier, the cost benefit analysis attempts to put a figure on the value people put on reducing risk of death. It is a very uncertain science.

  119. That is a value.
  (Mr Bender) As we have heard in the questioning today different Members of the Committee have different views about the importance they attach to the costs and benefits of that.

2   Ev 17, Appendix 1. Back

3   Ev 17, Appendix 1. Back

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