Air quality: A follow up report - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

3 Areas for action

The priority given by Defra

23.  Under the previous 'public service agreement' system of departmental targets, DfT and Defra were given a joint responsibility for achieving air quality targets. Government priorities and commitments, and accountability against these, is now managed through departmental business plans.

24.  Business plans have been published by all government departments. They are the key tool of the Government for making departments accountable for implementing the reforms set out in the Coalition Agreement, and give the public the opportunity to check that departments are meeting their commitments. Business plans include key indicators against which Government will publish data to show the cost and impact of public services and departmental activities. As explained to us by the Minister for Government Policy in a previous inquiry, they are also the means by which Minsters are internally held to account within Government.[34]

25.  There are no air quality actions for Defra or DfT in their departmental business plans. The omission is surprising in light of the Government's statement in its response last year to our predecessor Committee that it considered 'more needs to be achieved' and the commitment in the Coalition Programme for Government to work towards full compliance with the EU air quality standards.[35] When we asked the Minster why air quality had not been included in the Defra business plan he told us that:[36]

The fact that air quality is not explicitly mentioned in the current business plan, published in May 2011, does not in any way reflect a lack of importance we attach to this area, especially since it is a cross government, coalition commitment to work towards full compliance with EU air quality standards; this remains a major driver for action which would not be increased if air quality were covered in the Defra Business Plan itself. In addition our Natural Environment White Paper sets out more specific commitments on air quality including our consultation on plans for the achievement of NO2 limit values, investigation of low emission zones and improving arrangements for local air quality management and delivery. This, with the coalition commitment, will continue to ensure that air quality is given priority across government policies.

26.  The fact that air quality is not included in any of these departmental business plans is symptomatic of its low priority. We are not satisfied that air quality's inclusion in the Natural Environment White Paper will provide sufficient drive to deliver the EU limit values targets. In particular, we fail to see how the Government's consultation on NO2 limit values can provide a solution, because its proposals for action sit alongside explicit acceptance that targets will not be achieved. In any case neither of these processes would provide the transparency and accountability that inclusion in the business plans would provide, and that the issues clearly merit. Defra must include progress towards achieving EU air quality targets for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide in its business plan at the next update. If these targets are not included, we expect the Minster for Government Policy to report on why this is the case and what discussions he has had with Defra on this during his review of their business plan.

Joined up policy

27.  The Government and the devolved administrations published the latest Air Quality Strategy in 2007.[37] This recognised that air pollution has wide-ranging environmental impacts, from loss of biodiversity and reduced crop yields to a potential contribution to climate change, and that air quality is affected by a wide range of policy areas. The spread of causes and effects of poor air quality across departments means it is vitally important that thinking on this is joined-up across Government. Our predecessors' report found that links between departments required improvement. Defra and DfT had quarterly liaison meetings between their officials, and the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit included air pollution in its analysis of the wider costs of transport in English urban areas, but consistently joined-up policy across all relevant departments was lacking. It was essential that DECC, DCLG, DoH and the Treasury also engaged and prioritised air quality issues, which they appeared to have been somewhat reluctant to do.[38]

28.  One area in particular where air quality needs to be linked with other policy is on climate change. There are benefits of carbon emissions reduction policies for both climate change and air quality, for example in the promotion of electric vehicles and other new technologies that reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. In these cases a coherent and consistent regulatory base is essential to drive innovation and instil investor confidence in developing products and services. For this to happen a clear message, one that involves engagement from Defra, BIS, DfT and DECC, must be developed. At the same time there can be conflicts, for example in encouraging diesel vehicles over petrol: Diesel cars are generally more energy efficient and produce less carbon dioxide per mile than a petrol equivalent, but they can also produce up to 20 times as much PM10 emissions.[39] Environmental Protection UK (EPUK) wanted DECC to concentrate on securing maximum policy benefits from their renewable policies rather than simply focusing on a narrow carbon reduction remit.[40] The Environmental Research Group notes that climate change targets - an 80% reduction in CO2 equivalent emissions by 2050 - could generate major improvements in air quality and public health if co-benefits are identified at an early stage.[41] However, Defra told us that inter-department discussion only occurs on an 'ad hoc' case by case basis at official level, and that such discussions are undertaken in the context of other local environmental matters, such as noise pollution. There is no formal structure at a Ministerial level connecting policy decisions with air quality issues and it is difficult to see any formal structures that join up thinking at official level.[42] The Local Government Group told us:

[...]it is difficult to comment on the effectiveness of the Government's strategy due to a lack of transparency about what the strategy is. We are aware of various pieces of work on air quality being undertaken, but an up-to-date, coherent strategy taking account of all measures and planned action across government departments does not appear to exist, at least as far as we are aware. The most recent publicly available UK Air Quality Strategy was published in 2007 and is widely considered not to be fit for purpose. The LG Group has raised this with the Government, who have informed us that its application to the European Commission for a time extension for nitrogen dioxide limit values will in effect act as its strategy. [43]

29.  A lack of joined-up thinking between departments is especially worrying while the Government is undertaking the 'Red Tape Challenge' to reduce regulation. We recognise that the existing legal framework is somewhat disjointed and could benefit from reorganisation. Client Earth told us that it should be consolidated to clarify the legal duties and powers of central government, local authorities and devolved administrations.[44] However, this must be done carefully. Air quality could be affected by changes to regulations in a range of policy areas and any impacts to air quality must be explored before regulations are cut.

30.  The Government should produce an action plan setting out how air quality is to be considered in policy development across Government, to encourage co-benefits with other policies, to discourage policy conflicts and to assess the impacts of consolidating air quality regulations. It should establish a ministerial group to oversee and ensure adherence to the action plan. The Cabinet Office, because of its role in directing policy across departments, should take the lead in implementing this.

Support for local authorities

31.  The Government's response to our predecessors' report acknowledged that more needed to be done to tackle poor air quality. But, where that involves local authority action the approach would be to encourage and guide local authorities rather than require particular actions. This is the theme of the localism agenda. The response promised that:

  • Local authorities would be encouraged to communicate locally action on air pollution but leaving the means to local discretion;[45]
  • Local authorities would be able to set transport policies and priorities locally, while those transport projects which are assessed centrally would follow an enhanced Green Book methodology;[46]
  • Government would ensure local authorities have the 'tools' to address air quality, without 'unnecessary form-filling and bureaucracy'[47];
  • Rather than develop a 'national framework for low emissions zones', as the Committee recommended, local authorities would decide on these.[48]

32.  The response said that the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) would address 'environmental and social priorities' as well as economic factors and that DCLG would be reviewing how local authorities' role on air quality could be maintained under the localism agenda.[49] We will explore these planning issues in more detail in our inquiry into the NPPF. It also envisaged that public health reforms would give local authority-based Directors of Public Health enhanced powers and ring-fenced budgets to co-ordinate local programmes aimed at improving health and wellbeing, which could address air quality issues at local level.[50]

33.  Under the Environment Act 1995, local authorities have a duty to work towards improved air quality. Local authorities are required to carry out regular reviews and assessments of air quality in their area against the objectives in the Defra Air Quality Strategy. Where any of these objectives are not being achieved, authorities must designate air quality management areas and prepare and implement remedial action plans to tackle the problem. Once an air quality action plan has been set, local authorities must report to Defra or the relevant devolved administration on delivery against this action plan.

34.  As well as their specific role to protect the environment, local authorities are responsible for other functions that may affect air quality, and local air quality improvements are often an indirect result of measures to tackle congestion, road safety or employment. Good cooperation between transport, regulation, air quality, climate change, public health and spatial planning departments, as well as with partner organisations, is essential to ensure a strategic approach to improving the quality of life for those living near to busy roads and junctions.

35.  In its guidance on Local Transport Plans, DfT expects authorities to consider their contribution to national transport goals as over-arching priorities for their local transport plans. These include reducing social and economic costs of transport to public health, including air quality impacts, in line with EU obligations. DfT also provides guidance on assessing the impact of transport schemes on local air quality.[51] It requires the impacts on air quality to be appraised and monetised.

36.  The evidence we have received suggest that there is no longer a significant issue about providing local authorities with the guidance to deliver local air quality management. Instead, the problem now lies in empowering local authority environmental health officers with the levers to deliver change, and putting the air quality issue on the agenda of key decision makers at the highest levels of local government. The Government's review of Local Air Quality Management found that local politicians tend to accord air quality a low priority.[52] the Healthy Air Campaign told us that raising air quality as a priority is particularly difficult while many local authorities have to cut their budgets and are reducing their environmental health departments.[53] The Local Government Group told us that Government needs to engage actively in promoting a clear message about the impacts of poor air quality with those in key decision making positions in local authorities.[54]

37.  The Government must engage with local authority leaders to set out clearly the risks of failing to act on improving air quality. It must help local authorities to join up thinking across their departments to help identify where conflicts arise and where improvements can be made. This needs to be done in a way that influences decisions taken by local enterprise partnerships and planning authorities and takes account of new public health reforms. Government engagement with local authorities also needs to address establishing a national framework for low emissions zones (paragraph 38) and a public awareness campaign (paragraph 43).

38.  The Localism Bill would provide a means by which EU fines from failure to comply with air quality targets could be passed on from central government to local authorities. However, there is ambiguity about how the responsibility for delivering air quality improvements is divided between local authorities and central government. The LG Group have called for clearer understanding between central and local governments about which levers each can use to deliver change. Councillor Richard Kemp told us:

[...]at the moment it seems to me there is a lot that has just been devolved to local government, but frankly, if you are Warrington Council and you have two major motorways intersecting in the middle of your town, and you have another one on the fringe and you are not far from Manchester Airport, there are some things that you could and should do but there are some things that are clearly outside your control. We need to split who should be doing what so there is clarity between us. If we did that, then we could come to local agreements, council by council. [55]

39.  A blanket approach of transferring EU fines to those local authorities failing to meet air quality targets would be unfair. The causes of poor air quality are often beyond an individual authority's control. Any fines must take account of contributing sources of pollution from beyond a local authority's boundary and policy areas beyond its control. Fines should also take account of a local authority's failure to act in improving air quality. Transferring EU fines to local authorities might help to deliver air quality improvements but, if it pursues this, the Government must establish a mechanism where it only passes on a share of fines proportionate to a local authority's ability to influence local air quality. Many of the causes of poor air quality arise from policies for which central Government is responsible. Otherwise, the process is likely to result in lengthy and costly legal battles, and risks being seen simply as cutting local government financial support. Before it does this, the Government needs to assess the resource requirements of individual local authorities, depending on their circumstances, to be able to deal efficiently with the air quality challenge at a time of squeezed budgets.

Health reforms

40.  The Health and Social Care Bill envisages directors of public health being located within local authorities, having new public health improvement and health protection duties. An air quality indicator was included in the draft public health outcomes framework.[56] The LG Group argued that it is useful to have consistent baseline evidence to allow councils to compare performance, and that the new framework for health, social care and wellbeing could lessen reporting burdens and ensure all partners are working together on the same priorities.[57]

41.  James Grugeon, from the Healthy Air Campaign, told the committee that the transfer of public health duties to local authorities would also provide a significant opportunity to join up action between public health and environmental health departments to tackle air quality problems, to link up funding and potentially create greater resources for local authorities to tackle air pollution.[58] Councillor Richard Kemp recognised the greater influence that public health authorities may have in steering other areas of local policy:[59]

[...] we are going to make sure that public health is an important part of the work that we do within local government, not necessarily because they are a big department, but because they move into local government they are able to challenge our housing policy, our transport policy, our education policy, what we do in our parks, what we do in our youth clubs, and so on. There is a real thirst from most of the professionals for the move over.

As our witnesses noted, this will require direction at a national level with engagement from Department of Health. The Government must take full advantage of public health reforms to improve local authorities' abilities to improve air quality. In particular the Government should introduce indicators to measure public health improvements from better air quality in its public health reforms.

Low emission zones

42.  The European Union plays a key role in regulating pollution from road vehicles by setting European wide fuel standards and emission limits. Significant emission reductions from road vehicles have been achieved by fuel-based standards. The introduction of unleaded petrol and changes to the sulphur content of fuel led to a 99% reduction in lead emissions, a 96% reduction in sulphur dioxide.[60] The use of duty differentials incentivised rapid uptake of these cleaner fuels. Fuel standards, however, cannot be used to control NO2 or PM10 emissions in the same way. Emission and fuel standards work to reduce emissions of air pollutants from vehicle tail pipes. Recent research, however, shows that vehicle brakes and tyres emit at least as much particulate matter.[61] These types of emissions remain unregulated.

43.  Retrofitting is a fast-acting solution to minimise particulate emissions from diesel exhausts, and to make older vehicle engines meet current and future emission standards. The technology works by capturing these particles or pollutants. Government incentives for retrofitting exhaust systems are limited to the Reduced Pollution Certificate scheme, which offers reductions in Vehicle Excise Duty for lorries and buses that meet new emissions standards before they become mandatory. In its application for an extension to meeting the PM10 EU limit value deadline until 2011, the Government concluded that a mass diesel retrofitting programme for all polluting road vehicles would not be cost beneficial compared to a partial exemption which would provide additional time to enable planned measures to come into effect.[62] Several other EU countries offer direct incentives to encourage retrofitting for diesel engines. France, for example, offers a grant for the fitting of particulate filters on buses and the Netherlands provides subsidies for the fitting of particulate filters to heavy-duty vehicles.

44.  Vehicle emission standards ('EURO standards') have been effective in reducing air pollution from road vehicles, including PM10 and NOX emissions. However, the reductions achieved by EURO standards have been more modest than those resulting from fuel standards. This is because, even though they are mandatory for new vehicles, they do not apply to vehicles already on the roads. Furthermore, many NOX abatement technologies used to achieve EURO emissions levels fail to work efficiently in urban driving cycles, and so, in larger cities, the emissions reductions have not been as good as predicted. Recent data on emissions of regulated pollutants shows that there is still capacity for EURO standards to reduce emissions of NOX and particulate matter from all vehicles further, particularly from diesel vehicles[63]. The European Union is introducing further EURO standards on pollutant emissions from both light and heavy-duty road vehicles, particularly for emissions of NOX and particulate matter. As compliance with some of these standards will not be mandatory for several years, the impacts will not be seen until 2015 at the earliest.

45.  Policies to encourage the use of cleaner vehicles include car scrappage schemes, tax incentives and low emission zones (LEZs), which deter the most polluting vehicles from entering a particular area. In Germany, there is a national framework for low emission zones, which facilitates local implementation of low emission zones, and, importantly, provides certainty to businesses that their fleets will be compliant with all emission zones within the country. There is no such national legislative framework in the UK. The Government response to the previous report noted that rather than develop a national framework for LEZs, local authorities would be able to decide individually on implementing these.[64] Since the Government response was published, Defra have conducted an impact assessment of the costs and benefits that such a scheme would entail. When account is taken of the costs of air pollution, this estimates a net monetary benefit for implementing a national framework. The Environmental Industries Commission regards a national framework for LEZs as a key driver in delivering 'green' economic growth.[65]

46.   In developing the London LEZ, Transport for London worked with authorities such as the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency and the Vehicle Certification Agency to develop certification of approved retrofit technologies. This certification could form the basis of a nationally recognised standard, which local authorities could use as part of their own LEZ schemes under a national framework. This would make it much easier for a local authority to establish a local LEZ and to prescribe what standard of vehicle would be allowed to enter, provided that they operate within the parameters of the national framework. However, lessons must be learnt from the failure of EURO standards to deliver the anticipated emissions reductions. Approved technologies for an LEZ must be proven to work effectively under the driving conditions of particular LEZ areas. As a matter of urgency, the Government must set up a national framework for low emission zones to establish a recognised standard for emissions and vehicle identification, supported by a national certification scheme of retrofit technologies.

Increase public awareness

47.  The public are also a key player in the delivery of cleaner air. They could benefit from better understanding the health impacts associated with air pollution and what action they can take to reduce these impacts. In many aspects of their lives, people can take action to reduce the impact that air pollution has on their own health. Despite this, there remains a lack of clarity in how the Government communicates the health risks of air pollution for individuals, both in terms of differing levels of personal exposure to pollutants, and how susceptible people are to the effects of pollution. The Air Quality Management Resource Centre notes that Government reports have identified the health impacts of poor air quality in the UK as being almost twice those of physical inactivity (£20 billion a year compared to £10.7 billion) yet it fails to receive the same level of attention within medical and media circles.[66] Similarly, some studies have suggested that the cardiovascular risk of exposure to traffic pollution may well be similar to that from passive smoking, though it does not get comparable attention.[67]

48.  EPUK say Government documents and statements have consistently downplayed the health impacts of air pollution. Often repeated quotes from the current UK Air Quality Strategy include '99% of the UK meets European air quality standards'.[68] This statistic is for geographical area rather than the percentage of the population affected - the 1% of the UK that does not meet the standards includes some of our most densely populated urban areas, whilst much of the 99% that is 'clean' is sparsely populated countryside. Another commonly repeated statistic is that 'air pollution is currently estimated to reduce the life expectancy of every person in the UK by an average of 7-8 months'. This suggests that the impacts are evenly spread across the UK population, when in fact the impacts are concentrated in particular areas and the health impacts for those that live and work there are actually severe.

49.  The Government response to our predecessors' report was that there would be no national campaign on air quality. The Government's own review of Local Air Quality Management for Defra reported that:

We would like to see the development of simpler and clearer messages in three areas in particular. First, while recognising that it is important not to prompt unjustified public alarm, we consider that the health impacts of poor air quality need to be communicated much more effectively. In particular, for communication purposes, we would like to see less reliance on measurement in terms of reduced average life expectancy, and the development and publication of new comparative measures which convey the health impacts in a way which is more meaningful to a non-expert audience. [69]

50.  In June 2011 COMEAP reported on a review it was asked to undertake by Defra on the Air Quality Index, which is used to communicate information about real-time and short-term forecast levels of outdoor air pollution. The review found that there is both a lack of awareness amongst the public regarding the links between air pollution and ill-health, and a lack of understanding concerning existing air quality information. It recommended that greater public awareness be achieved through the updating of the Air Quality Index.[70]

51.  The Government already supports communications expenditure which helps to raise awareness about air quality. This includes systems to inform members of the public, including vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly, about air quality risks. However this information could be used to target not only those affected by poor air quality but also those able to influence its creation. At our evidence session on 8 June all our witnesses called for a public awareness campaign on the health effects of poor air quality. They believed that it would be the most effective thing the Government could do to tackle the problem. However, there appears to be reluctance in Government because of measures to reduce spending on public awareness campaigns more generally. The Minster told us the Government had decided in March that only essential expenditure on new advertising and marketing would be allowed and that central approval would be required for government campaign spending over £100,000. He noted that:[71]

We are very interested in the Healthy Air Campaign sponsored by Environmental Protection UK and launched in July 2011, and are keen to explore ways of working with them to support their campaign and to promote awareness through their activities.

52.  The costs to society from poor air quality are on a par with those from smoking and obesity. A public awareness campaign would be the single most important tool in improving air quality. It should be used to inform people about the positive action they could take to reduce emissions and their exposure. It should also be used to provide an impetus for action in local authorities to deliver more joined up thinking on achieving air quality targets. The Government should provide Defra with the means to launch such a campaign. This could be done in collaboration with existing campaigning groups, to ensure maximum cost effectiveness and coverage.

34   Environmental Audit Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2010-12, Embedding sustainable development: the Government's response ,HC 877  Back

35   Defra, Government response to the Environmental Audit Committee Report on Air Quality in the UK, Cm7966, November 2010 Back

36   Ev 48 Back

37   Defra, Air Quality Strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, 2007 Back

38   Environmental Audit Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2009-10, Air Quality, HC 229  Back

39   HC Deb, 3 Oct 2011, col 1388W  Back

40   Ev 29 Back

41   Ev 25 Back

42   Q 86 Back

43   Ev 35 Back

44   Ev w 43 Back

45   Cm (2010-12) 7966, para 47 Back

46   ibid Back

47   ibid Back

48   Cm (2010-12) 7966, paras 67, 72 Back

49   Cm (2010-12) 7966, paras 67, 72, para 62  Back

50   Cm (2010-12) 7966, paras 67, 72, para 56 Back

51   DfT, Transport Analysis Guidance: 3.3.3, 2011 Back

52   Defra, Review of Local Air Quality Management, 2010 Back

53   Q 15 Back

54   Q 22 Back

55   Q 19 Back

56   DoH, Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Transparency in Outcomes Proposals for a Public Health Outcomes Framework, 2010 Back

57   Ev 33 Back

58   Q 24 Back

59   Q 25 Back

60   Defra, An Evaluation of the Air Quality Strategy, 2004 Back

61   Ev 25 Back

62   NAO, Air quality: Briefing for the Environmental Audit Committee, 2009 Back

63   ibid Back

64   Cm7966, November 2010, paras 67, 72 Back

65   Environmental Industries Commission, Manifesto to Government, 2011 Back

66   HC (2009-10) 229 Back

67   HC (2009-10) 229 Back

68   Ev 31 Back

69   Defra, Review of Local Air Quality Management, 2010 Back

70   COMEAP, Review of Air Quality Index, 2011 Back

71   Ev 47 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 November 2011