Air quality: A followup report: Government Response to the Committee's Ninth Report of Session 2010-12. - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Appendix—Government response


1. The Government welcomes this further report on air quality from the Environmental Audit Committee and is pleased to respond to the Committee's recommendations.

2. The Government fully acknowledges the significant health and environmental benefits from reducing air pollution, which have been translated into substantial quantified economic benefits. Given these, it agrees with the Committee about the importance of securing further improvements. However the Government does not accept the Committee's view that it has failed to get to grips with the issue of air pollution. he Government has made a commitment to work towards full compliance with EU air quality standards and these, together with the significant public health and environmental benefits, are the central drivers for policy in this area.

3. The Government published its response to the EAC's March 2010 report on air quality in November 2010. Since then there have been significant developments in air quality policy both in terms of our understanding of the health impacts and in our understanding of the scale of challenge in achieving further improvements, especially in the short term.

4. Significant reductions have been achieved in emissions of lead, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen over many years. As a result, the UK now meets EU limit values for nearly all pollutants. The European Commission granted the UK additional time to meet the PM10 limit value in London until June 2011, and we will report on 2011 compliance for this pollutant in September 2012. The London Mayor's air quality strategy sets out a range of measures to reduce pollution in this area. or NO2 the position is much more challenging and accelerating expected reductions especially in transport emissions is proving to be very difficult. This is not just the case for the UK—most Member States in the European Union reported some level of non-compliance in 2010.

5. The UK published in September 2011 air quality plans for achieving NO2 limit values. These identified the most significant contributor to the current scale of exceedences of the limit values as being the failure of EU vehicle emission standards for oxides of nitrogen (NOX) to achieve the reductions intended for this pollutant. At the same time there had been increased dieselisation of the vehicle fleet and increased van and bus activity in urban areas. The combined effect of these factors has, meant that roadside levels of NO2 had not decreased as expected and, in places, had increased leading to more NO2 exceedences and declarations of air quality management areas at local level. Moreover, as has been acknowledged by the EAC, the underperformance of these technologies means that measures to accelerate the uptake of newer emission standards through low emission zones or in other ways must be scrutinised carefully to ensure money is targeted in a way that can be relied upon to deliver intended outcomes.

6. Securing further improvements in air quality cannot be considered in isolation from the precise policy measures available. Because of the significance of transport emission sources to air pollution, the choice of transport policy measures is especially important. The Committee did not in its report recommend any specific policy measures other than that the Government should establish a national framework for low emission zones, which we are already investigating (see below our response to recommendation 10). There are, however, difficult choices to be made for both national and local government in the selection of policy measures and a number of factors that need to be considered by local government in relation to implementing low emission zones. his is because low emission zones affect transport choices and priorities, as well as having implications for economic growth including at the local level. The pace at which we can achieve further reductions in NO2 must be realistic and sustainable, and be balanced against the pace of economic growth and resources available.

7. Local action is important in improving air quality in local 'hotspots' and working with local industry and other authorities to manage air quality. The Localism Act (given Royal Assent in November 2011) puts greater power in the hands of local government and local communities to influence decisions in their area and to support sustainable growth and development. These decisions can significantly affect local air quality; and local authorities have continuing responsibilities to assess and improve air quality where national objectives or limit values are at risk. The powers in Part 2 of the Localism Act to pass on infraction fines are intended to encourage local authorities to meet their European obligations and act responsibly. Part 2 of the Act will only be used in exceptional circumstances, after all the UK has never been fined for an infraction.

8. The Government is supporting action by local authorities to investigate measures to improve local air quality, and in 2011 allocated £3m towards local action. More widely, hundreds of millions of pounds have been allocated towards measures to support local sustainable transport, carbon reduction and economic growth; and many of these projects have potential to improve air quality in addition to meeting their primary objectives. The Government will continue to work with local authorities to deliver improvements and to encourage local authority decision makers to consider and, where practicable, to take measures within their powers to improve air quality.

9. The Government sees public awareness as central to achieving its goals on improving air quality; and a top priority is ensuring businesses and the public understand both the health impacts, and the actions that can be effective in reducing those health impacts. Since the Government's response to the Committee's first inquiry, substantial progress has been made regarding our understanding of the health impacts of air pollution and how this can be used in public communication.

10. The Government is proposing a new emphasis on air pollution in public health policy through the recently published Public Health Outcomes Framework. (see response to Recommendation 9 below). In preparation for this, it consulted widely on proposals for a new strategic outcomes framework for public health outcome indicators. Based on the significant public health impact of particulate air pollution, we have included an air pollution indicator in the published framework. This indicator is based on the mortality effect of man-made particulate air pollution, measured as fine particulate matter, PM2.5. This is intended to raise awareness of air quality as a public health issue with local authorities, in their capacity of having oversight for public health in their areas, as well as with GPs and Directors of Public Health at the local level.

11. We strongly welcome the engagement of the public and public campaigns in air quality especially the Healthy Air Campaign initiated by Environmental Protection UK and now supported by other sponsors. Only through better understanding can we hope to have a measured debate about air quality and the available measures to improve air quality and public health. Defra supports local action to raise public awareness on air quality, and is in discussion with the Healthy Air Campaign on opportunities for joint working. We would like to see a wider range of bodies supporting this and other campaigns.

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Prepared 27 February 2012