1.We published our most recent report on air quality in October 2011,1 which followed up an earlier report by the previous Environmental Audit Committee in March 2010.2 Our 2011 report noted growing scientific evidence for damage caused to public health by air pollution. The UK was failing to meet European targets for safe air pollution limits in 40 out of 43 UK assessment zones. We were concerned that the Government was not adopting a joined-up cross-departmental approach to the problem, and was still not giving air quality a high enough priority. The step change called for in the earlier 2010 report had not happened.

2.Our 2011 report recommended a number of Government actions, including:

3.Since our last report there have been a number of reviews strengthening the evidence that links air pollution to ill-health. Public Health England, who submitted evidence to our current Inquiry, highlighted:

Dr Ian Mudway of King's College London, who also gave evidence to us, believed that "the negative health impacts associated with pollution have become more robust", and that:

We have also found effects on infant mortality rates, on pre-term birth and on cognitive performance in children. There is some interesting data emerging on traffic proximity, diesel emissions and potentially autism spectrum disorders... The evidence over the last three or four years that children growing up near traffic in areas with high NO2 and primary particle emissions have stunted and impaired lung development is incredibly strong. Back in 2010 there was an HEI report that very critically looked at the evidence-based traffic data, and at the time it said there was a suggested link between impaired lung capacity in children and traffic pollution. I would say in the intervening period that data has become very strong.5

He believed that the WHO research indicated that "there are significant health effects below our limit values, and so not attaining our limit values should be seen in a very negative light. They are not a magic barrier we have to cross. They are our minimum expectations to protect public health."6

4.In April 2014, Public Health England calculated the local impact of particulate matter pollution on premature mortality, ranging from 2.5% in some local authorities in rural Scotland and Northern Ireland to over 8% in some London boroughs.7 Their report re-confirmed the oft-quoted estimate by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants that approximately 29,000 deaths per year in the UK could be attributable to man-made particulate matter pollution, equivalent to a loss of 340,000 life-years. Defra estimates the cost to the economy to be about £16 billion per year.8 The Natural Capital Committee's risk assessment for the Government gave seven types of natural asset the highest risk category including clean air. Any "improvements in urban air quality ... [would be] of particularly high value".9

A diagram illustrating the 5.3% of deaths in the UK that are attributable to long term exposure to pollution, and showing the corresponding numbers of deaths by region: 25,002 in England, 1320 Wales, 2094 in Scotland, 553 in Northern Ireland

5.In its latest statistical release in April 2014 Air quality statistics in the UK 1987-2013 Defra highlighted:

Urban background and roadside particulate pollution has shown long-term improvement but remained stable since 2008.

Urban background ozone pollution has shown a long-term increase while rural background ozone pollution has shown no clear long-term trend but increased in 2013 to 70 [micrograms per cubic metre] from 66[micrograms per cubic metre] in 2012, bringing it back to its previous levels in 2008.

There were on average fewer days of moderate or higher pollution at urban pollution monitoring sites in 2013 compared with 2012. There is a long-term decline in days of moderate or higher pollution at urban sites.

There were on average more days of moderate or higher pollution at rural pollution monitoring sites in 2013 compared with 2012, reversing the decrease in the previous year. However, there is a great deal of year-on-year variability and there is no clear long-term trend.

The main drivers of the average number of days when air pollution is "moderate" or higher are particulate matter and ozone, for urban and rural pollution monitoring sites in the UK respectively.10

Professor Alastair Lewis of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science told us in our current Inquiry that overall air pollution levels have remained "broadly flat" over the last decade or so.11 Dr Ian Mudway of King's College London noted that measurements showed "there has been no change" in London.

The table gives a breakdown of pollutants and sources of pollution as a percentage of total air pollution in England.

6.A broadly flat trajectory, however, will not allow the UK to meet EU air quality targets. Defra's latest Annual submission to the European Commission, Air Pollution in the UK in 2013, published in September 2014, reported that the EU annual mean limit value for NO2 was exceeded in 38 out of 43 air quality zones.12 The limit values for hourly NO2 were met in all zones except one –Greater London. The limit values for PM10, and the stage 1 limit values for PM2.5 [25 micrograms per cubic metre by Jan 2015] were met by all zones. Stage 2 limit values for PM2.5 [20 micrograms per cubic metre by Jan 2020] were met in all zones except Greater London.13

7.Since our last report, two court cases against the Government have been prompted by a failure to meet EU nitrogen dioxide limit values in 16 areas.14 The original deadline for meeting NO2 limit values under the Ambient Air Directive15 was 2010. Other countries had also failed to meet this deadline but the Commission had agreed extensions for those which had produced "a creditable and workable plan" for meeting the air quality standards by 2015. The UK did not submit plans for the 16 worst areas because Defra deemed it impossible to meet the 2015 extended deadline. Instead Defra's air quality improvement plans gave an estimate of 2025 to meet NO2 limit values in London and 2020 for the other areas. These estimates were subsequently revised upwards: Documentation used at a European Court of Justice (ECJ) hearing in July estimated that NO2 limits would now not be met in London, Leeds or Birmingham until after 2030.16

8.The first case, brought by Client Earth, led to a Supreme Court ruling in 201317 that the UK was in breach of its obligations under the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive.18 The Supreme Court referred the case to the ECJ. There, the European Commission and Client Earth argued that national governments should prepare plans that involve the use of all scientific remedies available regardless of cost and give a deadline for implementation. The UK Government argued that economic considerations should be permitted to be taken into account when planning air quality measures. The ECJ ruled on 19 November 2014 that the UK Government should have prepared plans to achieve compliance with limit values by January 2015, and that UK national courts could order the Government to produce an air quality plan which achieves nitrogen dioxide limits in "as short [a time] as possible".19 The UK Supreme Court is expected to make a final ruling in 2015.

9.In the second case, the European Commission started proceedings against the UK Government in February 2014.20 A judgment is not expected until 2018, at which point a fine could be imposed if the finding is against the UK. The European Commission told us that they were currently taking action against 17 other states for infringement of PM10 limit values and one for sulphur dioxide limit values, and were considering action against 17 other states for infringement of NO2 limit values.21

Our Inquiry

10.Against a background of firmer evidence on the health impacts of air pollution and the stalled progress on meeting EU air quality standards, we decided to examine the situation three years after out last report. In our previous report we emphasised the need for greater public awareness of this issue. In conducting this follow-up inquiry—our third on this topic in five years—we aim again to increase public awareness and to challenge the Government to continue to keep these matters in the forefront of public debate and policy-making and to account for its failure to take decisive action to improve air quality. We examined the situation in England, reflecting the scope of Defra's responsibility for air quality, though we recognise that some policy responses will have wider impacts, including the possible transfer of air pollution infraction fines to local authorities.

11.The bulk of our evidence focussed on pollution from road transport, which is the main cause of pollution in 92% of Air Quality Management Areas.22 It is "recognised as the biggest single contributor to two of the most harmful and widespread sources of air pollution—nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). Road transport is responsible for 42% of carbon monoxide, 46% of nitrogen oxides and 26% particulate matter in England.23 Our report accordingly focuses on road traffic, including the transport and development planning policies that impinge on it, although we acknowledge there are other policy areas that also warrant further examination.

The table gives a breakdown of pollutants and sources of pollution as a percentage of total air pollution in England.
The table gives a breakdown of sources of NOX, as a percentage of total air pollution in selected cities

12.We took evidence from expert witnesses in the field, from the European Commission, the Mayor of London and Sheffield City Council, and Ministers and officials from Defra, the Department for Transport and DCLG. To everyone who provided evidence, we express our thanks. We undertook our own research by wearing personal air pollution monitors around Westminster and in some constituencies. We are grateful to Dr Benjamin Barratt and his colleagues at the Environmental Research Group at King's College London for their analysis of the monitoring data (paragraphs 42, 82) and to Air Monitors Ltd for providing the monitors.

13.In Part 2 we examine areas where urgent action is needed to meet EU limit values; including low emission zones, and cleaning up transport, in particular taking action on diesel vehicles. We investigate the responsibilities of local authorities and the support provided by central government, as well as the role of the planning system. We also call for greater public awareness and changes in behaviour to mitigate air pollution and its effects. We call for a more coherent cross-Government approach to air quality and for the Government to apply pressure at EU level for robust and effective air quality targets in the future.

1 Environmental Audit Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2010-12, Air quality: a follow up report, HC 1024

2 Environmental Audit Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2009-10, Air Quality, HC 229.

3 Environmental Audit Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2010-12, Air quality: a follow up report, HC 1024-I, paras 30, 37, 41, 46, 52

4 Public Health England (AIR 0013) paras 6-9

5 Qq15, 17

6 Q5

7 Estimating local mortality burdens associated with particulate air pollution. Results included 6.4% in Birmingham, 5.4% in Liverpool, 7.2% in London, 5.9% in Manchester and 5.5% in Sheffield.

9 Natural Capital Committee, The State of Natural Capital: Restoring our Natural Assets, March 2014, p10

10 Air quality statistics in the UK, 1987 to 2013, Defra, Statistical release, 23 April 2014

11 Q1

12 Greater London Urban Area, West Midlands Urban Area, Greater Manchester Urban Area, West Yorkshire Urban Area, Tyneside, Liverpool Urban Area, Sheffield Urban Area, Nottingham Urban Area, Bristol Urban Area, Brighton/Worthing/Littlehampton, Leicester Urban Area, Portsmouth Urban Area, Teesside Urban Area, The Potteries, Bournemouth Urban Area, Reading/Wokingham Urban Area, Coventry/Bedworth, Kingston upon Hull, Southampton Urban Area, Birkenhead Urban Area, Southend Urban Area, Glasgow Urban Area, Edinburgh Urban Area, Cardiff Urban Area, Swansea Urban Area, Belfast Metropolitan Urban Area, Eastern, South West, South East, East Midlands, North West & Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, West Midlands, North East, Central Scotland, North East Scotland, South Wales, North Wales

13 Defra, Air Pollution in the UK in 2013 (September 2014)

14 Greater London, West Midlands Urban Area, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teesside, The Potteries, Kingston Upon Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, Eastern England, South East England, East Midlands, North West & Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, West Midlands and North East England

15 DIR2008/50/EC in Official Journal 152 of 11 June 2008

16 Updated projections for Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) compliance, Defra, July 2014. A 2030 estimate is given for Portsmouth and Southampton, and 2025 for Greater Manchester, Tyneside, Liverpool, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol, Leicester, Teesside, The Potteries, Coventry/Bedworth, Kingston upon Hull, Glasgow, Cardiff, Eastern, South West, South east, East Midlands, North West & Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, West Midlands, South Wales and North Wales. A 2020 estimate is given for Brighton/Worthing/Littlehampton, Bournemouth, Reading/Wokingham, Birkenhead, Southend, Edinburgh, Swansea, Belfast, Central Scotland and North East Scotland

17 JUDGMENT R (on the application of Client Earth) (Appellant) v The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent)

18 DIR2008/50/EC in Official Journal 152 of 11 June 2008

19 Court of Justice of the EU, 'The Court clarifies Member States' obligations as regards respecting the limit values for nitrogen dioxide'. Press release 153/14 19 November 2014

20 See Commission press release: 'Commission takes action against UK for persistent air pollution problems', 20 February 2014.

21 Q92

22 Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) (AIR 0010) para 11

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Prepared 16 December 2014