Air quality Contents

3Defra’s nitrogen dioxide plans

22.Our inquiry was triggered in part by Defra’s plans,31 published in draft in September 2015 and in final form in December 2015,32 for meeting EU limits on NO₂.33 These limits are currently exceeded in 38 out of 43 UK areas.34 The EU extended its deadline for compliance to 2015 but most English cities will not achieve compliance until 2020. Five cities—Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Derby and Nottingham—will not achieve the limits until 2025 if additional measures are not introduced. London is projected to comply by 2030 without additional measures. Defra’s plans therefore set out additional measures which will enable those five cities to meet limits by 2020 and show how London will meet them by 2025.

Clean Air Zones

23.Some 80% of NOx in areas exceeding EU limits comes from road transport so Defra’s plans focus on this sector through the introduction of statutory Clean Air Zones (CAZs). Defra intends that CAZs in the five cities will discourage older, more polluting buses, taxis, coaches and lorries by charging them to access key areas. Councils will only be able to charge enough to recover scheme costs, not to raise additional revenue. Other municipal areas may introduce voluntary CAZs but councils there will not have the power to charge drivers.

24. Councils will scope out the details of schemes, including geographical extent, for local community consultation, but Defra will set national standards on vehicle emissions, and legislation will define the types of vehicle to which controls will apply. There will be four categories of Zone applying controls to:


25.Defra’s remit for the capital is principally to support and monitor the delivery of plans made by the Mayor for London; the Mayor has specific duties and powers over air quality which do not apply in other cities. London already has an extensive Low Emission Zone, operative all day, every day; vehicles including vans and lorries must meet emission standards or pay a daily charge to drive in the Zone. Since 2015 buses have had to meet tougher standards within the Zone. From 2020, a new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) covering a narrower area of the capital (the current congestion charge area) will apply to all vehicles including cars.35 The Mayor’s plans also include retro-fitting buses and licensing only zero emission-capable taxis from 2018.36

Views of Defra’s NO₂ plans

26.Campaign group ClientEarth, which brought the 2015 case leading to the production of Defra’s plans, has rejected the plans as insufficient since they do not aim to achieve UK compliance before 2025; the organisation has announced new legal action against the Government.37 Witnesses criticised Defra’s plans as offering too little, too late: the plans proposed action to deliver only the minimum improvements required to meet EU limits and had been produced only in response to a Supreme Court judgment.38 Witnesses considered that even the plan’s limited emission reduction aims would not be achieved because of several deficiencies:

27.First, an absence of effective new measures: the LGA considered the proposals offered “no additional options of value” and had missed an opportunity to introduce measures to cut car emissions.39 Some witnesses, including Friends of the Earth, recommended that Zones limit access by both petrol and diesel cars.40 Defra does not propose that any of the five cities in current plans would adopt measures for cars, although London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone coming into force from 2020 includes charges for cars.41

28.Secondly, insufficient local powers: a widespread complaint was that the plans did not devolve sufficient powers to councils. Local authorities’ air quality responsibilities date back more than 20 years: in the opinion of the Institute of Air Quality Management (IAQM), “if local authorities were able to solve air quality problems using their own powers … . they would have done so already”.42 Witnesses identified planning and transport as specific areas requiring stronger local powers: CIWEM for example recommended amending planning rules to allow councils to designate “air quality neutral zones” within which any new development must meet certain benchmarks for both building and transport emissions.43 The Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health concluded that local authorities should have the power to close or divert roads to reduce traffic levels when air pollution exceeded limits.44 Councils have certain powers to close roads temporarily, using Traffic Regulation Orders for example, for air quality purposes but, as the House of Commons Library notes, it is “not a simple thing to make an Order and can often be expensive. A local authority is unlikely to make [an Order] unless it has a significant problem and substantial local support”.45 The GLA also noted that councils needed more powers to be able to enforce air pollution controls.46 Powers to charge vehicles to enter Zones are to be limited to the five most polluted cities (plus London which already has charging powers); other cities, even those currently exceeding EU pollution limits, will be able to adopt only “voluntary” Zones.

29.Thirdly, weak national leadership: many witnesses, while supporting local action, told us that this needed to be within the framework of a sufficiently robust national approach. The Government needed to provide councils with not only the right powers but also national leadership and vision. Nottingham City Council told us that, in putting the “majority” of the emphasis on local authorities, the Government had not achieved the right balance between national and local responsibilities.47 The IAQM considered the emphasis on local action was unlikely to lead to success without leadership at a national level.48

30.Fourthly, insufficient flexibility: a major criticism made by many witnesses was that Defra’s plans provided local communities with little flexibility to respond to local circumstances.

31. The GLA called for flexibility to determine details of Clean Air Zones locally so that access could be restricted not only based on vehicle type but on parameters such as congestion and road user safety.49 The LGA was concerned that setting rigid categories to determine the types of vehicles over which access controls would apply could lead to perverse actions.50 Nottingham City Council was also concerned about unintended consequences of blanket approaches: bus fares would have to rise to cover Zone charges and higher fares meant more people would use their cars, thus worsening pollution. This could be avoided if councils had the freedom to set local emissions standards for buses.51 The Freight Transport Association considered Defra’s plans to be a “blunt” tool which targeted heavy vehicles ahead of cars even though cars produced half of all traffic NOx.52

32.Ministers countered some of these arguments in oral evidence. Rory Stewart said that although only the five identified cities would be required to adopt Clean Air Zones, Defra would work with other cities that wanted to be more “ambitious” in cutting emissions below legal levels. He conceded that no NO₂ threshold was considered “safe”, and welcomed work by cities such as Oxford and York to lower emissions below the 40 micrograms per cubic metre legal limit.53 The Minister explained that Defra’s role was to “lay out what we believe [is] the most straightforward way” to meet legal limits by 2020 and to provide technical expertise. He said that councils would, however, have many detailed instruments at their own disposal giving them flexibility on how to administer Zones. The Minister invited local authorities with “ingenious, more cost-effective, smarter local ways” or who “wanted to go further” to work with Defra.54 He said that, provided local authority areas were compliant by 2020, how they achieved compliance was “basically up to them”.55

33.Defra’s plans for Clean Air Zones will impose a ‘one size fits all’ model on cities from Southampton to Leeds. The Department must give local authorities greater flexibility in order that they can tailor measures to best meet their local circumstances. For example, cities may find it more effective to limit vehicle access at certain times of day or to target specific bus routes rather than adopt blanket access proposals.

34.Charging powers are planned for only the five cities with the worst pollution yet dozens of areas breach EU limits: we recommend that Defra extends these powers to other councils in its Clean Air Zone legislation so that communities which wish to do so can tackle pollution hot-spots in this way.

35.We further recommend that Defra consults interested parties including local authorities and publishes revised proposals by 21 July 2016 which address concerns raised in this report. Alongside these, the Government must publish proposals to make it easier for local authorities to use powers over traffic movement and new development to tackle air pollution as and when the need arises, whether inside or outside Clean Air Zones.

Funding for local action

36.Potential measures to cut transport emissions include encouraging people to use public transport rather than their private vehicles or to walk or cycle where possible. Many cities outside the UK, such as Oslo and Bordeaux, have adopted more direct approaches by prohibiting city-centre car use, often helping city inhabitants to adapt to restrictions through introduction of better public transport, more pedestrianised areas, and efficient urban layouts with homes and businesses located in the same areas. Witnesses were concerned that funding constraints were limiting UK councils’ ability to adopt such approaches and to deliver the effective local action on which Defra’s plans rely.

37.Nottingham City Council, one of the designated Clean Air Zone cities, called on the Government to provide more targeted funding to speed up delivery of local measures. The Council drew attention to cuts in government funds for Local Transport Plans and the termination of the Sustainable Transport Fund in March 2016.56 The GLA said it could comply with EU limits sooner if it had more funding. It noted that grant programmes, such as the Defra Air Quality Grant, had reduced over time with no government commitment to its continuation in the long-term.57

38.Those outside the sector were also concerned about council finances. The IAQM considered councils’ “diminishing financial resources” to be a barrier to the establishment of Clean Air Zones,58 and CIWEM called for appropriate funding for local authorities, in proportion to the cost of poor air quality.59 Commentators calculate that this year’s grants of £500,000 for council air quality monitoring were a quarter of the level in 2011–12 and 2012–13. Some 12 projects run by eight councils have been approved for 2015–16 compared to 42 projects run by 36 councils three years ago.60

39.We put the figures on funding cuts to Defra Minister Rory Stewart during oral evidence. He rejected claims of “that kind of decline” in investment and told us that the Government was spending around £600 million over five years on “big ticket” work including cycling, walking, and electric vehicles.61 However, ClientEarth calculated that Clean Air Zones would cost councils £24 million to establish while government grants represented a small fraction of that.62 Councils in the five cities covered by Defra’s plans will be permitted to set charges for Clean Air Zones so as to recoup costs, although not to raise additional revenue, but no assessment is available as to what level of charge would fully cover costs or be acceptable to local communities.

40.Since Defra’s plans rely on local action to cut pollution, councils must be given support to implement programmes to encourage people to drive less and use public transport and cycle and walk more. Defra must ensure that councils are recompensed for any costs of implementing new Clean Air Zones which they are not able to recoup from reasonable charges on drivers. Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government must also preserve funding for wider programmes, such as those supported by the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which can demonstrate they deliver benefits in a cost-effective manner.

33 The EU Ambient Air Quality Directive sets legally binding limits for ambient concentrations of certain pollutants in the air. For NO₂ there are two limit values for the protection of human health. These require Member States to ensure that: (i) annual mean concentration levels of NO₂do not exceed 40μg/m3; and (ii) hourly mean concentration levels of NO₂ do not exceed 200μg/m3 more than 18 times a calendar year.

34 Defra’s plan acknowledges that addressing background concentrations and therefore other key pollution sources is also important. For example, emissions from industry (including energy, manufacturing, construction industry and processes) are the largest overall source of NOx in the UK accounting for 49% of UK NOx emissions in 2013.

35 Greater London Authority (AQU45)

36 The Government announces plans to improve air quality in cities”, Defra news release, 17 December 2015.

37ClientEarth takes government back to court over killer air”, ClientEarth news release, 18 March 2016

38 Friends of the Earth (AQU50)

39 Local Government Association (AQU27) para 3.18

40 Friends of the Earth (AQU50)

41 See Transport for London ULEZ webpages, accessed 11 April 2016

42 Institute of Air Quality Management (AQU14)

43 Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (AQU16) para 19

44 Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Every breath we take, February 2016, recommendation 6

45 Roads: Traffic Regulation Orders, Standard Note SN6013, House of Commons library, November 2014

46 Greater London Authority (AQU45)

47 Nottingham City Council (AQU53)

48 Institute of Air Quality Management (AQU14)

49 Greater London Authority (AQU45)

50 Local Government Association (AQU27) para 3.18

51 Nottingham City Council (AQU53)

52 Freight Transport Association (AQU17)

53 Q308

54 Q294

55 Q295

56 Nottingham City Council (AQU53)

57 Greater London Authority (AQU45)

58 Institute of Air Quality Management (AQU14)

59 Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (AQU16) para 4

61 Q300

62 Q60

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25 April 2016