90.The UK Government has overall responsibility for meeting EU air quality limits. Defra has lead responsibility for meeting these targets, though the levers for action are spread across the Department for Transport (DfT), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (formerly DCLG), the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England, as well as local authorities and mayors. Effective cooperation and collaboration is needed between these units to tackle air pollution effectively.
91.The Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) was established as a joint venture between Defra and the DfT to deliver the Government’s NO2 reduction strategies. JAQU has an oversight Board for ensuring that the NO2 programme meets the strategic aims of Defra and DfT. Defra told us there was a “standing requirement that air quality be assessed in all relevant policies, programmes and projects”. This has been reflected in the Treasury’s Green Book guidance since 2013.
92.We were concerned about reports that Defra’s air quality objectives were not however reflected in the policies of other Departments, and that there was an ongoing lack of joined-up up thinking and cross-departmental collaboration. The Royal College of Physicians told us that there was “no incentive or framework for different departments to work together to devise a long-term strategy to tackle air pollution”. Our evidence identified a number of areas for improvement, including:
93.We asked Ministers what steps they were taking to improve joined-up working. Dr Coffey told us that an Inter-Ministerial Group on clean growth brought together senior representatives from different Departments, and stressed that Defra was “working proactively” across Government on air quality. She also said she had worked with Public Health England and the Health Minister to create a “toolkit” for public health directors. We did not however receive clear indications as to why these efforts at joined-up action would be more successful than those undertaken in the past.
94.Improvements to air quality can only be sustained by co-ordinated cross-departmental action on policy development, legislation, taxation and spending. Defra and the Treasury are not demonstrating the firm leadership needed to achieve this, and it is unclear that the Inter-Ministerial Group on clean growth has demonstrated sufficient progress either. The remit of the Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) should therefore be expanded to meet this need. JAQU should work with the Cabinet Office to ensure all Departments are clear about their duty to consider air quality in policy development. JAQU should further scrutinise policies relating to air quality across all Departments to ensure these form a coherent set of complementary actions. Public health officials should play a key role in JAQU’s scrutiny work to ensure health considerations are properly taken into account. Defra and the DfT should outline a delivery framework in response to this Report and provide us with regular subsequent progress updates.
95.Greater inter-disciplinary involvement in urban planning and collaboration across local authorities is needed to ensure that air pollution, congestion, obesity and a range of public health issues are tackled through joined-up initiatives. Government should give additional priority to the funding of infrastructure projects which will help to meet air quality objectives. We welcome efforts from local authorities to work collaboratively to address air pollution, and recommend the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) plays a more active role in supporting greater co-ordination.
96.More robust air quality policies should also be included in all Local Plans. MHCLG should audit Local Plans for authorities with NO2 exceedances to assess whether the National Planning Policy Framework guidance is doing enough to encourage effective action on air quality. MHCLG should inform us of its findings in response to this Report.
97.Our evidence indicated that HM Treasury had not taken sufficient steps to align fiscal policies with the Government’s air quality objectives. The road-tax system was identified as a key opportunity to join up CO2 and air pollution targets. Under the current approach, carbon emissions broadly take precedence over air quality. The National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) called for a re-think of this approach, saying it was questionable whether a singular focus on climate targets was representative of current national priorities. NCAS suggested examining whether CO2 and air pollution could be combined into composite instruments that delivered on both. The SMMT believed however that the appropriate method to assess tax on diesel vehicles “should take into account the role diesel has played in the decarbonisation of road transport [and] the importance of diesel in driving the economy”.
98.A number of industry bodies criticised the April 2017 amendments to Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), which removed CO2 emission banding. This move was said to have significantly reduced tax incentives to purchase an electric vehicle, and would hamper the growth of a second hand low-emission market which will be crucial to increasing clean vehicle uptake. We heard calls for the banding to be re-established and to take account of air quality emissions. The SMMT was however critical of suggestions to amend the VED rate, saying it would be a “blunt instrument that would not guarantee a specific and effective remedy to air pollution.”
99.The then Exchequer Secretary to HMT told us the Treasury was engaged in air quality and committed to going “much further” than simply meeting its legal obligations. We were therefore surprised he did not appear to have been provided with information on the health costs of poor air quality to the Exchequer. He maintained that HMT ensured its funding was used “wisely”, and rejected the suggestion that its fiscal incentives were providing mixed messages.
100.The health impacts of poor air quality cost the UK an estimated £20 billion per year. We are not convinced that HM Treasury is taking sufficient account of this when establishing taxation and spending policy. We are also concerned that current fiscal incentives for CO2 and NO2 reduction are disjointed. The Treasury must take greater account of the costs of air pollution when establishing taxation and spending policy. It must explore how existing policies to achieve CO2 reductions can be combined with air quality targets—particularly NO2 and particulate matter—to produce a single instrument that delivers on both. The Treasury could begin by examining the feasibility of incorporating harmful pollutant emissions into vehicle taxation. The Treasury should update us on progress in the Government’s response to this Report.
101.We recommend the Treasury introduces more ambitious measures to encourage the take-up of low emission vehicles. This should include a revision of Vehicle Excise Duty rates to better incentivise both new purchases and support the second-hand market.
102.The 2017 plan stated the Government was committed to investing over £2.7 billion in air quality and cleaner transport measures. This included:
The Government told us around £1.6 billion of the funding identified in the 2017 plan had been spent to date.
103.JAQU has direct oversight of £330 million in air quality funding, including the Implementation Fund; Air Quality Grant; Clean Bus Technology Fund and Clean Vehicle Technology Fund; and £40 million retrofit funding which is part of the National Productivity Investment Fund.
104.The NAO found that JAQU does not have an oversight system for tracking progress and spending on other Departments’ schemes that have measures intended to improve air quality. The spending on these measures is spread across eight sets of initiatives and accounts for over £2.2 billion between 2015 and 2020. We also heard there was a lack of information quantifying the benefits of investments in air quality and transport measures, which is needed to inform decision-makers evaluating whether proposed schemes are likely to be successful and provide value for money.
105.Defra said it supported practioners by providing “detailed guidance on how impacts on air quality should be incorporated into cost benefit analyses”. Mr Andrew Jones told us that “officials from the Treasury work with officials from other Departments across all the areas of Government expenditure, and monitor the success that is being achieved.” Dr Coffey said however that “we recognise that spending is going on right across different Departments and that we can do more to ensure that we have one dashboard that tries to establish that”.
106.There is no single effective system for tracking the funding commitments across Government which aim to deliver air quality benefits. We are also not convinced there is a unified system for evaluating and comparing the outcomes of particular air quality schemes. This lack of joined-up working and fragmented oversight means there is no way of knowing whether existing policies are delivering a coherent set of measures that represent good value for money.
107.The remit of JAQU should be expanded to track spending on measures intended to improve air quality across all Departments. JAQU should also develop a system to help better quantify what effect new policies will have on air quality, and measure their actual impact after implementation. This information should be collated into a single resource to provide a robust, easily accessible evidence base for future decision-making.
197 Defra () section 1
198 Institute of Air Quality Management (), ClientEarth ()
199 Royal College of Physicians (RCP) () p.4
200 National Centre for Atmospheric Science (), University of Nottingham ()
201 Sustrans () para 2
202 Policy Connect ()
203 Focusing on diesel efficiency, adopting retrofit technologies, including aerodynamics, body and mud skirts, installing speed limiters and investing in driver training.
204 Birmingham City Council () para 3.3
205 British Lung Foundation () section 4
206 Local Government Technical Advisers Group () para 2.3
207 Charted Institute of Environmental Health () section 1
208 Association of Directors of Public Health () para 1.2
209 Stagecoach Group () para 3.6
210 Where the transport system limits rather than facilitates people’s mobility, for example through the configuration of railways, roads with high speed traffic, bus routes and similar.
211 Association of Directors of Public Health () para 5.2
215 National Centre for Atmospheric Science () para 52
216 National Centre for Atmospheric Science () para 52
217 SMMT () para 28
218 NFDA (), RAC (), Vauxhall Motors (), Local Government Association () British Lung Foundation ()
219 British Lung Foundation () section 4
220 SMMT () para 27
225 Defra, , July 2017, para 4
226 Defra (IAQ0200) Annex A
227 NAO, , 2017, para 3.9
228 NAO, , 2017, para 3.10
229 WSP () section 4
230 Defra () section 1
Published: 15 March 2018