Air Quality and coronavirus: a glimpse of a different future or business as usual Contents

4National and local action

59.As discussed in Chapter 3, the Government’s Air Quality Strategy relies on coordinated national and local action. This chapter further explores how well national and local leadership work together to persuade the public of the need for action on air quality and the actions the public sector can take to demonstrate leadership in tackling its own emissions.


60.Sustrans, among others, made the case that the Government needs to provide stronger leadership on the need to tackle air pollution and build a consensus with the public and partners on the steps to address it.127 Mums for Lungs told us that there was such “a gap in Government-action” that they had felt compelled to run their own awareness campaign about how air pollution damages children’s health.128 Jemima Hartshorn from the group told us that rather than parents pushing for action and having to mobilise people before the Government acted, the Government should be fulfilling its roles to both educate the public about the case for change and take action.129

61.Subrah Krishnan-Harihara from Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce highlighted the need for join-up between local and national action, stating that “we have to have one national policy with a certain set of targets. It is not going to work if we adopt a piecemeal approach”.130 Paul Swinney from the Centre for Cities argued that while central Government should set the agenda, local authorities already had powers to introduce measures like congestion charging zones, but, apart from London and Glasgow, “by and large, pretty much all of them have chosen not to”.131 He did not think “we should let local authorities off the hook” but considered that “they need central Government support” to be able to act.132 Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, told us:

One of our key drivers of concern is the M32. We do not control that. It comes right into the middle of the city […] We might even look at the way Government Departments work. One of the biggest drivers of road journeys in the city is the NHS. […] If we are frank about it and we are thinking about road journeys, Government departments have to think about the impact that their operations have on cities and how they are accountable to the local area.133

62.Councillor Matthew Holmes, Deputy Leader of Derby City Council, said “it was right” that the Council developed the solutions it felt were “best for our city and our region, and work with Government on that”.134 He added “we do not want it topdown […] It needs to be a partnership”.135 He also agreed that Government had an interest in how funding it provided was spent and its contribution to national ambitions.136 Marvin Rees told us he wanted “a bankable partnership” through which national government helped the council “develop solutions that we know are going to cross the line because we worked on them together”.137 However, his experience was not one of active collaboration but one of central Government saying “send us your Excel sheet in a couple of years and we’ll tell you whether it meets the criteria”.138

63.Marvin Rees also criticised the lack of coordination in central Government which led to blocks on local action. Local NHS providers in Bristol had objected to the council’s initial Clean Air Zone proposal, which would have involved a ban on diesel engines, as it would have increased their supply chain costs.139 However, the Minister at Defra was unaware of the potential objections, as “there had been no conversation” with the DHSC about the proposed scheme’s impact.140

64.Local leaders must also balance different competing local priorities and interests. Marvin Rees told us that people in Bristol understood why air quality needed to improve.141 However, “the challenge comes in the nature of what we do to get there”, questioning whether it was right to introduce a charging zone for some vehicles entering the city “as we go into the economic depression now… do we then introduce more charges to households and small businesses?”142 He also stressed that “we have to respect the immediate challenges that people are facing right here, right now”, which for some was not air quality, but the safety of their street or feeding their children.143 If he did not listen to his residents immediate priorities he would “undermine our ability to lead the city”.144

65.Addressing the question of co-ordination within Government, Minister Rebecca Pow explained that:

The clean air strategy […] that sits under Defra’s 25-year Environment plan. The 25-year Environment Plan is cross-Government […] We have to work with other Departments […] We work very closely with the Department for Transport. We work just as closely with BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy], because that has to deal with all the industry and business […] They are all having to look at reducing their emissions and pollutants. Then we work at the other end with the Department of Health. This is cross-Government. Perhaps we need to highlight that a bit more. Perhaps people are not aware enough of quite how closely we are working. Indeed, we probably need to work even more closely.145

The Ministers also highlighted the work of the Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) shared between Defra and DfT as a concrete example of joined up working across Government.146

66.Minister Racheal Maclean’s response on how DfT worked with local authorities to tackle local air quality issues was:

In the Department for Transport, we monitor. When the exceedances are identified, that is when we start the process of having that business plan […] the discussions will then take place in JAQU about how we help them to tackle the air quality issues they have in their particular local areas. I mentioned Bath, Bristol and Birmingham […] there is a long list of other areas that we are working with.147

67.We recognise the commitment of the ministers in Defra and DfT, and their officials, to tackling poor air quality. However, it is not clear that this is matched elsewhere in Government, nor is the urgency of the issue being communicated strongly enough to the public. Local campaign groups will always have a vital role in raising public awareness of these issues, but they should not have to fill a void left by Government. Often those local authorities who have been leading the way on air quality have been frustrated by a lack of effective, joined-up, engagement from central Government. Where local councils need to show greater leadership in using the tools they already have; they would be assisted by more joined-up support from Government with all departments, not just Defra and DfT involved. The Ministers’ answers do not give us confidence that this is happening. The Government should therefore expand the Defra/DfT Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) to include the DHSC, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, HM Treasury, and the Cabinet Office to achieve better coordination and increase its priority within Whitehall. The JAQU’s remit should include building support for action on air quality collaborating with local government, the NHS, business, academic and clinical researchers and civil society.

Showing leadership

68.Another way it was suggested that government and the public sector at all levels could show leadership was through reducing the air quality impact of their own operations and supply chains, for example converting public sector vehicle fleets to zero or low emissions models.148 The BMA’s evidence highlighted that over five per cent of all road travel in England is NHS related.149 Kate Langford told us that GSTC had been working with local hospital partners to “improve population health by tackling their own emissions” and that “last year, they launched a freight consolidation hub, which is going to cut the number of truck deliveries into central London by 90% through taking off 36,000 truck deliveries every year”.150

69.Local government leaders from Bristol and Derby told us their councils were transitioning their fleets to low emissions vehicles.151 Similarly, Bath and North East Somerset Council told us it was ensuring that its “own fleet is compliant with the [Clean Air Zones] scheme, including the provision of electric vehicles and bikes for use by employees”.152 Cllr Holmes from Derby emphasised the importance of local authorities showing leadership, because “how are we going to get local businesses and the general public to follow us if we do not lead by example? […] We need to be doing everything we are telling other people to do”.153

70.However, Cllr Holmes cautioned:

It is a challenge because we have to balance very tight budgets now. We have pressures on our children’s services. We have the impact of covid-19. Now, yes, we are getting some Government support for those things. However, when we budget set, each year, it is a huge challenge […] Whether that is Government funding or local funding, it is irrelevant really in the public’s eyes.154

71.UK Government Departments and their public bodies should already be setting an example through adhering to the minimum standards for procuring their own vehicles as set out in the Government Buying Standards for Transport 2017 (GBS).155 For all vehicles, the GBS set a default requirement that they must comply with “zero or ultra low emission at tailpipe with alternatives considered only in exceptional circumstances”.156 To date, however, the wider public sector is only being “encouraged to meet these standards”.157

72.Government and the public sector at all levels must lead by example on air quality if they are asking businesses and individuals to make changes. There are numerous examples of that already happening in the NHS, local government and other sectors, with some public bodies, for instance seeking to minimise emissions from their own vehicle fleets and their suppliers. This should become standard across the public sector. This would contribute to the Government’s drive to support a Green Recovery discussed in Chapter 5. The Clean Air Strategy should be updated to included measures to reduce air quality impacts from central and local government and other public bodies (directly and from procurement and supply chains). Given the other pressures on budgets, where necessary, extra Government funding should be made available to facilitate this. The Government should also update the Government Buying Standards (GBS) to extend the mandatory requirement to procure only zero tailpipe emissions vehicles, except in exceptional circumstances, across the whole of the public sector by 2025. The Government should also set out in their response to this report how many organisations covered by the existing GBS have used the exemption for exceptional circumstances and why. The Committee looks to HM Treasury to incentivise sustainable public and private transport.

Clean Air Zones

73.Clean Air Zones (CAZs), or Low Emission Zones (LEZs) are local authority-designated areas with policies designed to reduce pollution especially from vehicles, and will make up England’s Clean Air Zones Framework.158 They form the core of the Government’s approach to tackling high NO2 levels in local areas, with 60 local authorities across the UK directed to consider whether introducing a CAZ would meet NO2 limits in the shortest possible time.159 CAZs can be either ‘non-charging’ or ‘charging’ zones. Both involve targeted action in a specific local area including through planning policy, licencing of taxis and buses, and supporting walking and cycling.160 Charging CAZs also impose a fee to enter, or move within, a zone for private vehicles that do not meet a prescribed emissions standard.161

74.The Government’s reliance on CAZs and which areas should be directed to consider them has been a matter of long running controversy and litigation.162 Only one CAZ has been implemented so far in Greater London. The London LEZ was introduced in 2008 and the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) introduced in 2019 and is due to be expanded in October 2021.163 Client Earth suggested that 26 of the 40 English councils directed to produce stand-alone plans to tackle excessive NO2 concentrations, including considering a CAZ, are yet to do so with “many missing multiple government-imposed deadlines”.164

75.Of those areas that had decided to introduce a CAZ, several have postponed them because of the pandemic, including Bath (from 2020 to 2021) and Greater Manchester (from 2021 to 2022).165 As well as the impact of the pandemic on councils’ wider capacity, lockdowns have prevented them collecting stable traffic and emissions data needed for public consultations on CAZs.166 However, several CAZs had already been delayed before the pandemic including in Birmingham and Leeds, which Client Earth blamed in part on the Government’s failure to deliver digital systems such as the vehicle checker tool and payment systems which local authorities need to implement charging.167 The Transport Minister confirmed that the vehicle checker had been delayed, blaming the inevitable “hiccups” in any project, but added that it was now “on track”.168 TFGM also highlighted that it took a year (from March 2019 to March 2020) for the Government to consider its outline business case for funding.169

76.Following the pandemic, a number of areas are considering whether a CAZ is now needed. For example, in Leeds a review concluded its delayed CAZ was “no longer required” because of “air quality improvements […] made over the past two years”.170 Professor Alistair Lewis suggested that more broadly:

If clean air zones […] are delayed for many more years, they will essentially be redundant because the NO2 problem is gradually going away. If they had been introduced in 2015, the integrated benefits of that would have been significant. One does have to worry a little bit that introducing something in 2023 or 2025 is effectively fighting yesterday’s battle.171

However, Paul Swinney from the Centre for Cities argued that delays by local councils and the Government meant:

Literally, the people they are serving are dying because we are not dealing with those air quality issues. That is a big thing to get hold of, to get them to understand and to push these policies through, with more financial support to assist in doing that.172

77.Paul Swinney also raised concerns around a lack of resources for CAZs, arguing that the Government’s Clean Air Fund, which helps local authorities implement CAZs, needed to triple to £660 million, to enable councils to introduce the technology needed to make CAZs work.173 These concerns are not new. In its 2018 report our predecessor Committee noted “local authorities face significant financial restrictions” which were “directly affecting their ability to meet air pollution targets” and recommended “commensurate financial increases in the Implementation Fund and Clean Air Fund”.174

78.For some areas the issue was not about money, but a lack of skills and the impact on Officer and Member time. Cllr Matthew Holmes, Deputy Leader of Derby City Council, told us the CAZ process “needed specific skills and knowledge that we did not have within [the] local authority”.175 The Government had funded specific specialists and consultants that Derby “needed to bring in for this task, so it did not have a financial impact on the council”, but “there was a [staff] resource impact”.176

79.Professor Eloise Scotford identified the “fragmentation” of different approaches across the country as part of the problem, with councils left to come up with their own solutions.177 She argued for a cooperative approach with local authorities “working together rather than competing for resources”, with the “efficiency of having some more simple and common solutions” and a single CAZ-framework rather than lots of different ones.178

80.Professor Scotford also identified “political resistance in local authorities to implementing” CAZs and some had “dragged their feet” according to Paul Sweeny.179 We discussed with Marvin Rees and Cllr Holmes the trade-offs and challenges faced by local councils in developing CAZs alongside other action to tackle air quality and their wider responsibilities.180 Cllr Holmes noted that, given Derby’s “compact footprint”, any action the Council took “causes resistance. Even small change is going to cause resistance”.181 Whilst maintaining his commitment to tackling air quality, Marvin Rees stressed the need not to “lose the dressing room” (i.e. the support of local people) because of the impact of a CAZ on households and small business at a time of economic distress.182

81.Mr Rees also echoed several other witnesses in questioning the wider CAZ policy, arguing that they are “a last gasp” and that “you have to support cities to build homes in the right places in the middle of the city and deliver the mass transit system”.183 Clean Air Zones are also “a very blunt tool” which made it difficult to focus on areas affected by health inequalities, as:

You choose a set number of streets around the city and you say, “Get those to levels of compliance” […] There is no consideration of the inequalities and the impacts on health inequalities. Yet that is where all the energy […] [and] threat of legal action is driven, rather than talking to us and working out how we deliver compliance in general, which is what we want to do across the whole city.184

82.The need to evaluate local efforts to tackle air quality was emphasised by Kate Langford of GSTC, who suggested that few currently are.185 As well as ensuring value for money, this was vital to building public support for schemes like CAZs so people could see the impact they had had. However, currently local authorities were “working on a shoestring” and needed “extra resource to make sure that these changes have the type of impact they are looking to have”.186

83.In 2018, our predecessors found inconsistencies in air quality modelling and monitoring across the country and called on the Government to work with local authorities to improve the accuracy of air quality measurements.187 This has not been a strong theme in the evidence for this inquiry. However, questions clearly do remain in some areas, as was highlighted in our evidence session with the Ministers in relation to Canterbury.188 Dr Bill Parish from the Air Quality and Industrial Emissions team at Defra told us:

Some local authorities are understandably under financial pressure and have made their own decisions where kit is no longer maintained. To be quite honest, we do not have a clear understanding about which local authorities are really struggling to maintain an understanding of what is happening in their particular area.189

84.When asked whether the Government remained committed to implementing CAZs given its agreement to defer a number of them, the Transport Minister, Rachel Maclean, told us:

There is no sense that we are letting any of it slip […] It is not really the case that, because we have had a lockdown and people are now working from home, we do not need to implement them anymore. We do still need to implement them. There might be some local changes for some of them but, broadly speaking, we know that we need to see those behaviour changes coming on stream.190

She added that Government had provided £880 million of funding for CAZs to date under its 2017 UK plan for tackling roadside NO2.191 Defra Minister Rebecca Pow also highlighted the flexible and evolving nature of the CAZ process which had led to some being delayed or amended:

There is upfront funding for local authorities, but it is really up to them when they want to put that funding into operation. Some hang on to it and wait until the CAZ is fully arranged, and some have spent money upfront. I was going to give the example of Leeds City Council. It spent quite a lot of its upfront funding on its taxis and heavy vehicles to swap them over to be less emitting and cleaner services. It sparked a whole change in behaviour and communication. That has brought forward what we call the compliance time to get within the legal limits sooner than was expected, so now it is not going to go full steam ahead with the CAZ.192

85.On evaluation, Andrew Jackson from the Defra and DfT JAQU stated:

We have a full evaluation plan for all the measures implemented by local authorities […] It is work that we in JAQU are going to do to co-ordinate across local authorities with deep dives, long-term studies […] and some more rapid case assessments […] The plans are backed up with that plan for evaluation.193

86.The Government provided us with an updated timetable on Clean Air Zones on 29 January 2021.194 However, this does not provide a full picture of the position of all local authorities which had been directed by the Government to consider introducing CAZs, including those authorities which have decided to introduce other measures or may be reviewing their decisions because of the pandemic.

87.Clean Air Zones (CAZs) are the UK Government’s key mechanism for reducing NO2 from road transport to legal levels “in the shortest possible time”, but they illustrate the Government’s over-reliance on local government to deliver progress. CAZs were already being held up before the pandemic by delays in national funding, lack of national support and local delays. The Government’s updated CAZ-timetable provides only a partial picture with regards to all the local authorities that had been directed to consider whether to introduce CAZs. Many CAZs have been further held up by the pandemic so a concerted effort is needed to achieve faster progress, requiring a more cooperative and joined-up approach between national and local government, as well as more funding. Although local NO2 levels may fall below legal limits over time because of wider changes, in the interim, many local residents will die or suffer health impacts. We also note that some questions remain about the measurement and accuracy of air quality across the country. The Government should, in its response to this report, set out revised timetables for when all the proposed CAZs in England will be implemented and ensure that they are “the shortest possible time”. It should set out the current position with regards to those local authorities which have decided to introduce alternative measures to CAZs, and for those authorities which may be reviewing their proposals because of the pandemic. It should also review what further resources are needed to ensure those timetables don’t slip further.

88.The Government’s framework should ensure that all CAZs are class D (i.e. charging zones), and include time-limited exemptions for people with reduced mobility to help them adapt.

89.We recognise that CAZs do not address the root causes of air pollution, nor the wider issues beyond their boundaries, and that local leaders sometimes have to strike a difficult balance so as to not “lose the dressing room”. However, at times local government also needs to be prepared to push through CAZs and related actions, despite local opposition. They will be assisted in doing so by having clear evidence of the positive difference such interventions can have for local people and economies. The JAQU should work with local authorities and interested charities to review the scope and accessibility of its evaluation programme, to ensure that it can be used effectively at a local level to design new interventions and build support for them.

127 Sustrans (AQU0071) paras 1, 3 and 14

128 Mums for Lungs (AQU0047) para 11

148 See for example Global Action Plan (AQU0023)

149 British Medical Association (AQU0043) para 5.5

151 Q186 and Q189

152 Bath & NE Somerset Council (AQU0086) para 23

155 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Government Buying Standards for Transport 2017,’ accessed 22 January 2021

158 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Department for Transport, Clean Air Zone Framework: Principles for setting up Clean Air Zones in England (February 2020)

159 Client Earth (AQU0056) para 16

160 Local Government Air Quality Responsibilities, CBP 8804, House of Commons Library, 25 February 2020, pp 14–15

161 Local Government Air Quality Responsibilities, CBP 8804, House of Commons Library, 25 February 2020, pp 14–15

162 Summarised in Brexit and Air Quality, CBP 8195, House of Commons Library, May 2019, pp 23–30

163 The Low Emission Zone (LEZ) covers most of Greater London to encourage the most polluting heavy diesel vehicles driving in London to become cleaner. Vehicles are charged if they do not meet LEZ emissions standards. Tougher LEZ standards for heavy diesel vehicles will be introduced on 1 March 2021. The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) covers central London with most vehicles including cars, vans and lorries having to meet ULEZ emissions standards or drivers must pay a daily charge to drive within the zone. In October 2021 the ULEZ will expand to cover a single, larger zone covering central London up to, but not including, the North Circular and South Circular roads. Transport for London, ‘Low Emission Zone’ and ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone,’ accessed 27 January 2021.

164 Client Earth (AQU0056) para 49

165 Defra, ‘Drive in a clean air zone,’ accessed 27 January 2021; “Greater Manchester pushes Clean Air Zone back to 2022”, Fleet World, 21 May 2020; Bath & NE Somerset Council (AQU0086)

166 Local Government Association (AQU0020) para 5.7

167 Client Earth (AQU0056) para 45

169 Transport for Greater Manchester (AQU0038) para 12

173£260 million of clean air funding launched by government”, Defra press release, 23 March 2018; Q81.

174 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Environmental Audit, Health and Social Care, and Transport Committees, First Joint Report of Session 2017–19, Improving Air Quality, HC 433, para 77

187 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Environmental Audit, Health and Social Care, and Transport Committees, First Joint Report of Session 2017–19, Improving Air Quality, HC 433, para 46

191 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Department for Transport, UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations (July 2017)

194 With regards to Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, Tyneside, Sheffield, Bradford, Greater Manchester, Portsmouth and Liverpool. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (AQU0092) para 2

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