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

5Green economic recovery

90.As we discussed in Chapter 1, the first lockdown in spring 2020 led to a temporary improvement of air quality on some measures, driven by the steep fall in economic activity it caused. There are concerns that post-pandemic changes to the economy and working patterns might increase pollution.195 This Chapter explores how to support the economic recovery whilst accelerating progress on improving air quality, including how to enable businesses to reduce their impacts, maintaining the public transport network and reassuring the public it will be safe to use in future, active travel measures and how to adapt the built environment to enable people to change their travel behaviour.

91.The British Heart Foundation told us that measures “to promote economic recovery must prioritise a “green recovery” across all sectors to ensure a cleaner and greener future for all” including a “focus on clean growth” to “drive forward” the Clean Air Strategy.196 On the other hand, the Road Haulage Association was more cautious, supporting a “sustainable” rather than “green” recovery, emphasising that “transport, the movement of freight and road haulage, drives economic well-being”, so “policy-makers need to continue to support the economy and investment while creating a sustainable recovery”.197 Work by the Centre for Cities also highlighted the variable economic impact of the first lockdown across the country. Areas such as the South-East with higher numbers of workers who could work from home, saw fewer job losses in March and April compared to areas with a greater reliance on more traditional industries, although this picture was starting to change by the summer.198

92.The Prime Minister announced in June that the Government intended to “build back better, build back greener, build back faster”, and deal with the “country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades” on housing, health, skills, opportunities, productivity, connectivity, and “to unite and level up”.199 An example of the Government’s attempt to promote a “green recovery” was the November 2020 announcement of the ending of the sale of solely diesel and petrol powered cars by 2030, compared to a previous target date of 2040, which was presented as an opportunity to both improve air quality and “support economic growth right across the UK” via the £1.8 billion pledged to support the transition to zero emission vehicles.200

Supporting businesses to reduce their impact on air quality

93.Current economic circumstances may hinder efforts to reduce air pollution. For example, the LGA told us that bus and haulage operators “may postpone or cancel plans for capital upgrades of their fleets” so “the oldest and most polluting vehicles [will be] on our roads for longer”.201 Similarly, GSTC said many businesses and business improvement districts had told them “they will find it difficult to invest in the current economic uncertainty” which “creates a compelling case for public sector co-investment to leverage wider business investment”.202 The charity had itself discussed loan schemes with local businesses to enable them to transition to greener options such as cargo bikes or electric vans.203 There may also be a need for what Kate Langford told us would be a “combination of carrot and stick policies”, including adapting carbon audit processes to also look at local air pollution.204 Given many business “do not have the methodologies to do that”, she suggested that the Government should set standards.205

94.The Transport Minister told us that the DfT was committed to:

Building back better and putting a green recovery at the heart of everything we do […] We have committed to investing £2.5 billion altogether just in the transition to electrical vehicle infrastructure. That is only the start of what we need to invest. We are putting the full weight of Government behind this agenda.206

Asked whether the Government would introduce specific measures to enable business investment in reducing their contribution to air pollution, Minister Rebecca Pow referred to the existing “Best Available Techniques” process which requires the minority of industries regulated under the environmental permitting system to use the least-polluting processes and technologies.207

95.We welcome the Government’s commitment to a green recovery, including bringing forward the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars. This must include a strong focus on improving air quality, especially given the risk that changes in local economies and working patterns might exacerbate existing problems. We also welcome the additional investment from the Government to expand electronic charging infrastructure. The Government must ensure that capacity and coverage is in place across the country, and especially in rural areas, to enable people to switch away from petrol and diesel cars. The Clean Air Strategy is reliant on local action and should therefore be updated not just to reflect the overall impact of the pandemic, but also its differential impact on local economies.

96.There are also opportunities to enable businesses to invest to reduce their contribution to air pollution; but risks this won’t happen given the financial difficulties many face. This should be in addition to the “Best Available Techniques” process which covers industrial sites regulated under environmental permits and help the many small businesses that are not covered by these regulations. The Government should:

a)review policies that rely on vehicle fleet turnover to ensure there is not a slowdown in the removal of older and more polluting vehicles;

b)develop financial incentives and support to encourage businesses to invest to reduce their impact on local air quality; and

c)support the development of robust standards and processes for air quality audits.

Public transport

97.Public transport use fell during the pandemic. After the lockdown in March, TFGM said passenger numbers fell by up to 95 per cent, and were still only 10 to 15 per cent once many restrictions had eased in the summer.208 Bath and North East Somerset Council reported that bus ridership was running at 50–60 per cent of capacity in the early autumn.209

98.The Mayor of London considered that increased use of private cars would risk undoing many gains in local air quality.210 It was reported that a survey by the RAC in November 2020 suggested that 57 per cent of people now considered having a car as more important than before the pandemic, and only 43 per cent (down from 57 per cent the year before) would consider using public transport even if it improved.211 Perceived safety concerns were one driver for this. TFGM highlighted a survey that found “32% of public transport users say that they won’t use public transport again for any reason until they feel safe to do so”.212 Dr Susan Kenyon of Canterbury Christ Church University noted:

Throughout the crisis, coverage of public transport has been negative, with a focus on the potential of travel by public transport to spread the virus. The government stated that we have a ‘civic duty’ not to use public transport. The damage that this has caused must not be underestimated. We must counteract the perception that public transport, rather than covid-19, is the enemy, to ensure that public transport use does not fall, in favour of the car, once the crisis is over.213

In response to these concerns several submissions argued for government action to tackle negative perceptions of the safety of public transport. For instance, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation told us it was “imperative that government increase public confidence” in the use of public transport.214

99.TFGM told us that “the sharp downturn in patronage levels […] has had a significant impact on the financial sustainability of the network,” and that changing public attitudes towards using public transport would mean usage and revenues would not return to pre-pandemic levels in the short to medium term once restrictions were lifted.215 The Local Government Association (LGA) reported a similar picture across the country, with initial lockdown restrictions leading to “almost all commercial services” becoming “unviable overnight”, meaning there would be a requirement for ongoing Government support.216 Cllr Holmes of Derby City Council echoed this as vital to ensure the survival of “a viable public transport system” across the country to enable “modal shift” by people away from cars.217

100.The Local Government Association (LGA) also highlighted the risk that bus operators struggling as a result of the pandemic would cut investment in new, cleaner, vehicles; requiring existing policies that relied on the turnover of vehicles to be reviewed.218 Marvin Rees suggested that Government should “come alongside” Bristol and other cities to make a mass purchase of thousands of electric and biogas buses to “transform the public transport offering almost overnight”.219

101.Minister Rachel Maclean highlighted “the record amount of funding that has been put in by central Government to enable public transport to continue to run with social distancing in place” and added “services have been maintained. The frequency has been maintained so that people have confidence that, if they are travelling, they will be able to maintain social distancing”.220 Regarding public health advice, the Minister said “at the beginning of the pandemic, we definitely did have that focus on not using public transport […] on balance, it was felt it was necessary to protect public health, which was the Government’s first priority”.221 She told us that later, the Government had adopted a different approach:

We have made it clear that only essential journeys are permitted […] but we have not encouraged people to stay off public transport in quite the same way. That is a deliberate policy that we brought on because we definitely do not want to encourage long-term shifts to car use.222

102.Although reducing the use of public transport has been necessary during the pandemic, action is needed to prevent a permanent shift in public attitudes towards it. As restrictions are lifted, the Government should work with local authorities and providers to reassure the public that public transport is safe and to promote its use. We welcome the Government’s efforts to help maintain public transport capacity through financial support to providers, given the likely shift in public behaviours this will need to be maintained for a period after restrictions are lifted. The Government will also need to consider whether the financial stress providers are under will slow their move to cleaner vehicles and whether further public investment will be needed to maintain momentum.

Active travel

103.The Government and civil society had been promoting “active travel” - making journeys by a physical active means like walking or cycling - as an alternative to car use before the pandemic to tackle air pollution and for its wider health benefits.223 The Government set out its ambition in 2017 that cycling and walking would become “the natural choices for shorter journeys”, alongside a ringfenced £316 million to fund active travel measures between 2016–20.224 By February 2020 almost £1.2 billion had been spent by all levels of government.225

104.During the 2020 spring lockdown, active travel was further promoted as a safer alternative to public transport, seeking to prevent social distancing concerns leading to increased car use. In May, the Government published statutory guidance encouraging local councils to “reallocate road space” to cyclists and pedestrians, for example through temporary cycle lanes or creating “low traffic neighbourhoods” by restricting vehicle access to side streets, supported by a £250m “emergency active travel fund” taken from existing budgets.226 During the spring lockdown, DfT estimated that cycling rates increased by around 100 per cent, and by up to 200 per cent on weekends.227 The Government published a new cycling and walking plan for 2020–2025 in July, with the promise of £2 billion of ringfenced funding.228

105.There was widespread support amongst our witnesses for encouraging active travel.229 However, the BMA questioned whether the Government’s investment matched its rhetoric or the scale of need, given current spending on active travel was “just 2% of transport spending”: the BMA estimated delivering the Government’s plans would require £1.2 billion a year, compared to the £2 billion across five years it had committed.230 A number of environmental groups also drew a contrast between the £2 billion for active travel with the Budget 2020 announcement of £28 billion for the Strategic Road Network, questioning whether this was consistent with meeting the Government’s legal obligations on air quality.231

106.From the local government perspective, both Matthew Holmes and Marvin Rees told us they had been able to access central Government funding for the measures they were putting in place.232 However, Marvin Rees cautioned that while funding for specific projects was available for a “patch and mend” approach, there was not support for a wholesale “just transition” so the impact of the required “system change” did not fall disproportionately on the disadvantaged.233 Although the LGA told us that many councils had been making use of the new powers and funding to introduce active travel measures, there were concerns about the willingness of some local areas to introduce, and then continue, with measures.234 Mums for Lungs, while recognising some councils had taken action, argued there had been wide disparities across England, with no political or financial pressure on local authorities to act.235 It also suggested that some local “councillors and MPs have been using their power to obstruct active travel schemes”.236

107.Both Cllr Holmes and Mayor Rees discussed their experience of having to adapt or remove temporary local measures in response to feedback.237 Cllr Holmes highlighted the fact that Derby had deliberately built in “review points” to its schemes and adapted them in response.238 For example, both highlighted cases where temporary cycle lanes had interfered with the local bus network.239

108.The potential impact of cycle infrastructure on buses was also stressed by the bus operator National Express West Midlands.240 It argued that some schemes risked indirect discrimination given the gender imbalance between cyclists, with men three times more likely to cycle in the West Midlands, and the fact that buses are disproportionately used by people from lower socio-economic and ethnic minority backgrounds.241 GSTC observed that in their area many changes were being introduced in a reactive way “driven by wealthier, more vocal Communities” rather than taking a longer-term and more systematic approach.242 Kate Langford of GSTC also noted that inner-city communities already had lower rates of car ownership, and the air pollution problem they faced often stemmed from traffic coming from outside their area.243

School streets

109.Temporary closures to vehicles of streets around a school at the beginning and end of the school day (termed school streets) were cited as one means of encouraging active travel as well as directly improving air quality around schools.244 According to the Mayor of London, in 2016 every state school in Greater London was in an area that exceeded the WHO guideline for PM2.5 and over 450 were in areas exceeding the legal limit on NO2.245

110.Mums for Lungs noted that a number of school streets had been introduced as an emergency measure in the pandemic to assist with social distancing, and called for them to be made permanent and their use expanded.246 Jemima Hartshorn from Mums for Lungs suggested that this would need further central Government support as “under-staffed and under-resourced” local authorities might struggle to afford the necessary investment in, for example, enforcement cameras.247 In addition, air pollution levels around school streets would be well-supported by reducing parking outside them and measures to reduce idling (i.e. stationery vehicles leaving their engines running) and 20mph speed limits.248

111.As well as school streets, there are efforts to include the quality and scale of air quality monitoring outside schools to identify harmful levels of pollution. For example, the Mayor of London’s Breathe London project has “used air quality sensors in backpacks to understand children’s exposure to air pollution on their way to school”.249 The Mayor also undertook “detailed air quality audits” of 50 primary schools in 23 London boroughs to assess air quality “in some of the capital’s worst polluted schools” and recommended actions to protect students’ health.250

112.In its new strategy for walking and cycling published in July 2020, the Government made a commitment to “increase” the number of school streets, but did not quantify by how many.251 It also committed to giving local authorities outside of London the legal powers necessary to enforce temporary closures, a long-standing local government ask.252

113.Responding to the BMA’s estimate that the Government needed to spend £1.2 billion a year to deliver its active travel plans, compared to the £2 billion over five years it had ringfenced, the Transport Minister said that the Government’s funding commitment was the biggest ever made to active travel and that it had:

An ambition to make active travel the natural first choice of transport, because we all know that most journeys undertaken are less than five miles. There is no reason why a vast number of those journeys, not all but a lot, could not be done on foot, on a cycle, on an e-scooter […] we are determined to crack on with this because we think it is better for public health.253

On the DfT-funded emergency active travel measures, she noted that although there had been “one or two schemes where there have been very vocal criticisms” most had “been incredibly successful and very popular” even if local people “do not run to the media and say how fantastic they are”.254 However, the Government had listened to the feedback and for the next tranche of funding Ministers had been clear:

that you have to consult all road users. You cannot let one group of road users dominate this […] The local authorities are responsible for doing that, so, if they have closed off roads and made mistakes in how they have been implemented, it is up to them to consult their local communities.255

114.During the first lockdown in spring 2020, active travel increased significantly, facilitated in part by timely Government action. It is important that this progress is not lost, and the Government must match its rhetoric on a longer-term shift to active travel with sufficient funding.

115.There remains a mixed picture on implementation across the country however, reflecting both local needs but also in some place the willingness of local leaders to make the case for changes which take time to bed-in. We recognise the difficult balancing act that local decision makers face. Engaging the affected communities and adapting schemes in response to feedback and experience will be vital to embedding long-term changes, and the need to do this should be reflected in Government funding for schemes.

116.Active travel schemes, and other local efforts to tackle air pollution, must benefit the communities most affected by air pollution, and focus on changing the behaviour of those who contribute most to the problem. They must also avoid undermining public transport. We recognise the efforts of many schools, parents and local councils to improve the air around schools and encourage active travel through introducing school streets. These should also be supported by reducing parking outside schools and measures to reduce idling and 20mph speed limits. It is likely that more schools would benefit from them as well as from more and better air quality monitoring to help them identify when air pollution is a problem. Where appropriate, temporary school streets introduced during the pandemic should be made permanent. The Government should be ambitious about increasing the number of school streets by working with local authorities, schools and civil society groups to develop a strategy to put them in place for every school where one would be appropriate, including measures to reduce parking and idling outside schools and the introduction of 20mph speed limits. This should be supported by an effective system of monitoring to help identify local exceedances of legal limits.

The built environment

117.The need to address the underlying reasons for people’s travel behaviour to facilitate permanent changes rather than a return to normal after the pandemic was raised throughout our inquiry. Dr Susan Kenyon argued that although with interventions by Government and transport planners some of the reductions in travel owing to the pandemic could be maintained, as soon as restrictions were lifted travel patterns would mostly revert to normal.256 This was because they were shaped by the physical environment that people move through, and the increasing dispersal of where people live, work and socialise.257 Although identifying the opportunity that more homeworking may reduce commuting, Sustrans highlighted that some people responded to the experience of lockdown by seeking to migrate from more to less densely developed areas, reinforcing the trend of dispersal that Dr Kenyon had identified.258

118.Dr Kenyon suggested “virtual mobility”, replacing physical travel with carrying out activities online, was a potential answer to some of these issues, but it would require people being able, as well as willing, to make the change.259 Our predecessor committee’s 2019 report on rural connectivity highlighted that people in rural areas could particularly benefit from a move to online public services given the increased distances they need to travel to access physical ones, but that in practice they struggled to access them owing to poor connectivity.260 It highlighted the need to reform policy and legislation to facilitate the Government’s then target for the roll out of “full-fibre” connections to 100% of properties by 2025 (since dropped to 85% of properties having gigabit capable connections).261

119.Sustrans suggested that, despite current planning guidance on density and active travel, developers find it “too easy […] to cite costs or conflicting priorities as justification for building isolated, out of town housing which leaves residents stranded away from the everyday things they need”, promoting car dependency.262 It argued instead for embedding the principle of “20 minute neighbourhoods” in the planning system whereby “everyday services and needs” are within a walkable, 20 minute, round-trip.263

120.Cllr Holmes of Derby City Council told us that delivering their ambitions, “is about a culture change, a modal shift and supplying homes within the city so that the travel is not required any more”.264 The Mayor of Bristol told us that “if we build [homes] centrally in active travel areas, people can travel actively. If we are sticking them on housing estates on the edge of the city, we will build in transport dependency”.265 To avoid this, he suggested that cities should be planned more coherently in future, as “our city systems […] have grown historically with no regard to air quality, climate and nature […] We need to redesign our housing systems, transport systems, waste systems and energy systems so that people can live a low-impact life without even thinking about it”.266

121.The Government’s 2020 Planning White Paper aims to speed up the planning process, in part by reducing the discretion of local decision makers in favour of greater certainty for developers.267 The Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, Victoria Hills, suggested that it may provide a “carte blanche” to developments that “perpetuate car dependency”.268

122.Asked how the Government would use its reforms of planning policy to help local areas redesign communities to improve air quality, Minister Rebecca Pow told us:

One of the aims of the new planning White Paper is to speed up development, but that still means […] getting it right for the environment. We have said, and the Prime Minister is at pains to say, that we will have a green recovery […] the measures in the Environment Bill and the measures related to air quality […] will all impact on that. If we want to get our PM2.5 down and we do not want big concentrations in certain places where people are living, around schools and hospitals, we have to design the places so that does not happen.269

123.The pandemic has caused substantial shifts in how people travel. This has had a positive effect on some measures of air quality; but it is likely to be temporary, and positive moves such as more working from home and active travel may be offset by people moving away from cities and becoming more car dependent. The built environment constrains most people’s transport choices, building in pollution from private car use. The local government leaders we heard from are keen to provide more homes in their city centres alongside more effective public, and active transport networks, reducing air pollution from travel. The Government says it is keen to support these aims through its planning reforms. However, we are concerned that the Planning White Paper overemphasises speed of development over other priorities. The Government also needs to ensure that it delivers the wider infrastructure development, especially in rural areas, that can help reduce car journeys such as fast broadband to enable working from home. In its response to this Report, the Government should set out specifically how its planning reforms will improve air quality, and support the modal shifts and changes in the built environment that are needed to reduce pollution from road transport.

196 British Heart Foundation (AQU077) para 8

197 Road Haulage Association (AQU0059) para 3

199 HM Government, PM: A New Deal for Britain, (30 June 2020)

201 Local Government Association (LGA) (AQU0020) para 7.4

202 Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity (AQU0045) para 4

207 Qq280–281; Environment Agency, Best available techniques: environmental permits (1 February 2016)

208 Transport for Greater Manchester (AQU0038) paras 16–17

209 Bath & NE Somerset Council (AQU0086) para 19

210 Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority (AQU0057) para 85

211 For example, “Covid set back attitudes to public transport by two decades, says RAC”, The Guardian, 9 November 2020.

212 Transport for Greater Manchester (AQU0038) para 17

213 Dr Susan Kenyon (AQU0021) para 25

214 Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation (AQU0029) para 6.2

215 Transport for Greater Manchester (AQU0038) paras 17–18

216 Local Government Association (AQU0020) para 7.3

218 Local Government Association (AQU0020) para 7.4

223 Active travel: Trends, policy and funding, CBP 8615, House of Commons Library, August 2020

224 Active travel: Trends, policy and funding, CBP 8615, House of Commons Library, August 2020

225 Active travel: Trends, policy and funding, CBP 8615, House of Commons Library, August 2020

226 Department for Transport, ‘£2 billion package to create new era for cycling and walking,’ accessed 17 January 2021

227 Department for Transport, Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking (July 2020), p 10

228 Department for Transport, Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking (July 2020)

229 For example: Qq44, 55 and 74

230 British Medical Association (AQU0082) paras 2–4

231 See, for example, Client Earth (AQU0056) para 18

234 Local Government Association (AQU0020) para 5.5

235 Mums for Lungs (AQU0047) para 19

236 Mums for Lungs (AQU0047) para 19

240 National Express/National Express West Midlands (AQU0065) para 12

241 National Express/National Express West Midlands (AQU0065) paras 15–21

242 Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity (AQU0045) para 28

244 School Streets Initiative, ‘What are School Streets?,’ accessed 17 January 2021

245 Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority (AQU0057) para 76

246 Mums for Lungs (AQU0047) para 20

248 Sustrans (AQU0071) para 56; Help Rescue the Planet (AQU0007) para 9; Paul Gwiazda and Janet Hutchinson (AQU0005) paras 1–7; Clean Air for London (CAL) (AQU0072) para 37

249 Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority (AQU0057) para 13

251 Department for Transport, Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking (July 2020) p 18

252 Local Government Association (AQU0020) para 5.6

256 Dr Susan Kenyon (AQU0021) para 3

257 Dr Susan Kenyon (AQU0021) para 12

258 Sustrans (AQU0071) para 74

259 Dr Susan Kenyon (AQU0021) paras 10–11

260 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventeenth Report of Session 2017–19, An Update on Rural Connectivity, HC 2223, para 30

261 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventeenth Report of Session 2017–19, An Update on Rural Connectivity, HC 2223, para 67; on the revision of the target see Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2019–21, Broadband and the road to 5G, HC 153, para 21

262 Sustrans (AQU0071) paras 66–67

263 Sustrans (AQU0071) para 65

267 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Planning for the Future: White Paper (August 2020)

268 Planning for the Future: planning policy changes in England in 2020 and future reforms, CBP8981, House of Commons Library, January 2020

Published: 11 February 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement