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

Conclusions and recommendations

Changes in UK air pollution

1.Before the pandemic, the UK had made limited progress in improving air quality, with less than a quarter of air quality assessment areas meeting the annual mean limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Lockdown restrictions from March 2020 led to less traffic and changing travel patterns and many people experienced better air quality. But by September 2020, most towns and cities saw a return to pre-lockdown levels of air pollution. However, the temporary improvement in air quality in the spring does not mask the need for faster progress on air pollution. Longer term changes to how people live, work and travel as a result of the pandemic will bring opportunities, but also risks, and will require changes to policy which we discuss in the following chapters. (Paragraph 18)

2.The noticeable improvement many people had in their experience of air quality and their wellbeing following the initial lockdown illustrates the benefits of action to tackle air quality for all of us. The tragic death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, and thousands of others each year, shows the costs of the failure to do so. This highlights the need for legally binding air quality limits and the Committee recommends that the Office for Environmental Protection (see chapter 3) be empowered to enforce them. (Paragraph 19)

Health inequalities and covid-19

3.Many of the areas with the highest levels of social deprivation are also the most exposed to air pollution and this link is also more pronounced for people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Further research is urgently needed to fully understand the link between poor air quality and covid-19, which the Government has now accepted. However, notwithstanding the causal link between air quality and covid-19 mortality and morbidity, there was already a strong, established, case for taking action to reduce health inequalities caused and exacerbated by air pollution. That the communities most affected are often those that make the smallest contribution to the problem increases the moral case for action. Reducing long-term health inequalities will require both ‘across the board’ and targeted measures. Defra, working with the Department of Health and Social Care and local health partners, should amend the Clean Air Strategy to include measures to reduce the long-term health inequalities associated with air pollution. (Paragraph 35)

4.The Environment Bill should be amended to include a health inequalities target, to reduce the number of deaths associated with air pollution; and to require the Secretary of State to take account of human health considerations when setting or reviewing air quality targets. It should include a duty on all Government departments and local government to work together to deliver these targets. (Paragraph 36)

Government strategy

5.The Committee recommends that the Office for Environmental Protection is given the necessary powers to enforce these limits. (Paragraph 50)

6.The Clean Air Strategy is a step in the right direction but relies too much on local authorities, delegating most responsibility for delivering air quality improvements to them without providing sufficient competencies and resources to deliver. It also lacks the ambition to fully address the challenges posed by England’s air pollution problems, relying on existing strategies that are making limited progress. Although we welcome the Government’s commitment to setting an air quality target to reduce the level of PM2.5 there is also a need to address the other key air pollutants - of NO2, PM10, SO2, NMVOCs and ammonia - which are also having a detrimental effect on people’s health. We note the Minister’s reference to the targets in retained EU law, but these are easily amended and sit outside of the new structure environmental governance the Government is seeking to create. Overall, therefore, the Bill’s current provisions do not provide the robust legal framework required given the scale and urgency of the challenge. We therefore recommend that the Government makes the following amendments to the Environment Bill:

a)That clause 2 is amended to provide for a specific target to reduce the annual mean concentration of PM2.5 to under 10μg/m3 by 1 January 2030, in line with WHO-guidelines, and also include an interim target for 2025; and

b)The duties related to “air quality partners” should apply to all levels of government and public bodies, and the power to request contributions to city wide action plans should be extended to regional and city Mayors and combined authorities. (Paragraph 56)

7.Alongside the PM2.5 target, the Secretary of State should use his discretionary powers in the Bill to set additional long-term air quality targets to reduce NO2, PM10, SO2, NMVOCs and ammonia. The Government should also commit to a long-term funding structure for local authorities to underpin their new duties in the Bill. (Paragraph 57)

8.As part of the Clean Air Strategy the Government should include a timeline on when the reduction in limits of other pollutants is to be delivered. (Paragraph 58)

National and local action

9.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. (Paragraph 67)

10.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. (Paragraph 72)

11.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. (Paragraph 87)

12.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. (Paragraph 88)

13.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. (Paragraph 89)

Green economic recovery

14.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. (Paragraph 95)

15.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:

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

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

e)support the development of robust standards and processes for air quality audits. (Paragraph 96)

16.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. 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. (Paragraph 102)

17.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. 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. (Paragraph 114)

18.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. (Paragraph 115)

19.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. (Paragraph 116)

20.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. (Paragraph 123)

Published: 11 February 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement