Air Quality Strategy Consultation - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:27 am on 18 May 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 11:27, 18 May 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the compliance of their revised national air quality strategy consultation with best practice, as laid out in the Cabinet Office Consultation Principles.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, the Government published the Air Quality Strategy: Framework for Local Authority Delivery by the legal deadline of 1 May. Although we recognise that the consultation period for the draft strategy was shortened, almost 450 responses were received, including 97 from local government. We took into account these responses in the publication of our final strategy, and the document will drive the local action on air quality that we all want to see.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, local authorities are central to efforts to improve the country’s air quality, but the nature of this consultation exercise suggests that the Government think otherwise. Regardless of any prior engagement, does the Minister really believe that a period of just 10 days—starting immediately before Easter, during the school holidays and in the run-up to the local elections—was sufficient to allow councils to formulate their response and get it signed off internally? Will the department do the right thing and reopen this consultation to ensure that no one misses their opportunity to respond—or are the Government once again dodging any scrutiny?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The noble Baroness knows how I hate to see her disgruntled, so I will see whether I can make her gruntled. The consultation was open for 10 days, the department received 434 responses in total and 97 local authorities responded—but that was not the totality of it. We have engaged with stakeholders, including local government, since December 2021; we have run a series of nine workshops to gain views and input from a range of stakeholders; and more than 30 meetings were held with internal and external stakeholders, as well as over 200 stakeholders from community groups, NGOs, academia and local authorities. This Government consult like no Government have before; sometimes, I wonder whether we consult too much, but in this case I think we have got this absolutely right and created a strategy that reflects what people want.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, in relation to consultation and the London mayor, does my noble friend agree that the main cause of increased traffic congestion and the knock-on effect on air quality is the lack of synchronisation of traffic lights, which is driving not just London cab drivers but all London motorists to distraction?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My noble friend raises a point that cab drivers raise with me frequently. It is a serious point. As she knows, air quality is devolved to the mayor, who is ultimately responsible for the delivery of his policies. Undoubtedly, with ULEZ and other policies, this is causing tensions, but it is for him to answer. Our point is to help local government in all its forms to deliver. We are putting in money to assist local authorities in tackling air quality right across the country. London is the biggest challenge. That is why we work with the mayor when we can to make sure that we are achieving that in the capital.

Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat

My Lords, Cabinet Office consultation principles state:

“Consultations should last for a proportionate amount of time” and should be judged

“on the basis of legal advice and taking into account the nature and impact of the proposal”.

Air pollution is estimated to be responsible for more than 64,000 deaths in the UK, costing in the region of £20 billion, as estimated by the Royal College of Physicians report, Every Breath We Take. Does the Minister really believe that nine working days is a proportionate amount of time to gather responses on air pollution, the biggest environmental risk to public health?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I cannot add in response to the noble Baroness more than I said in my reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, because I think that we have consulted very widely, not just during those dates that she cited but across the piece. Air quality is one of the key priorities. If the noble Baroness looks at our environmental improvement plan, she will see what we are asking to be delivered right across this country. She will see that it is a priority and that we are consulting in a variety of ways to make sure that we reflect those who have to deliver this, which is, in the main, local authorities.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, as we are told by the Government in their draft air quality strategy that they expect

“local authorities to … reduce PM2.5” and that if action is insufficient

“we will consult on introducing a … legal duty on local authorities to take action”,

why are Conservative authorities in London are not only obstructing the taking of action to reduce PM2.5 but playing politics by attacking Sadiq Khan for implementing government policy on the congestion charge zone? Is that not just blatant hypocrisy?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That question reflects issues relating to politics in London that are particularly complex and the impact of the mayor’s ULEZ on people on low incomes who have to travel to the centre of London. The noble Lord makes the accusation of playing politics, but the Question is about consultation. What we are trying to do nationally is support local authorities, and sometimes what the mayor is trying to do is despite what the local authorities within his mayoralty are trying to achieve. That is a local question for London and not for our national policies.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that not only is it disastrous that there was such a short time for consultation but the substance of the document on which he was consulting is woefully inadequate to attack the problem? I speak as a former president of an independent organisation, Environmental Protection UK, which made a submission to the consultation. Is it time for the Government—and, in view of the electoral cycle, probably the main opposition party—to recognise that we need a new clean air Act and a central direction through a new clean air commission? Until the Government grasp that necessity, this problem will continue to afflict our people and contribute to the long-term sickness that we have just been discussing.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

What I would say to the noble Lord, whom I respect for his experience in this area, is that running campaigns to create new laws sometimes misses the most effective way to deliver. The most effective way in which the Government in England can be responsible for this is to support the local authorities which have to do it. We are doing that with money, and we are doing it with policies that require them to hit certain targets—on PM2.5, on nitrous oxide and others. That is the best way to do it. If the noble Lord wants a piece of legislation that will deliver that, it is the Environment Act.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

My Lords, surely when it comes to pollution in London, if you have bicycle lanes and increased traffic jams, you do not reduce pollution, you increase it.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My noble friend talks about an issue which may well be the case in certain areas. Encouraging cycling, walking and the use of public transport is undoubtedly better for health, as the previous Question showed; it is undoubtedly better for the quality of life in our cities. On the other side, if you get it wrong, you make the problem worse. That is why local solutions are better, and it is why the Government’s policy provides resources and targets and why they will take further action if local authorities fail to deliver.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I regret to tell the Minister that my noble friend Lady Hayman is still disgruntled. That is because he did not address the fact that the events for stakeholders that he described were poorly advertised and the notice was short. As a result, many stakeholders who would have liked to attend or to contribute to the consultation did not get the opportunity. Could he address that?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The number of responses was typical of the kinds of consultations that my department conducts. That 97 local authorities responded in full and that there were many other events, engagements and direct contact with local authorities and other campaigners meant that we ran a full consultation, and we have an air quality strategy that reflects that.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister’s throwaway remark about the possibility of there being too many consultations tempts me to ask him—and I declare my interests—whether the problem is not too many consultations but not enough follow-up and action when consultations have taken place? Could he look in particular at the consultation several years ago on energy-efficiency standards in the private rented sector?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I entirely understand the point made by the noble Baroness. Perhaps mine was born out of being slightly long in the tooth in this game, because when I was last at Defra, it was always the threat of infraction fines that delayed policy—“Oh, Minister, that may well result in us being infracted by Europe”. Now, I find very often that consultations are followed by consultations on consultations, and it is a way of kicking the can down the road. I am a firm believer in the right sort of consultation; I just want to make sure that we are delivering policy as quickly and as efficiently as possible.