[Mr David Crausby in the Chair] — Air Pollution (London)

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 9 June 2015.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 9:30, 9 June 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered air pollution in London.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate those Members who have turned up at this early hour for a debate on a vital subject for the people of London.

I urge the House to take notice of the unseen, silent killer stalking London’s streets—a killer unknowingly encountered by every single Londoner every single day. It is present when people drop their children off at school. It is present when they make their journey to and from work. It follows them throughout their weekends in the city. That malign presence is the noxious fumes that pollute the air we breathe. Specifically, the killer is made up of two components: particulate matter, comprising solid and liquid particles, and gases such as nitrogen dioxide. In London, the primary culprit for those killer chemicals is road traffic. Although industry is the biggest source of pollution nationwide, in urban environments such as London, where the accumulation of pollution and the related health impact is greatest, road traffic is responsible for up to 70% of all air pollution. Londoners are dying as a result. In 2008, across the capital, more than 4,000 premature deaths directly resulted from deadly levels of air pollution. In every year since then, thousands of Londoners have lost their lives early, and they continue to do so, simply because the air they breathe is slowly poisoning them.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Given that the stretch of the A406 through my constituency has one of the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the city, surpassed only by central London, and that Public Health England has linked air pollution to 7% of deaths in the London borough of Redbridge, does she agree that more needs to be done to address the problem, and particularly the congestion around Charlie Brown’s roundabout and Redbridge roundabout, as a matter of urgency?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to how Boris—the current Mayor—and the Government have failed Londoners, including his constituents, on the important matter of air pollution.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an issue that needs greater prominence. Is she aware of the impact of London’s pollution on surrounding areas? In my constituency of Dartford, for example, westerly winds blow pollution from London on to the problems already caused by the M25, which adds to the bronchial and respiratory conditions suffered by local residents.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point. He will forgive me if I, as a prospective candidate for Mayor of London, talk about London, but it is important that the House is reminded that the high levels of pollution in London have an effect on surrounding areas.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which I am pleased builds on the work of the Environmental Audit Committee in the last Parliament. Although she may be a candidate for Mayor of London, and if she were elected she would be able to play her part in addressing air pollution, does she not agree that local authorities also have a significant role in addressing air quality in their boroughs?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I entirely agree that local authorities have a significant role. If I were Mayor of London, I would try to bring them together and offer leadership on this issue. It is not just a matter for the Mayor or the Government; it is also a matter for local authorities. It is also about the personal choices we make about our travel and our children’s lives.

Already this year, according to the latest research, up to 1,300 people have died across the city. The Clean Air in London campaign group argues that more than 7,000 Londoners a year are now dying prematurely as a result of toxic air. It is well established that toxic air is a direct cause of bronchitis, asthma, strokes and even cancer and heart disease. We all recognise that the level of childhood asthma is now far higher than any of us knew when we were at school. I cannot believe that there is no connection between those very high levels of childhood asthma and rising levels of air pollution.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I also thank the Clean Air in London campaign, Simon Birkett and others for their work. My hon. Friend makes an important point about childhood asthma, respiratory issues and the role of local authorities. Does she agree that it is important to raise public awareness of places where air pollution concentration can be higher, such as roadsides or places that are lower down, where the density of pollution can more greatly affect children in prams?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. When I think about the number of primary schools in Stoke Newington alongside heavily used main roads, I wonder about the health of children who have to attend those schools. Young people in our city are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Children growing up, or attending primary school, near the noxious fumes of busy roads have been clinically proven to develop smaller lung capacity and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. Everyday exposure to air pollution, which is what children get when they walk to and from school daily, has been found to contribute to increased inflammation of the airways in healthy children, not to mention children already suffering from asthma. These chronically debilitating issues lead to serious medical problems that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

We have a duty of care to children, because adults can make choices about whether they drive, cycle or walk to work. Given the particularly damaging impact of air pollution on children’s lungs, why are the Government not doing more to support the production and dissemination of accurate, practical advice to help schools reduce the impact that pollution is having on the health and wellbeing of children in London and further afield? Awareness is key, and the Government are failing in their duty to raise awareness. Those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease are at greater risk of worsening their conditions due to the adverse effects of air pollution. As a whole, London has very high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, not least in Hackney. Our most vulnerable people are at risk, and not enough is being done to protect them.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington

The hon. Lady has referred to the action that the Government need to take, but does not Transport for London have a very large communications budget? TfL could and should use that budget much more effectively to publicise concerns about air quality and incidences of air quality issues in London.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

When I refer to the role of the Mayor, I am of course referring to the entire Greater London Authority family over which the Mayor sits, which includes TfL, the Metropolitan police and the fire brigade. Now is the time for action. It is completely unacceptable that London’s air is the filthiest of any European capital. The air pollution on Oxford Street ensures that it has the unwelcome honour of ranking among the most polluted streets in the entire world.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, particularly about the problems near schools. In my constituency, I have some of the most polluted roads—the A4, the A40 and Hammersmith Broadway—and those roads have schools alongside them. In addition to talking about central London, will she talk about the other big problem in London? Heathrow also breaks EU limits. Does she agree that the worst thing we could do is increase the size of Heathrow by 50% with a third runway, thereby making it even more illegal and an even worse environmental danger?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

My hon. Friend anticipates a later part of my speech. There is no question but that aviation is a major cause of pollution, and anyone offering solutions to the problem must mention it.

London has the filthiest air of any European capital. The need to improve air quality is recognised in EU legislation, which sets limits for a range of pollutants. As part of that legislation, member states are required to prepare adequate plans to reduce nitrogen dioxide to acceptable levels by 2015, but the UK has failed to do so. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that in the Greater London area, those limits—of which it is perfectly well aware—will not be met until after 2030.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I echo other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on a vital subject. She mentioned Oxford Street, but there are also suburban equivalents. Horn Lane in Acton, off the A40, is one of the most polluted hotspots in London. Asthma UK, a neutral charity, has called the Government’s approach

“designed to mask the true scale of England’s air quality crisis rather than make any real attempt to solve it.”

My hon. Friend said that she would come to what the Mayor of London is doing. The record is atrocious: there have been attempts to glue down air particulates near air quality sensors, and there has been a failure to create the network of electric car charging points that was planned. Also, the ultra-low emission zone is also so far in the future that it will not help in the immediate term.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her important intervention, which deserved to be made at length.

The programme for meeting EU targets has been delayed. I ask the Minister to estimate how many Londoners will die as a result between now and 2030. Most shamefully, as a result of the Government’s abject failure to meet the EU targets, a UK charity, ClientEarth, had to take the Government to court. After referring to the European Court of Justice, the Supreme Court here in the UK has ordered the Government to submit new air quality plans to the European Commission no later than 31 December this year. We had to be taken to court before the Government would come up with sustainable proposals. Why did it take the Supreme Court to make the Government and the Mayor of London take the deadly matter of air pollution seriously? Is not the provision of a clean living environment a basic duty for any Government to fulfil? Will the Minister admit that on a wider scale, this Government are culpable of gross negligence leading to the premature death of up to 30,000 UK residents nationwide?

If the human cost does not move the Minister, will he stop to consider, as the Government busy themselves with their latest round of cuts to vital public services, that we spend £16 billion a year treating the adverse effects of air pollution? If the human cost does not bother the Government, the financial cost incurred by having such levels of air pollution might. For us here in London, it is essential that air pollution is tackled as a matter of urgency. In many locations throughout the city, pollutant levels regularly exceed EU limits by a multiple of two or three. To put the severity of the situation into perspective, Oxford Street managed to breach the hourly limit on nitrogen dioxide for the whole of 2015 by 4 January, in just four days. Each and every Londoner suffers daily from the continued inaction.

The responsibility to address London’s air pollution scandal rests with central Government and the Mayor, although local authorities also have a role to play. As a start, I urge the Government to implement a new cross-departmental strategy to bring about change and reduce the impact of air pollution on public health. The strategy should involve Public Health England and non-governmental bodies such as NHS England. It is essential that it should include clear, measurable and time-bound objectives for the reduction of emissions, and for cost and health benefits, which previous strategies have sorely lacked.

It should become mandatory for all local authorities to monitor levels of smaller particulate matter, as they are already bound to monitor nitrogen dioxide and

PM10. The results must be published regularly and accessibly so that Londoners can remain fully informed about the dangers to their health and the health of their children. In addition, early alerts from DEFRA and the Met Office are crucial in order to guarantee that those most at risk from polluted air can plan in advance and avoid symptoms. Both bodies should continue to develop links with organisations such as the British Lung Foundation, which is well placed to convey such information to at-risk groups.

In relation to the role and inactivity of the Mayor, I believe that with his direct executive powers over TfL—

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Before she gets to the Mayor, there is one omission from the list of responsibilities on central Government: the ultimate no-brainer policy of avoiding wilfully increasing traffic at pollution hotspots. The third runway decision has already been cited, but according to DEFRA’s own models, the plans for the construction of High Speed 2 will increase emissions of the most dangerous pollutants in my constituency by 40%. Is that not gross irresponsibility?

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point.

Throughout the Mayor’s tenure, there has been a growing gap between what he has said about air pollution and what he has done on the issue. That is not unsurprising; Boris Johnson is a politician who talks a good game, but does not necessarily deliver. One example is the introduction of ultra-low emission zones, which would require vehicles travelling to central London to meet stricter emissions standards or pay a daily charge.

Since proposing the ultra-low emission zone nearly two years ago, Boris Johnson has taken a series of backward steps. His approach to the issue is inadmissibly weak. Waiting until 2020 to introduce the zone is simply costing lives. A range of organisations including the London boroughs, the London Health Commission, the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal College of Physicians have come together to call for the ultra-low emission zone to be strengthened, with early implementation, wider coverage, stricter standards and stronger incentives, but from Mayor Boris Johnson, we hear nothing. The financial costs to a fraction of drivers and voters must be weighed against the health benefits, including to those same drivers, who are the most at risk from pollution, and to the larger population, particularly children, who are exposed to air pollution in central London and beyond, all the way to Dartford.

Furthermore, Boris Johnson has paid no heed to the findings of the Marmot review of health inequalities, which linked higher exposure to air pollution among poorer communities with an increased risk of cardio-respiratory disease. Nationwide, 66% of man-made carcinogenic chemicals are released into the air in the most deprived 10% of English city wards. It is imperative that the incoming Mayor—I hope it will be me—widens the scope of measures and schemes designed to reduce pollution. By restricting his focus to central London and zone 1, Boris Johnson has abdicated his responsibility to the most vulnerable by excluding those in densely populated, heavily polluted and disadvantaged areas, and given no thought at all to areas outside London that are also affected by high levels of air pollution in London.

I want, and Londoners deserve, for London to become the world’s greenest capital city. The proposed solutions are as follows. We cannot fight the environmental challenges facing London, including air pollution, in a silo. We need a Mayor of London who will advocate for sustainability, low energy consumption and efficient waste reduction ideas that permeate all sectors, including housing, transport, healthcare, education and business. Not all London’s air quality issues result from the number of motor vehicles on our roads, but reducing the number and cleaning up their fuel sources would lead to big improvements. An incoming Mayor must incentivise use of electric cars and work actively to decrease the number of diesel vehicles on our roads.

With London’s population growing year on year, our city is at a crossroads on the issue of the environment in general and air pollution in particular. Londoners must choose whether they want a change for the better. A London with cleaner air and an increased reliance on renewable energy, and that is a safe city for cyclists and pedestrians, is an achievable reality with the right political will; I contend that the current Mayor has not shown that political will. An incoming Mayor must take urgent action.

For instance, it is unacceptable that statistics from 2013 show that the City of London has the highest carbon footprint per person in the whole of the UK. The average Briton produces 12.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, but emissions per head in the City are 25% higher than that. Maybe that is because the people there are more important or wealthy, but it is not acceptable.

The Mayor should consider the use of sustainable technologies. I visited a very interesting project in Hackney a week or so ago, where solar panels have been put on top of a big council block. That enables people there to get their electricity more cheaply, and it is also a sustainable energy source. It is a very interesting project, which could be potentially rolled out across London.

Current efforts are insufficient. Not enough progress has been made on increasing the number of hybrid buses in TfL’s fleet; rectifying that deficiency should be a priority. The fact that Oxford Street remains one of the most polluted streets in the world is evidence that measures to reduce pollution from taxis and buses are not being pursued with sufficient energy. We need to establish more accessible grants for environmentally friendly infrastructure development. London can become a global leader in the proliferation of renewable energy sources, such as solar power. London would do well to adopt such good practices as the creation of last-mile delivery hubs, to ensure that the carbon footprint of final-stage delivery is minimised. There are firms in the City that encourage their employees to walk more—if not to work, then at least between offices. We need to improve London’s sustainable infrastructure; that would create jobs in construction and logistics.

Also, the environmental future of our city must be considered when solving London’s housing crisis; we should think about sustainability and environmentally friendly projects. For example, housing developments that incorporate super-insulation would help to reduce the ever-increasing energy bills of Londoners. We also need to step up our efforts to make the city a safe and accessible place for cyclists. If more people could be encouraged to drop their cars and get on their bikes,

London would be a greener and more liveable city. Not enough has been done to address that; it should be treated as an urgent necessity.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that Members of all parties understand that this is an important issue that has not been properly addressed. There can be no doubt that the airport expansion at Heathrow that is being talked about would be the death knell of efforts to improve levels of air pollution, because aviation is such a major cause of air pollution.

Toxic air in London is killing Londoners, and we urgently need measures to tackle it. Promises to meet EU guidelines by 2025 or even by 2030 are unacceptable, and it is shocking that it has taken direct action from the Supreme Court to force the Government and the Mayor to address this issue seriously. It is clear that we have a real opportunity to tackle air pollution through a wholesale shift in the way that we view our living environment. For London, Londoners and the wider population in the UK, it is imperative that we seize the initiative and put an end to this silent killer once and for all, and I am using this opportunity to urge all stakeholders to step up and take responsibility. Individual companies can encourage sustainable travel on the part of their employees; housing developers can encourage sustainable development that uses renewable energy; borough councils can do more to encourage cycling to school, and they can also give out information about air pollution; the Mayor of London, who I think we can agree has comprehensively failed on this issue, can do more; and so can the Government. People should not have had to go to court to force the Government to recognise their responsibilities under EU law.

This important issue is not being dealt with, and as we fail to deal with it thousands of Londoners die every year. I am grateful to the House for having been given the opportunity to bring it to the attention of Members.


I would be more inclined to take Ms. Abbott seriously if I actually saw her traveling on a bike in London!

Submitted by Chris Beazer

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. Before I call other Members to speak, I point out that I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen from about 10.30 am. We have about 35 minutes before then, and a number of Members wish to speak. I will not impose a time limit, but if Members could keep their contributions to less than five minutes, and ideally to around four minutes, we will probably get everyone in.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 9:55, 9 June 2015

I will briefly raise three issues because I believe that all levels of Government have failed my constituents and London overall.

Let us make it absolutely clear that there is no way that central Government can abide by the European directives on air pollution if a third runway at Heathrow goes ahead. Heathrow Airport Ltd has admitted for the first time—despite our arguing this for four decades—that 4,000 properties in my constituency will be rendered unliveable or will have to be demolished as a result of the increased air or noise pollution caused by the expansion of Heathrow airport. It would mean 10,000 people being forced out of their homes.

In addition, during every inquiry on Heathrow expansion until now, and particularly before the last one, we have been told that air pollution will inevitably be reduced by technological improvements in the aircraft themselves. In fact, before the previous general election, those making the argument for the third runway were comforted by the idea of the development of a new aircraft, which was noise-free and did not cause air pollution. However, we then discovered that no such aircraft was envisaged; it was not even on the drawing board.

We are now being told again—fictitiously, I believe—that a whole range of mitigation measures will be introduced if a third runway goes ahead, which will not only cap air pollution, but reduce it, so that we become compliant with EU legislation. No one in the scientific world believes that.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

I have never believed any of the promises that Heathrow has made over the last 20 years, so I do not know why we should start now. However, even if Heathrow was right about quieter aircraft, one of the major causes of pollution is, of course, road traffic. If we increase the number of flights by 50%, we will increase the number of cars driving to Heathrow by 50%, and that would be a killer in itself on the most polluted roads in London.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

What worries me is that when we presented this evidence to the Airports Commission—the Davies commission—it was treated relatively truculently. Only legal action forced the commission to consult again on air pollution. In doing so, it undermined the Government’s own guidelines about how to consult, including about the timescale for consultation. The commission’s report will now be tainted as a result of its failure to deal with this matter correctly.

If Heathrow airport is expanded, we will never be able to comply with air pollution limits, because of the extra air traffic and road traffic that will be generated as a result. Therefore, the conclusion in Government must be that Heathrow expansion cannot go ahead. If it does, that flies in the face of all the scientific evidence.

The other failure of government is, as has been said, the mayoral strategies. Those strategies have come up with all sorts of different devices, such as air quality management zones. We have had those zones in my area, but they have been completely undermined by individual planning decisions that have been supported by the Mayor, the Planning Inspectorate and local councils. I will give just two examples of such decisions in my area, and then I will allow other Members to speak.

The first example is the Conway bitumen plant development in my constituency. For a number of years, the Nestlé factory in my constituency pumped out emissions. We worked co-operatively with it to reduce the air pollution from that plant. When people in my area woke up in the morning, they could smell coffee if the wind was in the right direction. It gives a whole new meaning to, “Wake up and smell the coffee”. To give Nestlé its due, it worked over the years to reduce the emissions and it worked with the local community; I set up a consultative group. That factory is now closing.

Then, the local council, Hillingdon, gave permission for Conway to develop a bitumen recycling plant less than half a mile away. We are now regularly exposed to fumes from that plant. It is not controlled by the local authority, because the cutbacks in local government expenditure have meant that Hillingdon council has cut its staff, and environmental and planning concerns are not being addressed effectively. The only reports on monitoring this company are produced by the company itself, which of course tell us that it is compliant with all the legislation.

Constituents of mine—and constituents of my hon. Friend Mr Sharma—wake in the morning and are nauseous and sick due to the overpowering smell of bitumen. Yet, as a result of the local council’s not being effective in doing its duty, we have not been able to act. I should welcome a meeting with the Minister’s officials to take advice on how we go forward in that regard.

In the same area, which is an air quality management zone, the Planning Inspectorate has allowed a huge out-of-town Asda shopping development with 500 car parking spaces. With a bitumen plant pumping out emissions at one end of North Hyde Road and an Asda development at the other end, there will be some 10,000 traffic movements a day on that road.

This is the way that central Government fails us. The mayoralty has proved completely ineffective. The local council either does not perform its duties effectively, because of cuts, or the Planning Inspectorate overrides even sensible decisions. Something is wrong here.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

As a fellow Hillingdon MP, I stand shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Gentleman on the issue of the third runway. Does he agree that the other great threat to air quality in Hillingdon is the construction of High Speed 2? Will he join me in pressing the Government to consider more seriously the option of extending the tunnel to spare us the problem?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I have always backed high-speed rail—

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. The hon. Gentleman has now had more than five minutes.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

This is my final sentence, Mr Crausby. I apologise.

The hon. Gentleman is basically correct. I have supported the concept of high-speed rail for many years, but we have discovered that HS2 would generate more traffic in our area, rather than reducing it and overcoming some problems at Heathrow.

Government, local government and the mayoralty need to get their act together on this. Last year, I supported the Environmental Audit Committee’s call for a proper inquiry into solutions to air pollution in London. We need it now and we need it urgently.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 10:01, 9 June 2015

I congratulate Ms Abbott on her mayoral manifesto—sorry, on introducing a subject that is close to all our hearts. For the avoidance of doubt, Oxford Street is in my constituency, although it may one day be in her constituency. However, she is quite right about the problems on that thoroughfare, about which I also have a lot to say. As the father of two young children, living in the increasingly congested Victoria station district, the issue of air quality affecting everyday living is critical.

London is the largest, most established post-industrial city in Europe. It is no surprise that many competing interests jostle with air quality for priority. Our capital is proud to be a global city and it is the epicentre of the UK’s economy. Constant new investment in all our transport infrastructure is required for it to thrive, including—at times—roads. Only then can London maintain its position as a global leader.

More than 1 million people come to work in my constituency alone every day and the congestion this causes inevitably has a major impact on local air quality.

The 10-year age limit on taxis from 2020 should be welcomed, as these vehicles are responsible for a relatively large proportion of emissions in central London. It is essential that a taxi scrappage scheme is introduced to help drivers upgrade their vehicles.

It is worth praising TfL for its efforts on ultra low emission zones, which are set to be introduced in 2020, although that is perhaps a little bit further in the distance than many of us would like. Investment encouraging pedestrian, electric cars and cycle lanes is also welcome, but I fear that it is insufficiently radical properly to address the heart of this issue.

In a bid to tackle climate change, successive Governments have, through taxation, incentivised drivers to switch to diesel on the basis that it produces less carbon dioxide than petrol. I am sorry to say that this has helped compound the problem. The lobby group, Clean Air in London, led by my indefatigable constituent and good personal friend, Simon Birkett, continues to campaign for a new Clean Air Act to deal with diesel engines, which emit some 20 times more polluting particulates than their petrol equivalents. Clean Air London is rightly calling for a scrappage scheme to remove diesel vehicles from our roads and for widening the congestion charge beyond London, with charges set purely on the basis of emission levels. Drivers may need to be charged far more to drive diesel vehicles through the most polluted areas during rush hour and the ultra low emission zone should be expanded to include the heavily congested north and south corridors.

Diesel engines are dismally failing to meet nitrogen dioxide emission standards, by an average of some 4.4 times per kilometre in real-world driving conditions. Much of this is caused by the impact of congestion and speed humps, which are inexplicably not variants in the industry standard norms. As a result, nitrogen dioxide levels soar whenever a car’s accelerator is used. This is borne out by the UK being in breach of the EU’s mandated air pollution levels for nitrogen dioxide in no fewer than 38 out of the 43 air quality monitoring zones. These levels were meant to be met some five years ago, as the hon. Lady said, and that situation triggered the legal action that she mentioned. I suggest that, paradoxically, the EU-wide regulatory failing regarding diesel engine emissions has led to this problem.

In my constituency we have a number of hotspots, not just Oxford Street: Marylebone Road, parts of Knightsbridge and the area around Victoria have previously recorded the highest nitrogen dioxide levels in the world and this is causing major problems. Clean Air in London is rightly calling for Oxford Street to be pedestrianised to a large extent and for shops and offices to be fitted with regularly maintained air filters to help reduce nitrogen dioxide levels. I am told that regulations for issuing fixed penalty notices for unnecessary idling of vehicle engines have so far proved ineffective. That needs to change.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the City of London, which suffers from the highest average levels of air pollution. According to an Evening Standard campaign last Friday, the City was advising people not to go jogging during the day because of the pollution levels.

There is much more than I should like to say, but I appreciate that other hon. Members want to speak. I finish by mentioning one of my favourite hobbies: walking in all corners of London. I know from personal experience, having been to Dalston and Stamford Hill and other parts of the hon. Lady’s constituency, which are less polluted than bits of mine, that there is none the less a pollution issue there as well.

The problems to which we refer are by no means limited to the city centre or the area around Heathrow airport, although I am sure that that is an important issue for many fellow London MPs. I dread to think of the damage that is being done to the lungs of huge numbers of children and asthma sufferers, of whom there are now a staggering 5.4 million in the UK.

I am delighted that this debate appears to be building momentum across the media. I give particular credit to the Evening Standard, because its campaign is important and will run for months and years to come. I hope that the Minister will consider seriously a lot of what is being said today, because this is and will continue to be a major issue for all Londoners that will unite the political class within London across the House, and we need to deal with it with some urgency.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

No one up to now has been near five minutes, never mind four. I now call Tom Brake, who I am sure will comply.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington 10:07, 9 June 2015

I will do my best, Mr Crausby.

I congratulate Ms Abbott on securing this important debate. I also congratulate my friend Stephen Knight, a London Assembly member for the Lib Dems, who has focused on the issue of air quality around schools. He did a survey that found, for example, that only 2% of teachers in schools were aware of a service call airText, which provides updates to people if air quality is poor. I understand that the Mayor’s target is to sign up 250,000 people to the service and that the number currently stands at 7,000, so he clearly has a long way to go. I hope he gets there, because people need the information.

Only 5% of teachers were aware of the Cleaner Air 4 Schools initiative, supported by the Mayor. As I said in an intervention, the Mayor should be doing a lot more in relation to information about air quality. There are often adverts for TfL on LBC, Metro or in tube stations. TfL is a huge organisation with a large budget that ought to be doing much more to prioritise communication on air pollution, and it can do that through its websites, emails and paid commercials. Given that the Greater London Assembly website has 200,000 hits a month and the TfL website no fewer than 20 million per month, there are lots of opportunities for the Mayor to communicate.

I welcome what the Mayor is doing on the ultra-low emission zone. However, I wonder whether doing it by 2020, as the Supreme Court has ordered, will be quick enough. We need incentives to encourage taxi firms to switch to cleaner vehicles. The Mayor first announced in 2008 that those would be available—but we are still waiting, seven years on.

One area where the Government and the Mayor can play an important role is with the Euro 6-standard lorries that are already available. I have been talking to a local constituency firm, Steve Frieze Removals, which has to rely on second-hand vehicles. Its worry is that there will not be enough appropriate second-hand vehicles on the market to purchase in advance of 2020, when its vehicles will have to meet the standard.

I turn briefly to the slightly different issue of air quality in Beddington Lane in my constituency. There is a proposal from Viridor to build an energy recovery facility on a site there. There is lots of opposition locally, but the opponents do not seem to be articulating an alternative solution, other than possibly trucking the waste much, much further than it currently goes. Do the Government intend to support a methodology that would allow the Environment Agency to control the total emissions from a range of sources, rather than simply linking the extra emissions associated with one site with the background pollution levels? My understanding is that that is how the Environment Agency has to handle things currently, but lots of facilities are emitting in Beddington Lane, and it is the totality of what is happening there that needs to be addressed.

I would have loved to have talked about Heathrow as well, Mr Crausby, but I think you are encouraging me to sit down.

Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park 10:11, 9 June 2015

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate Ms Abbott on initiating this crucial debate.

The great smog of 1952 killed some 3,500 people directly and many more indirectly. The public outcry led to the hugely successful and almost revolutionary Clean Air Act 1956. Next year will be its 60th anniversary, as has been said, and air pollution is very much back as a significant public health issue. I will not go through all the bad news, because it has already been relayed, but I make one point: more than 1 million Londoners live in areas that exceed legal limits on nitrogen dioxide, and that should be enough to highlight the importance of the issue.

As London expands—its population is expected to hit 10 million by 2030—the problem will inevitably grow, and tackling it will require the same level of energy that stopped the 1950s smog. Despite some of the things that have been said, I think we have seen leadership from the Mayor. For example, no other city in the world has a congestion charge and a low emissions zone, or plans for an ultra-low emission zone; I accept that there is a strong case for bringing forward the establishment of the ultra-low emission zone and for the zone to be bigger.

We have seen record investment in cycling over recent years in London and take-up has radically increased, but given that we cannot invent more roads, we will need that trend to ramp up massively if we want to avoid absolute gridlock on our streets. For the same reason, we should be investing in infrastructure to make far greater use of the river to carry freight and, for that matter, people. The numbers have improved in recent years, but they need to be ramped up dramatically.

London is growing by the equivalent of two extra tube trains a week—the equivalent of one bus every two hours—so it is hard to exaggerate the case for expanding our rail and tube network. We also need a revolution in electric car ownership. It is extraordinary that, despite falling costs, the fact that getting around in electric cars is dramatically cheaper than conventional alternatives and the installation of 1,400 new charging points in the past three years—a consequence of the Mayor’s intervention—that revolution simply has not happened. It will inevitably happen; the market dictates that it will, but the market needs a boost. The economics are already such that there is no reason why new minicabs should not all be electric or zero-emissions, or why companies with big fleets, such as delivery companies, are not automatically replacing their old vehicles with electric alternatives. The maths already stacks up, but somewhere along the line we need a powerful nudge.

London has the largest electric hybrid bus fleet in Europe, but the vast majority of London buses are still diesel. Many cities, including New York and Rome, have introduced whole fleets of electric buses. We have to ask how long will it be before all our buses in London are electric—or at least zero-emissions in other forms. I only learned this recently, but construction equipment, such as diggers, accounts for a staggering 14% of particulate emissions in London. Surely contracts should be awarded only to construction companies that have retrofitted the engines or have vehicles that are new and clean.

There is masses that we can do in London—I do not have time to go through the full list—but central Government must play a role. Denmark and France have introduced highly successful feebate schemes; a new tax is placed at the point of purchase on the dirtiest cars, with all the proceeds being used to bring down the cost of the cleanest alternatives. It is revenue-neutral, it is not retrospective, it is popular and it works.

While I am on the subject of central Government and without wanting to repeat too much of what has already been said—although I am loving the consensus—I want to emphasise that if we are serious about air quality, the Government simply have to rule out Heathrow expansion. Heathrow is already in breach of legally binding air quality limits, and any expansion would make that far worse. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just produced data showing that Heathrow is likely to be the second most polluted part of London by 2030, irrespective of whether it is expanded.

It is worth noting that one extra runway would lead to 25 million extra road passenger journeys, and, according to Transport for London, the cost of accommodating that by adapting our road networks is £15 billion more than Heathrow bosses have admitted. To put the issue in context, Heathrow expansion is incompatible with any prospect of meeting any legal air quality standards. It needs to be removed from the agenda once and for all. I thank you, Mr Crausby, for your indulgence.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth 10:16, 9 June 2015

I thank my hon. Friend Ms Abbott for securing this debate. I will cover two issues: Heathrow and Mogden sewage works. In my maiden speech, I mentioned the impact of Heathrow traffic on the A4 and the M4, which are important corridors through my constituency. People do not experience air pollution just as the silent killer of respiratory illness and morbidity, but also as that greasy dirt that can be seen on washing that is put out, on cars and on garden furniture. We know that the key pollutants around Heathrow are nitrogen dioxide and PM10. As previous speakers have said, the UK is already in breach of EU air quality legislation and that is likely to continue to be the case, whether or not Heathrow is expanded.

Some feasible improvements can be made at Heathrow, such as cleaner planes and a kiss and drop scheme. There could also be greater public transport use through increased capacity on the Piccadilly line, as well as through Crossrail and Airtrack. There is also the tunnelling of the M4, which would move the pollution, rather than decrease it. The modal shift from those public transport improvements, however, will not be significant. We are already seeing increased passenger numbers at Heathrow, even before additional runway capacity is built. There is no evidence that the changes would be adequate to meet the challenges of an almost doubling of air traffic movements, should the third runway or the Heathrow hub go ahead.

More extreme measures have been suggested. Clean Air in London talks about an ultra-low emission zone around Heathrow airport, but to be effective that zone would have to be so enormous that it would have a serious impact on the economy of the Thames valley area and be virtually impossible to enforce. Given what previous speakers have said, it is clear that on air quality grounds alone expansion at Heathrow, whether a third runway or the Heathrow hub, cannot go ahead, because it would imply further breaches of EU air quality legislation.

I turn to a completely different area that also creates air quality issues for local residents. Mogden sewage works is the second largest sewage works in the UK and is situated in the centre of my constituency. For those who live near Mogden in Twickenham, Hounslow South and Isleworth—Twickenham is not in my constituency, but is very close to it—air quality issues are an almost weekly occurrence. I had 16 email complaints from residents near Modgen in my inbox yesterday. In a couple of months, Twickenham rugby stadium will host the rugby world cup; the UK could be rather embarrassed if many matches are spoiled by the stench of sewage floating over the stadium.

The problems are occurring despite a £140 million expansion at Mogden sewage works last year that almost doubled its capacity. In my previous role as a councillor, I worked for many years with the Mogden Residents’

Action Group—MRAG—as well as with council officers and the MPs before me, to address the issue. My predecessor, Mary Macleod, met the Minister’s predecessor, Dan Rogerson, to ask the Department to address the issue with some urgency. The storm tanks need covering and there should be more of them, because, apart from the smell, Mogden sewage works continues to discharge dilute sewage into the Thames regularly, every time there is heavy rain.

I know that time is short and others want to speak, so I will conclude by asking the new Minister to meet me and local residents and councillors to try to reach a solution to this problem.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 10:21, 9 June 2015

I will be very brief, Mr Crausby.

If we are to get serious about improving air quality in London, we must not lose sight of the ultimate no-brainer policy—not wilfully to increase traffic in pollution hotspots. If we are serious about improving air quality in the London borough of Hillingdon, the current plans for the construction of HS2 must be revisited. We are being asked to host multiple construction sites, some of which will be in existence for 10 years. They will flood narrow suburban roads with HGVs. The roads are already clogged and are surrounded by high-density housing. The area is home to clusters of schools, to which children walk. The impact will be disastrous.

I will illustrate my point by discussing three roads. Swakeleys roundabout is already highly congested and in breach of EU limits; the current HS2 plans will increase HGV traffic there by 1,672 movements per day. On Swakeleys Road, there will be 1,860 new HGV movements per day. On Harvil Road, there will be 1,360 new HGV movements per day. To make that live a bit, I should say that that means a new HGV movement every 25 seconds on key artery roads that my constituents use to get to work in and around the borough. This is in an area where pollution levels are already high—in some cases, already in breach of EU limits—but, through HS2, the Government plan wilfully to increase the traffic.

On HS2 Ltd’s own traffic projections, fed into the Department’s own forecasting model, emissions for PM10, PM2.5 and NOx will be set to rise by between 30% and 40%. That feels like irresponsible madness, given the threat that Ms Abbott articulated so well—the silent killer that she described. This is Government policy pulling in different directions.

There is a solution: bury HS2, literally, by extending the proposed tunnel so that it crosses the Colne valley. It can be done technically, and the London borough of Hillingdon’s report shows that it can be done for more or less the same price as the existing proposals. There are lots of reasons to do it, but today we add to them the opportunity for the Government to avoid wilfully adding to the terrible problem of the quality of air that Londoners breathe.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. I am going to call the SNP spokesman, Mr Sheppard, to speak at half-past 10.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham 10:23, 9 June 2015

I will be very brief, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Abbott on securing this debate. She has demonstrated what an effective parliamentarian she is—and why she should stay in this House.

I will not repeat the description of the pollution in London, other than to say that, apart from Oxford Street, areas such as Putney High Street and Brixton Road are also heavily congested and have serious air pollution.

I want to mention schools. It is deeply worrying that, with life expectancy reduced by 11 years, so many London school kids are suffering with air pollution because so many parents are choosing to drive to school. London needs a new initiative, led by the Mayor, to encourage parents to walk to school. That will help to address both the issue of obesity and the fact that so many engines outside school gates in the morning and at the end of the school day are causing real problems for young people’s lungs. The British Lung Foundation has had much to say on that.

It is also important to do something about cycling. Clearly, the funding must be increased, because 1% of the TfL budget is not sufficient. There are real problems relating to cycling in suburban areas, and we need to speed up cycling super-highways. Currently, London’s 40% ethnic minority population is not choosing to cycle. Cycling proficiency training must come back into schools—it has largely disappeared because the money has left local government—because unless we increase cycling, we will not make any progress on air pollution.

The Mayor’s electric car hire scheme has been a spectacular failure. Over the coming year, he should learn from places such as Paris, but I hope that the next Mayor—who, of course, I hope will be me—will do something about accelerating electric car use in the city.

Crossrail 2 will be hugely important in expanding our tube network and ensuring that people stay on the public underground system. As chair of the all-party group on Crossrail 2, I reiterate that it is important that as Crossrail 1 finishes, we move forward with Crossrail 2 in this city and over the next horizon.

Air pollution is chronically bad, and more needs to be done. Much has been said about airport expansion in this debate; I will add nothing—let us see what happens next week—except that, in the end, most pollution is down to diesel. The next Mayor must address that in the congestion zone as well.

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

I will now call the Front-Bench spokesmen. I would be grateful if they could divide the time evenly, and leave time for the Minister. Under the new proceedings, I can call the mover of the motion to speak again at the end of the debate.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 10:26, 9 June 2015

I speak on behalf of the third party. Perhaps I should make it clear at the start that the SNP is unlikely to have a candidate in next year’s mayoral race. Nevertheless, we are extremely pleased to be here today to support our colleagues in London in raising awareness of this important issue. Members can consider this one small step towards building the progressive alliance of which we have talked. We hope to be part of that alliance, and that it will go across party lines.

I used to be a resident of this city and have some affection for it. I lived here for 11 years, although that was some 20 years ago. Coming back to London, it is noticeable how much the city has improved in many ways—how much cleaner it appears to be on the outside and how things seem to be better organised—but today we are discussing the things that we cannot see. I have a personal interest in this debate, because five years ago I was diagnosed with asthma. Like other sufferers, I know more than the average person that just because we cannot see something, it does not mean that it is not there, doing us harm.

I found nothing to disagree with in the comments of right hon. and hon. Members. I very much support their ambition in trying to raise the profile of this issue. I would, though, like to make a couple of additional points. The first applies not only in London but throughout the United Kingdom, and particularly in Scotland: we value very much the quality of our air and our reputation for having clean air. That is true not only for the residents of cities, but for the people who intend to visit. If a place starts to get a reputation for having dirty air and being a polluted environment, that reputational damage will have a long-term effect on whether people will want to visit and spend time in our towns and cities.

This afternoon, we will start the debate on whether we should remain part of the European Union. If ever there was a response to the question, “What has the European Union ever done for us?”, I think it would be: “It has set controls and limits relating to air quality, with which we have to comply.” It is a simple fact that the pollutants in our air do not respect the administrative boundaries of cities or countries. Only by acting together and setting strict controls on emissions and pollution can we protect our citizens across such boundaries.

I am pleased say that my colleagues in the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities have been working hard to try to improve the situation where we live. For the purposes of compliance, the UK is divided into 43 areas, of which 16 are not in compliance at the moment, though they were meant to be by this year. Of those, I am pleased that only one is in Scotland, the Glasgow urban area, and we anticipate that it will be in compliance by 2017, once the current road has been upgraded to motorway status and completes the M8.

We are doing our bit in Scotland, and we want to support colleagues here in doing what they can to raise awareness. We implore the Government to take action to improve the situation in London. Our support can be relied on for that.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:30, 9 June 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Abbott on initiating this timely debate. She has laid down a serious challenge to both the Mayor of London and the Government.

Of course, the Mayor now has a dual role, as he is also Boris Johnson. I hope that his new responsibilities lead him to question seriously the adequacy of some of the measures that he has proposed as Mayor to tackle air pollution in this great city. In his constituency, the children at Pinkwell and Cherry Lane primary schools face carcinogenic air pollution that is twice the annual legal limit. We know that children attending primary schools within 150 metres of a main road grow up with lung capacity impaired by up to a third, and that they have an increased risk of asthma and heart disease. Indeed, along with others this afternoon, I will host an event with the healthy air campaign precisely to highlight those risks and to encourage hon. Members to press for real and urgent change.

The impact of air pollution on London’s children is shocking. We know from Public Health England that London’s toxic air has already caused more than 1,300 premature deaths this year. That the poorest children are worst affected, with those least able to defend themselves the most exposed to that danger, should make us feel particularly ashamed. In Britain, health inequality has become inseparable from environmental inequality, and it is quite simply the poor who live in the most polluted environments. No one would choose to live or go to school on a dangerously polluted road; those who do usually have no choice in the matter. They are forced to live with the risks, but the Government do have a choice and a responsibility.

The Government spent three years in court trying to wriggle out of the responsibility placed on them by annex 15B to article 23(1) of the air quality directive. They argued that the directive put no requirement on them to prepare a plan to improve the situation, but the judgment was absolutely precise about the seriousness of the breach. The ruling was:

“The new government should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action, which is achieved by an order that new plans must be delivered to the Commission not later than 31 December 2015.”

The Government revealed in court that they did not believe they would solve the air pollution issue under their plans until 2030. Particulate matter alone is currently responsible for more than 3,000 deaths a year in London. When the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants is finally allowed to report its findings on nitrogen dioxide next month, it is predicted that that figure could double. A conservative estimate, therefore, suggests that by 2030 the Government’s failure to tackle air pollution could lead to the death of more than 50,000 Londoners. In the words of the judgment, the Secretary of State has an

“obligation to act urgently under Article 23(1), in order to remedy a real and continuing danger to public health as soon as possible.”

The Government and the Mayor have been playing a mutually convenient blame game. Last year, the Government wrote to every local authority in which air pollution exceeded legal limits to explain that ultimate legal responsibility for air pollution lay with local authorities and that any fines levied on the Government would be passed on to them. The Supreme Court judgment shows that that letter was wrong, so, in the light of that judgment, will the Government send a correction letter to all those local authorities?

The Minister is not the only Member who needs to send out a correction letter. Over the weekend I received a briefing from the Mayor on air quality in London for today’s debate. I am sorry that he could not be here—my office contacted his office earlier and found that he was attending an LBC pre-record, which clearly took priority. In bold type, the briefing says,

“London does not have the worst air pollution on the planet”.

We must all be relieved about that, though actually a presentation at the environmental research group at King’s College London by Dr David Carslaw last year suggested otherwise. On Oxford Street, the annual mean nitrogen dioxide, measured continuously, was 135 micrograms per metre cubed, while World Health Organisation guidelines state that the average should not exceed 40. The WHO also states that levels should not exceed 200 micrograms per metre cubed for more than 18 hours in a single year, but Oxford Street recorded levels above that—not for 18 hours, but for 1502 hours in a single year.

While the Mayor’s briefing is careful to talk only about average annual levels of nitrogen dioxide, Dr Carslaw is quite explicit when he refers to both the Oxford Street figures. He said:

“To my knowledge this” level

“is the highest in the world in terms of both hourly and annual mean.”

Of course, as the Mayor has done so often, he has used distraction technique. This is not some perverse international contest of “my pollution is bigger than yours”. The real issue is that the average annual nitrogen dioxide level in London’s busiest street was more than four times higher than the World Health Organisation says it should be. It exceeded the maximum permissible hourly spikes by more than 8,344%. That is the issue, and no amount of international comparison can render that acceptable.

The Mayor’s briefing claims that since 2008, when he took office, there has been a 12% reduction in nitrogen dioxide. By my reckoning that still leaves us with a very long way to go. It also says that

“London is implementing the most ambitious package of measures of any world city”,

and it cites the ultra-low emission zone as proof of that. I am sorry that the Mayor does not consider either Berlin or Copenhagen to be a world city.

Low-emission zones have already dramatically reduced air pollution here, but the truth is that London’s proposed ultra-low emission zone will not come into effect until 2020, and even then it will apply only in the central congestion charging zone and cover only 7% of the main roads in London that suffer from the worst nitrogen dioxide pollution. It will also exempt buses from meeting the highest Euro 6 standard and require only that all new taxis are zero-emission-capable by 2030. The other 93% of the most polluted roads in London will be outside the zone and may in fact experience greater pollution as more vehicles circumvent the zone and come into more residential and poorer parts of the city. If ever there was a perfect example for the phrase “Too little, too late”, that is surely it.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech; he is absolutely demolishing the Mayor’s atrocious record on this issue. Perhaps he might like to think about standing for that position. We had heard two pitches for the post, but we have had three now.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Enough, already. With cities across Europe adopting low and ultra-low emissions zones, there is a huge prize for manufacturers of low and zero-emission vehicles and there are significant risks for manufacturers that choose to bet against that trend. A responsible Government would reduce risk by adopting the highest standards here today. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made to establish long-term goals and timescales for a step-by-step rebalancing of fuel duty and vehicle excise duty, consistent with reducing not just CO2 emissions, but NO2 and particulate matter impacts? Emissions-based pricing must be the way forward. To achieve that, I ask the Minister to initiate a strategic assessment of the relative benefits of the different options to encourage the manufacture and purchase of low and ultra-low emissions vehicles.

On one point the Mayor’s document is certainly correct: the Government and the EU need to take complementary action and work with local authorities such as TfL to create a national framework of low emission zones, accelerate the uptake of zero-emissions vehicles and ensure that the Euro 6 standard does not reproduce the mistakes of Euro 4 and Euro 5, where the actual performance under road conditions is vastly inferior to that under test conditions.

The trouble for the Minister is that his Government’s own reports show that, far from trying to improve the standards, they have been working to undermine those very EU air pollution regulations since 2012. On 1 April 2015—I assure you, Mr Crausby, that I have not got the date wrong—the Government announced that, as part of their red tape challenge, they were working in Europe to undermine the enforcement of the air pollution regulation. The announcement said:

“Working in partnership with other Member States,” the Government would

“negotiate to: reduce the risk of financial penalties from noncompliance, especially in relation to nitrogen dioxide provisions”.

Somewhat ironically the paragraph ends:

“whilst maintaining or improving health and ecosystem protection”.

The Minister is no fool. I respect him greatly. He must recognise that there is a causal relationship here. We cannot introduce amendments to the air quality directive that raise the permitted limits of nitrogen dioxide and improve public health at the same time. The Government need to wake up and take responsibility for this public health crisis. Extensive lobbying efforts by environmental and health organisations persuaded the Government and the European Commission to abandon efforts to dilute the clean air directive. The new Minister therefore has an opportunity to start with a clean slate. I ask him in his summing up to make a commitment today to dropping all objections to current European standards, except those made on the basis that the standards are too weak, and to work to increase air quality in Europe, the UK and London. If he will not make that commitment, will he answer one final question: what is the point of a Government who cannot and will not deliver clean air for their citizens?

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:42, 9 June 2015

It is a great privilege to have my first opportunity to speak in Westminster Hall on this subject. The attendance is fantastic. I begin by paying tribute to Ms Abbott for securing the debate. She expressed eloquently many of the reasons why this is such a deeply important issue. Part of the problem, as she said, is that we are considering an invisible substance—the air that we breathe. I also particularly welcome Tommy Sheppard, who spoke powerfully about his experience as an asthmatic and made a great contribution by bringing brevity and common sense to our discussion.

Poor air quality is incredibly serious. As the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington pointed out, air is not simply an invisible substance, but is the very heart of our breathing and our organic matter. We are only just beginning to understand the processes that affect air quality. I have a lot of sympathy for her argument, but I want to pick up on two small points of fact, to frame the debate. First, it is not the case that when she was growing up the air quality in London was somehow better and that there is more childhood asthma because air quality has declined since she was young. There are significant challenges for air quality in London at present, but, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East pointed out, it has improved significantly. Since 1970, PM levels have fallen by 70% and nitrogen dioxide levels by 62%. There is an enormous amount still to do, but we should not believe that it is somehow worse now than in the past. Things have been improving; we should work to improve them more quickly.

Although this may sound like a petty point, we do not spend £16 billion a year on health costs connected to this issue. That is the estimated figure for social costs. The amount spent on related healthcare costs is approximately 100th of that. It is not that there are not significant health costs—there are, possibly running into hundreds of millions of pounds—but when we are thinking about the implications for public policy, we do not want that figure of £16 billion in lights.

The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington raised the issue of London’s carbon footprint. That is linked to another major complexity, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mark Field, namely the relationship between carbon emissions and nitrogen dioxide emissions from engines.

I turn now to the specific points made by the many Members who have spoken today. Dr Huq mentioned Horn Lane. It is a highly complex situation. A range of different industrial plants operates there, including a cement works and a waste transfer station, all increasing the amount of particulate matter in the atmosphere. Some mitigating measures could be introduced, ranging from walls to absorb particulate matter to cleaning the tyres of vehicles moving in and out of the stations in the area. Transport for London and Ealing Council have been looking at some technical issues, including using bus lanes to move road-cleaning vehicles more readily, and the Government have offered support to the council if it is interested in applying for road-cleaning vehicles. It is a serious issue, but we have a clear idea of possible mitigating measures. I encourage the hon. Lady to work with me to put pressure on the council to bring those measures in.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Is not part of the problem that local authorities are punished by EU fines if they do not meet the targets, but do not have the power to do anything? Our manifesto promised to put £30 billion of devolved spending behind the issue. That is not happening now. Does the Minister have any plans for anything like it?

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Specifically on Horn Lane, I am afraid that I disagree slightly with the hon. Lady. Without wishing to be too controversial, I think that the local authority could have done a little more. For example, Government grants were available for road-sweeping equipment—I personally would have liked the council to apply for that money—and there could have been more imagination and flexibility on using bus lanes for road-sweeping equipment. However, I am happy to take the matter up in more detail with her. Similarly, I would be delighted to meet John McDonnell and his constituents to talk through the specific issues related to plants in his constituency.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster gave a fantastic speech that put London in context: it was the first city of the world in the 19th century, the first city to industrialise and the first post-industrial city. Colleagues in the Department for Transport will be interested in his specific proposals about taxis, and I am happy to talk to him about those. Speed bumps are also important and worth looking at. I join him in paying tribute to his constituent who has led the campaign by Clean Air in London.

Tom Brake gave striking statistics about awareness in schools and put forward some good ideas about how we can work towards better communication on the issue. He asked whether total ambient emissions are reflected in permits. My understanding from my officials is that they are. If he or his constituents have discovered a specific case in which they are not, he may by all means come back to me so that we can follow that up, but the guidance should address total ambient emissions.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington

My understanding is that when the Environment Agency looks at extra emissions from a particular plant it can do so only against the background level and cannot take into account the totality of emissions from a number of plants in an area, which might exceed permitted levels of pollution.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am happyto follow that up in more detail. It is possible there is a distinction here between the responsibilities of the Environment Agency, which focuses on industrial plants, and those of DEFRA, which focuses on air quality in general.

My hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith raised a number of important issues. I liked his striking example of two extra tube trains a week representing the population growth in London. He emphasised the need to increase the use of the river, although there are issues around pollutants even from river-borne vehicles, which account for a substantial percentage of nitrogen dioxide emissions in London.

Electric cars must be central, because if there is a single technology that can address many of these issues—air pollutants, public health and carbon emissions—it is them. The Government have introduced a number of quite striking measures, ranging from working with Formula E, to providing incentives to electric car manufacturers to locate in the west midlands and looking at charging points, including motorway charging points, for electric vehicles. I agree that electric vehicles are the most exciting area, and it would be fantastic to work with my hon. Friend to push us harder and to challenge us to do more.

That brings us to Ruth Cadbury, who mentioned the Mogden sewage works and, in particular, the quantity and covering of the storm tanks. Again, I would be delighted to take up the request to meet her and her constituents. If we are lucky enough to get the Thames tideway tunnel through, it may be able to deal with some of those factors—

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

The Mogden sewage works are upstream of the proposed tunnel, so they are not included in the proposals, which will, therefore, have no impact. At current capacity, Mogden will still be discharging dilute sewage into the Thames.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I clearly have a lot to learn from the hon. Lady about Mogden sewage works, and I look forward to having a detailed conversation about them with officials.

My hon. Friend Mr Hurd mentioned HGV movements. Again, we had a striking statistic. He estimates that HGV movements will happen every 25 seconds under the HS2 proposals. He has a great sense of what we should do, literally, about HS2—he used the phrase “bury HS2”. Again, I am happy to look at the issues in detail.

That illustrates the incredible number of challenges around pollutants and air pollution in London. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed out, we would, in many ways, wish to support such proposals. HS2 could have considerable environmental benefits if it can move people out of vehicles. At the same time, however, it could create immense air pollution in London during its construction.

Mr Lammy made a wonderful broadcast for his campaign to be Mayor. He said something that it is difficult to disagree with, and which I would very much like to get behind: we want to encourage parents and children to walk, rather than drive, to school. Of course, doing that is easier said than done, but it would address issues around obesity and public health. Also, those idling engines outside schools emit nitrogen dioxide at an extraordinary intensity, and it would be sensible to address that.

Investment in cycling also seems sensible. TfL has produced some impressive and startling statistics on the increase over the last five years in the number of people cycling, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is correct that more can be done.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

Does the Minister agree that sustained investment in public transport is essential to deal with not only congestion, but air quality in London? I am thinking of strategic river crossings in east London, where, if we have investment in extra roads, which is often seen by some as a panacea for congestion and poor air quality, we will also need, at a minimum, to have sustained investment in public transport so that we can continue the modal shift from private vehicles to public transport.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is absolutely right. These are issues of incredibly complex modelling. As the hon. Gentleman implies, the construction of a new bridge raises a series of new issues. Investment in public transport is essential, and I think TfL takes that on board.

The Opposition spokesman, Barry Gardiner, made a number of striking arguments. I do not want to get too much into the details of where Oxford Street stands in international rankings. As he said, there are a number of issues about hourly measurements and mean average estimates. As somebody who lived in Kabul, in Afghanistan, for three and a half years, I find it difficult to believe that the levels of particulate matter in Oxford Street are higher than those we experienced there. As he said, the more legitimate comparison is with developed European cities, and we need to make sure that London is moving in the right direction.

The issues of fuel duty, nitrogen dioxide and emission-based pricing in general are important. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to pre-empt the Treasury or to start disrupting markets by talking about such fiscal instruments, but he is right that they are, logically, one thing a responsible Government should investigate in looking at a panoply of responses to emissions.

European standards were mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Edinburgh East. It is, of course, correct that we owe Europe a debt of gratitude in many ways for holding to account not only us, but 17 European countries that are in breach of their nitrogen dioxide thresholds.

We should recognise that the problem of pollution has faced London since the beginning of the 19th century. In many ways, the issues we face today are the end of nearly 200 years of struggling with pollution. As early as 1813, particles of carbon, dust and even faecal matter were so thick in the streets of London that it was not possible to see across the street. As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park said, the smog in December 1952 managed to kill 4,000 people in just four days. That is where we are coming from in London.

Since then, we have severely restricted coal-burning in central London and introduced catalytic converters in vehicles. We have reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by 88%, we have reduced particulate matter by 70% and we have reduced nitrogen dioxide by 62% since 1970. Particulate matter is now below the EU-defined threshold. However, there is, as right hon. and hon. Members said, much more to be done.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Minister is giving a very thorough answer to all our points, but many Members raised the issue of Heathrow. Will he address it directly? What concerns do the Government have about air pollution at Heathrow, particularly in the light of its possible expansion?

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The responsibility of DEFRA—I am slightly evading the issue, because I am not going to take a grand stance on Heathrow—is indeed to police air quality and air pollution in London. We will continue to exercise our responsibilities—says he, evading the issue.

I was particularly struck by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park focused on non-road mobile machinery and the potential there to reduce emissions by up to 40%. It is worth looking at that. There is also the issue of domestic and industrial boilers. We have focused a lot on vehicle movements, but there is potential in other areas.

I agree with the hon. Member for Brent North that Europe has done a great deal, but I am disappointed that, three weeks ago, we were not able to get other European member states to address the fact that the Euro 6 engines are not performing outside a laboratory. If we could get agreement on that, it would make a huge difference.

Although some progress has been made, each new step is becoming more and more difficult. We are not dealing simply with one issue, such as diesel cars, but with a dozen different issues, all of which contribute almost equally to diesel emissions.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington

I hope I did not miss this, and I hope the Minister is not being evasive, but when will the Government publish their air quality strategy?

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not have an answer for the right hon. Gentleman, but I am happy to sit down and talk through the details. We are certainly bringing together an air quality strategy, but I do not have a date for him.

To conclude, there are dozens of measures we need to take. This is a highly complex issue. However, I am very open to ideas from anybody in the room on how we can make improvements on this extraordinarily important matter. We face enormous challenges of scientific prediction. As London addresses these issues, we should be certain to share best practice with other countries—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).