Local Clean Air Targets — [Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 20th October 2020.

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[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee 2:30 pm, 20th October 2020

Hon. Members should please respect the one-way system. Clean your microphones before you leave. Only speak from the horseshoe. You do not have to stay for the full debate, but please listen to the two speeches after you. We have had a few dropouts, but please be mindful that there are eight of you, so if Back Benchers speak for no more than six minutes, that will probably get everybody in. If the sitting ends early, I apologise for my bad maths, but this is a co-operative event.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:31 pm, 20th October 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered local clean air targets.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about air quality. The issue involves a lot of different aspects, as I think we will hear from a number of contributors, but I want to focus my remarks mostly on traffic emissions. I wanted the debate to coincide with the recently launched consultation on Greater Manchester’s plans for a clean air zone. I am pleased that it has generated interest, and I look forward to hearing about developments in places such as Leeds, York, Cardiff, Stoke and, of course, Strangford. Accordingly, I will try to keep my opening remarks relatively short.

As we continue to live through a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus, there is clearly an urgent need to clear up the air we breathe, especially for those who live in the most polluted areas, such as the cities represented here today. I want to focus mainly on what is happening in Greater Manchester and on the local authorities’ planned actions. Also—stop me if you have heard this one before—I want to speak about the additional support needed from the Government to enable Greater Manchester to meet targets that will make a difference to the health of local people. That seems to be this week’s theme.

Before the pandemic, we already knew that air pollution posed a serious threat to the UK’s health and wellbeing. Every year, 11,000 people die from heart and circulatory diseases caused by air pollution. A report by the Royal College of Physicians found that nearly 40,000 early deaths can be attributed to air pollution in the UK every year. Increasingly, we are learning about the many other issues that air pollution can cause or make worse. This is a cradle-to-grave issue, with new research this month from the University of Manchester suggesting that air pollution can have an adverse effect on children’s ability to learn and that cutting air pollution by 20% could improve their working memory by 6%--the equivalent of four extra weeks’ learning time per year. That is to say nothing of the wider effect on growing lungs, brains and other organs. Scientists have also found links between growing up in an area with high pollution and the increased risk of developing a serious mental health issue.

There is substantial evidence to show that higher exposure to dirty air increases rates of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease. Last week, more evidence was provided on the link between air pollution and Alzheimer’s. Even if we take covid out of the equation, the combined impact that air pollution is having on our national health service and on people’s life outcomes is extremely worrying. The British Lung Foundation has said that air pollution is the main environmental threat to public health in the UK. Analysis has shown that almost 60% of people in England now live in areas where levels of toxic pollution exceeded legal limits last year. As such, despite the country’s many competing focuses at the moment, this is an issue that has to be prioritised and tackled urgently.

Much like coronavirus, air quality highlights and exacerbates existing inequalities in our society. It disproportionately hits people in some of our most deprived areas—often those living in crowded accommodation in areas near busy roads with high traffic congestion. It is worrying, but not surprising given what we already know, that there is growing evidence showing a link between covid deaths and poor air quality. A recent Harvard study found that an increase in fine particulate matter of just 1 microgram per cubic metre is associated with an 8% rise in covid-19 deaths.

Although there was a time during lockdown when we were breathing air that was cleaner than it had been for many years—if there can be said to be any silver lining to the disaster we are living through, that may be it, as it has given us a view of the world without air pollution—unfortunately that has not lasted. In fact, with the reluctance of people to get back on to public transport, there is a concern that traffic could rise to a higher level than pre-pandemic because of private car use. Major changes to people’s transport usage led to an initial steep drop in air pollution, but the relaxation of restrictions since June has led to increasing vehicle flows, with traffic volumes now less than 15% lower than typical pre-covid levels, and rising. As I say, they are likely to top pre-covid levels.

Having painted a fairly bleak picture of the problem, I want to talk about some of the solutions and some of the action that is happening locally, on the ground, to clean up our air. Following legal challenges by ClientEarth in the High Court, the Government directed 61 local authorities to bring nitrogen dioxide levels on local roads within legal limits as soon as possible. I thank ClientEarth for bringing that action and for its continuing work in pushing for the most ambitious progress possible on air quality improvement. ClientEarth has acted as a kind of conscience for the public and the Government in this field and has done a lot of excellent work that should be commended.

To focus on the local picture in my area, air pollution contributes to the equivalent of around 1,200 early deaths in Greater Manchester every year. Greater Manchester has historically suffered high emission levels and has a high number of non-compliant vehicles. The Government directed the combined authority in Greater Manchester to introduce a category C clean air zone across the region to bring nitrogen dioxide levels on local roads within legal limits as soon as possible and by 2024 at the latest. That is of course a welcome move, and we know that clean air zones are the best way to reduce nitrogen dioxide.

Greater Manchester is now consulting on key elements of the clean air plan proposal, which includes daily clean air zone charges for the most harmful vehicles but also takes into account discounts and exemptions and, importantly, proposes a funding package to support local businesses to upgrade to cleaner vehicles. I encourage stakeholders, businesses and individuals to engage with the consultation, which runs until 3 December, and I ask Greater Manchester residents take part, share their views and help to shape the future plans for our area. In parallel, the 10 Greater Manchester authorities are also running a consultation on Greater Manchester licensing standards, asking for views on proposed vehicle standards for hackney carriages and private hire vehicles, which will have a bearing on improving air quality, as it includes low emissions targets.

Greater Manchester’s clean air zone is expected to launch in 2022 and will be a designated area that certain high-polluting vehicles will pay a charge to drive into and within, aiming to clean up air quality by incentivising drivers to upgrade to a cleaner vehicle. All roads in Greater Manchester will be included in the clean air zone, with the exception of those managed by Highways England. ClientEarth has some criticisms of the Greater Manchester plan, including that it does not move quickly enough and particularly that it does not include private cars. Those are fair criticisms, and I hope that Greater Manchester, in looking at the future, will reflect on them and perhaps take them on board. We obviously need to move to a situation where we drive all high-polluting vehicles off the road, but the plans are an important start and cover the most polluting vehicles, such as vans, heavy goods vehicles and older taxis.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

My hon. Friend makes some incredibly strong points. He knows I am a strong supporter of air quality measures and of reducing carbon emissions and the types of nitrogen oxide emissions he refers to. However, does he agree that adequate support needs to be given to private hire drivers and taxi drivers, who are often on low incomes, to help them make that transition? Most drivers I speak to want to make the transition as soon as possible, but they need support to do that, because they are often on very low incomes.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend anticipates some of the comments I am about to make, and I am grateful to him for making that point—it is really important, as the current crisis has shown. Many of those drivers are self-employed, and whenever I talk to a taxi driver in Manchester, they tell me that the trade is on its knees and that they really need support to get through this crisis, but also longer-term support for changing their vehicle.

More broadly, it is Greater Manchester’s ambition to secure more walking and cycling, which could be a positive legacy of lockdown—we have seen a lot more people walking and cycling. That could mitigate the bounce back to more reliance on car travel and encourage people to improve air quality for the long term. The combined authorities’ “Transport Strategy 2040” is focused on changing travel behaviour towards greener travel, aiming to reduce car use from 61% of trips in 2017 to no more than 50% of trips in 2040, although those will of course be largely in zero-emission vehicles.

There is an important point here. I gave up my car about two years ago and I now mostly walk, cycle, use a bus or take the Metrolink in Manchester. I can do that because I live in a part of Manchester that has good transport links. We have the Metrolink and we have a very busy bus route 100 yards from my house. When I am in London, I cycle to Parliament along a well-designed and segregated cycle route. If we want to change behaviour, we have to invest in public transport and infrastructure, from cycle lanes to zero-emission vehicle charging. The money is there. ClientEarth has suggested that the £27 billion that is currently allocated to the road investment strategy could be repurposed. That is something that the Government could usefully look at.

As well as investment in infrastructure and transport, the clean air zone proposals also need to be resourced. Greater Manchester’s proposals include Government assistance to help businesses and individuals upgrade to cleaner, compliant vehicles. Greater Manchester has requested funding from the Government totalling around £150 million to cover clean commercial, taxi and bus funds, and a hardship fund. The hardship fund is particularly important, as we have mentioned. It is designed to support those most vulnerable to the financial impacts of the clean air zone. The Government initially awarded £41 million, for which we are grateful, but there is a lot more to do. The leaders are currently in discussions to, I hope, secure the rest of the money. Can the Minister address that issue later?

The clean air plan was developed before the pandemic. The current consultation will take into account the impact of covid and any changes required as a result of the crisis. Local leaders in Greater Manchester are acutely aware of the fact that businesses, such as the taxi and private hire vehicle sector, have been severely impacted by covid. Government policies to stem the spread of the virus mean that they continue to be impacted. The consultation is considering extra support so that those businesses are not doubly penalised.

It is crucial that the final funding package from the Government recognises the changed economic circumstances we are operating in. It may be that more money is required to offset the financial impacts to individuals and businesses that have already been hard hit by covid. We might need more money even than was initially requested. I ask the Minister to ensure that the Government take that into account and stand ready to provide in full what is needed for the plan.

There is more I could say in terms of urging the Government to intervene to better support these efforts, but I need to wind up. Local authorities are responsible for the local road network and their own fleets, but responsibility for the strategic road network lies with Highways England, which has not been directed to reduce NO2 in the network in the same timescale or using the same processes. I encourage the Government to look at that anomaly. Greater Manchester has consistently called on the Government to issue a clear instruction to Highways England with regard to air pollution from the strategic road networks that it operates, so that our efforts in the region are not undermined. I encourage the Minister and the Government to act on that.

Greater Manchester is proposing the largest clean air zone outside London, but the funding support guaranteed so far by the Government has not matched the scale or ambition of those plans. Measures that could positively impact on carbon targets, such as an increase in electric vehicle infrastructure and facilitating sustainable journeys, are still considered separate from the clean air plan by Government. There is a strong argument for the various policy frameworks and funding settlements aimed at addressing nitrogen dioxide, PM2.5 and carbon to be better integrated and dealt with as one, rather than as separate disparate pots. I urge the Government to look at combining them and creating a generous clean air fund that all local authorities can use to fund their important air quality improvement work.

My final point, which my hon. Friend Ruth Jones, who is speaking for the Opposition, might refer to, is that as well as complementing local clean air plans, we need meaningful, legally binding targets and real accountability when the Environment Bill comes back to the House. Can the Minister give us an indication of when that might be? I urge her to incorporate the World Health Organisation’s air quality standards into the Bill when it comes back to the House.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

If all Members could stick to about six minutes, I would be extremely grateful.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:44 pm, 20th October 2020

Absolutely, Chair—in fact, I am due to speak in the main Chamber very shortly, so I will probably have to leave Westminster Hall straight after my speech.

When the books are written about this period in our history, what will they say? Will they say that 2020 was a time when human beings were confronted with a problem—a pandemic—which, with difficulty, we struggled through and that we then went back to normal? Or will they reflect on a lost opportunity to learn the ultimate lesson—that for all our technical advances and complex social structures, we can still be undone by a single sub-microscopic cell? While we try to put out the fires caused by coronavirus with drastic, difficult and restrictive measures, each one causing damage to businesses and families, we must also keep one eye squarely on the kindling of our next crisis, which is burning, for the moment, away from the media’s attention.

Just as the current public health crisis came with warnings from the scientific community—warnings that were too inconvenient to be properly heard, about a problem whose solutions were too expensive to be funded—our next public health crisis will be no surprise to those who are looking. Our next crisis is an environmental crisis, when the price of Government inaction and lacklustre policy will be paid for by our citizens, particularly the most vulnerable. Words that were not in the common parlance of 2019 are features of 2020: covid-19, coronavirus and the R rate. Without action now, the following words will, in the not-too-distant future, be repeated in living rooms up and down the country: nitrogen dioxide—or NO2PM10 and black carbon.

As with coronavirus, we are seeing the impact of our poor air quality right now. The World Health Organisation estimates that 7 million deaths worldwide each year are due to exposure to air pollution—500,000 of them in Europe. Air pollution is outranked as a risk factor only by high blood pressure, high blood sugar and smoking, and it poses particular risks to the unborn, young children, the elderly and those who are vulnerable because of existing underlying medical conditions—we are all now well aware of those conditions. It is estimated that outdoor air pollution contributes to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. Indeed, a report by Public Health England describes poor air quality as

“the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, as long-term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer, leading to reduced life expectancy.”

Given those stark facts, the problem can no longer be ignored.

Four and a half years ago, eight cities were mandated to solve a problem. One of those cities was Leeds—my city—and it rose to the challenge. It presented the Government with a plan to tackle our air quality issues. Before discussing that, however, let me first give some background information. Leeds, once known as the motorway city of the ’70s, is the largest city in Europe without a mass transit solution. Research by Public Health England shows that PM2.5 concentrations are estimated to cause over 1,000 adult deaths a year in West Yorkshire, with 350 of them occurring in Leeds. That represents 5.5% of the total mortality in the city, and has been calculated to be the equivalent of 3,825 life years being lost.

Constituents of mine see HGVs hurtle along the congested and over-subscribed A660. I have met people from local primary schools in Pool who describe their fear as these lorries pass through their village, due to its position as a thoroughfare connecting North and West Yorkshire. I walk my own children through streets that regularly miss their air quality targets.

Leeds put forward to the Government its plan for a clean air zone costing £40 million. This ambitious policy proposal, which would have taken high-polluting vehicles off our streets, came into being following hard negotiation, including having to challenge the then Secretary of State for the Environment. However, in January 2019, £29 million of funding was given. The charging clean air zone was meant to have been implemented by now, but last week we had the announcement that it would not be coming forward.

There are some stark warnings here. We have seen our air quality improve, due to new vehicles being brought in by First Bus, by HGV operators and by private hire drivers, but what will now become of those vehicles without the charging clean air zone? There is a real risk that those vehicles will go elsewhere.

What of the legal limits themselves? The UK targets ensure that readings of NO2 do not exceed 40 micrograms per cubic metre; the target for PM10 is also 40 micrograms per cubic metre, and the target for PM2 is 25 micrograms per cubic metre. However, the World Health Organisation limit for PM10 is 20 micrograms per cubic metre, and its limit for PM2.5 is 10 micrograms per cubic metre. So the Government’s targets on air quality are set at much higher levels than those recommended by the World Health Organisation. The solution to our air quality problem in Leeds and in the rest of the country is to raise the clean air levels and to have a new clean air Act.

There are no safe levels of air pollution; there are no levels that will see mortality levels decrease. If current events have taught us anything, it is that we must prioritise tackling not only the current public health crisis but every public health crisis. If we are not to see the same things continuing to happen in Leeds, Manchester and other places, we need more stringent legal limits. That is what the Minister needs to take back to her Department today and what she needs to implement. Otherwise, we will see this public health crisis also spiral out of control.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

I think we can probably afford colleagues seven minutes, until I let them know otherwise.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 2:50 pm, 20th October 2020

Thank you, Sir Charles. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

This is a timely debate. Stoke-on-Trent is one of the 33 third wave authorities, together with our neighbour Newcastle-under-Lyme. Pollution does not respect authority boundaries. Joint work is necessary to resolve issues that have led to a ministerial direction at Basford Bank. Similarly, there is a direction covering Victoria Road, which crosses the constituency boundary. I share that with my hon. Friend Jack Brereton. He is unable to attend this debate, but very much wishes to be associated with my comments.

Stoke-on-Trent is no stranger to respiratory diseases. As a city of pits and pots, it has struggled with terrible lung conditions known, rather glibly, as “miner’s lung” and “potter’s rot”. Dust emission and pollution-related illnesses should increasingly be consigned to the past with the working practices that caused them. Sadly, the city’s overwhelming reliance on fossil fuel motor transport means that this is not so. Just as we have tackled and continue to tackle the causes of industrial illnesses, so we must act to resolve the causes of road traffic pollution.

Let me be clear from the start that we must secure investment from the transforming cities fund. Bus use in Stoke-on-Trent has fallen by one third in 10 years. If we do not get the tens of millions of pounds of investment promised in the Red Book to transform the city’s relationship with non-car transport, it will condemn us to a spiral of further public transport decline.

Paradoxically, despite the high levels of pollution from cars at certain points in the city, car ownership is relatively low. The transforming cities fund is a fundamental necessity when it comes to healing the urban splintering, transport deprivation and inequality of opportunity faced by 30% of people without a car in Stoke-on-Trent. They often live in communities blighted by the most road pollution, which they do little to cause, including pollution from ageing buses, as acknowledged by the ministerial direction on retrofitting buses on the A53.

I welcome the action taken to minimise congestion-related pollution by keeping road traffic moving, not least by investing in the now underway Etruria Valley link road, which I hope will relieve the problem at Basford Bank, and the approved, shovel-ready schemes for a high-capacity Joiners Square roundabout, where the A50 Victoria Road currently has a pinch point with the A52 Leek Road and the A50 Lichfield Street.

However, much more needs to be done to encourage a modal shift from the private car by improving our local rail services, moving to a zero-emission bus fleet that carries regular and reliable services, making walking and cycling routes safe and attractive and by not stopping traffic altogether.

It is not acceptable if measures to improve air quality damage our local economy and risk jobs. That is something that my colleagues and I, as MPs representing Stoke-on-Trent, have made very clear to the Government on several occasions. Measures to improve air quality at Basford or Fenton must also not merely move the problem elsewhere, to Bentilee, Bucknall or Etruria. A holistic approach is needed to improve air quality across north Staffordshire. I will continue to campaign for better bus services and to reopen the Stoke-to-Leek railway line and the lost station at Etruria.

Earlier this year, local MPs secured a deadline extension for our local councils to develop plans on air quality with the Government. The new reality of covid-19 since then is that traffic levels have dropped and suspicion of public transport has sadly grown. It might be that, even at this very late stage, a further extension would help to take stock of and address this new reality. I hope that Ministers will carefully consider that, and that our local councils and Government Departments will continue to devise measures that will result in improvements to the current reality on the ground.

It is a vital duty of all partners to work together to do that. That includes Highways England, whose A500-A50 strategic highway—that monumental splinter of concrete, cutting through the urban potteries, known locally as the D road—is a key contributor to poor local air quality. It would be a perfect location for the kind of smart trunk road mooted by Highways England in its recent consultations on major and strategic roads. A smart D road could utilise gantry technology to smooth out traffic flows and address specific hotspots, improving reliability and reducing standing-time pollution.

Stoke-on-Trent needs a transport revolution that will improve our air quality while also supporting the city’s continued economic growth, particularly given the pressures on the economy caused by covid-19. We need greater public transport capacity, and that needs a step change—a watershed moment to catalyse the shift to public transport that other cities have enjoyed. Delivering the transforming cities fund deal promised in the Red Book would redirect our city’s future away from road pollution and towards sustainable transport and better air quality for us all to enjoy.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 2:56 pm, 20th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and an absolute pleasure to follow my friend and neighbour, my hon. Friend Jo Gideon. A common theme we are starting to see when we stand next to each other to speak is that she is far more eloquent. She has made points that I probably cannot reiterate, but I will attempt to in my own style.

Clean air is indeed important. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act 1965, this country has made great progress in ensuring that our air is cleaner and safer to breathe. There has rightly been an increase in concern about the gas nitrogen oxide, most commonly produced by diesel vehicles on our roads. In response, the Government have set clean air targets for local authorities to comply with. However, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

The implementation of the Government’s air quality targets by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs joint air quality unit is, in the experience of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, less a matter of co-operation than of Government diktat. The city council has looked at a range of measures to combat air quality issues in the three hotspots of Stoke-on-Trent, but JAQU discounted them early. The reason was that the time it would take to implement them would exceed Government expectations on compliance. So measures such as car scrappage schemes and the installation of more electric charging points have been cast aside in favour of closing two strategic roads in Stoke-on-Trent— Victoria Road and Etruria Road—at peak hours.

The Department for Transport has cast doubt on the closure of a lesser road to create a dedicated public transport highway as part of the city’s transforming cities fund application. The reason it has cast doubt on that plan from the city council and bus operators is that diverted traffic would put pressure on other sections of the network. Yet DEFRA is intent on closing two strategic roads, with no concerns about the implications for other parts of the local road network. The way to ensure that local clean air targets are met is to work with local leaders. The Government must listen to their concerns and let them have the time to implement sensible measures that will stand the test of time, rather than hastily implemented ones to meet an artificial deadline.

In fact, on the two strategic roads, Victoria Road and Etruria Road, natural compliance will be achieved by 2026 thanks to the natural uptake of more efficient vehicles. That means that the Government are intent on spending approximately £13 million of the public’s money to create measures that will be removed three years after their completion. That same money could be spent on local initiatives such as grants for upgrades to electric cars to help the car industry through the pandemic or on buying new, modern-day buses for the city. Those are measures that local leaders want and that they know will work.

Finally, I want to highlight the great flaw in the local clean air targets. The largest polluters on the network are not local authority roads but nationally strategic corridors. In Stoke-on-Trent those are the A50 and the A500. By every measure available, they pollute with more nitrogen oxide than any other road in the city. Yet because those roads are managed and owned by Highways England, they appear to be exempt from meeting any local clean air target. Instead of forcing local authorities to remove the grains of sand on their network, the Government must get Highways England to smash the rock on the strategic network. My hon. Friend Aaron Bell shares similar concerns, because of the impact on the town that neighbours us to the west.

It is vital that we finally see investment in our public transport network. That will come through the Stoke-to-Leek line, which will have a huge implication: finally, we will see not only the Beeching cuts reversed, but those further cuts to public transport in Stoke-on-Trent that came after Beeching and which blight the city. Having a bus network with bus routes that spread far and wide, connecting small villages in my constituency, such as Goldenhill or Baddeley Green, is a vital lifeline for local communities and the local high street.

Lastly, to reiterate, it is really important that the transforming cities fund—money that was promised to us in the last Budget—is delivered to Stoke-on-Trent, because that upgrade to Stoke-on-Trent station and the surrounding strategic roads will have a huge implication for the future of our city, and will ensure we leave behind a cleaner, healthier city once we sadly pass on into another world.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 3:00 pm, 20th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir Charles. I appreciate being able to speak in this important debate, and I thank the hon. Members who secured it. On many occasions, I have spoken in this House about air quality issues, including how those issues relate to the wider challenges of climate change and the environment. Today, I will talk particularly about some very significant concerns affecting my constituency, relating to the existence already of one incinerator and the plans to build two more burners within miles of the existing plant, which was heavily criticised by local residents and, indeed, myself. It was one of the first campaigns I got involved in locally around the time of my election, eight years ago.

Those plans are deeply concerning. Waste incineration and biomass plants are often dressed up as green plants that are going to provide green energy and green solutions, when they are anything but. They are completely absurd, and sit in complete contradiction to not only our commitments under the Paris climate change targets, but WHO guidance on air quality; the UK’s own guidance on air quality; the Welsh Government’s guidance on these issues; the One Planet strategy that Cardiff Council has recently set out, which I will come to later in my remarks; and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

The context, which has been set out ably by my hon. Friend Jeff Smith and a number of other hon. Members, is the current crisis and the impact of air quality on respiratory conditions. The wider impact of air quality on the health of young people and children is also of deep concern to me. Of course, my concern is about not just the plants themselves, but the trucking to them and the vehicle movement associated with them, and I will go through each of those issues in detail.

I am deeply concerned, not only because of the direct impacts but because these plants are often put forward and agreed to with lots of promises of jam tomorrow—district heating schemes, wonderful green energy and opportunities for local people—and they are often anything but. Certainly, the promises that were made regarding the Viridor incinerator in Splott in my constituency have not been fulfilled, and I am now deeply sceptical of any promises made by any of these companies about what they will do, because they seem to be simply greenwash.

I mentioned the Viridor plant that exists at the moment. I completely opposed it, alongside the Cardiff Against the Incinerator group. It burns 350,000 tonnes of waste a year, but as I understand it there have unfortunately been serious issues regarding the efficiency of the heating and burning process, which mean that the plant does not generate the levels of heat necessary to provide the so-called energy from waste that Viridor trumpeted at the very start. There are also issues with infrastructure access to the national grid, so it is not actually able—I have visited the plant myself—to provide energy to the national grid at the levels that it could do, let alone to any district heating schemes, because the appropriate infrastructure is not in place.

We currently have two other proposals under way. One is for an incinerator right on the border between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Ruth Jones, who will be speaking from the Front Bench today. That burner would see 200,000 tonnes of commercial waste burned a year, 24 hours a day, with 40-plus lorry movements a day in an area that is already highly congested—a residential area where there are difficulties with road access. Some 116 other vehicle movements are proposed—I think that is probably an underestimate—in an area where we have the fantastic, brand-new Eastern High School, which has been invested in, and in other residential areas with other primary schools. These vehicle movements, let alone the incinerator itself, will be right next to where our children are receiving their education. That is completely unacceptable, and the fact that the incinerator is being placed right next to a wind turbine is absurd.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Clearly, the Welsh Government have a really good track record when it comes to recycling—one of the best rates in the UK—so is there a reason why there is this demand for incineration plants? It seems contradictory.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out Wales’s admirable record on recycling, which I was going to mention. Because we are recycling so much, the reality is that these plants often truck in waste from elsewhere and, indeed, from across the border in England. I have asked DEFRA Ministers questions about this before because there does not appear to be a UK-wide strategy for the movement of waste around the UK in a way that is both carbon-efficient and responsive to the air quality concerns in many communities.

It would be absurd if we simply became the dumping ground for waste from elsewhere across the UK, with all this stuff being shipped around and the associated air quality and emissions issues. It is also absurd that UK Trade and Investment and the Department for International Trade have been advertising internationally for investment in this incinerator plant, which is in my constituency and next to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West. It is being advertised as supposedly one of the premium projects for investment in Wales. What an absolute contradiction of other things that the Government seem to be saying. There is also the absurdity of proposing to put it right next to a wind turbine, which is exactly the sort of renewable energy we should all support.

I am also opposing the most recent application. Again, notice the name: Parc Calon Gwyrdd, which translates as “green heart park”. It is absolute nonsense, though I will not use any worse words, you will be glad to hear, Sir Charles. It is on Rover Way, behind Splott, a community already blighted by the Viridor incinerator. The proposal is to burn 75,000 tonnes of virgin timber that would be shipped from Latvia, and not even shipped to Cardiff docks, but to Liverpool or Felixstowe for trucking across the country. That could not be more absurd or more contradictory of our ambitions on climate change and air quality. Friends of the Earth has rightly pointed out that burning timber in this way is worse than coal in terms of emissions and particulates. I contrast that with the approach taken by Cardiff Council, which has just announced its One Planet Cardiff strategy with a focus on replacing single-use, fossil fuel-driven journeys with low-carbon modes and low-emission travel, supporting the transition to ultra-low-emission taxis and buses, a 100% shift to zero-emissions vehicles by 2030, and putting in the infrastructure to support that active travel. It is a big contrast.

I conclude with a quote from one of the local activists whose efforts I completely support. Catherine McArthur said:

“What future is there if your postcode automatically puts you at risk by the air you breathe?”

It is absurd to lock in last century’s technologies under this greenwash. My constituency is fed up with being a dumping ground for other people’s waste and with these activities going on right next to residential areas, schools and other communities. I will continue to wholeheartedly oppose this. I would like to hear from the Minister what strategic view is being taken of these issues across the UK and how we should be working with the Welsh Government.

Photo of Claudia Webbe Claudia Webbe Labour, Leicester East 3:07 pm, 20th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and to be able to participate in the debate.

One of my priorities when I was elected to represent my home city of Leicester was to fight for clean energy and climate justice so that people living in Leicester and across the planet can have a liveable future. That is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic because a Government report in July found that air pollution is likely to increase the number and severity of covid-19 infections. Children are particularly at risk, with those who grow up in highly polluted areas four times more likely to have reduced lung function.

In 2018, the WHO named Leicester as one of the 40 most polluted places in the UK. While we still have further to go, Leicester City Council is taking considerable steps to improve the quality of our air. The latest pre-coronavirus annual figures show that Leicester is meeting all current air quality objectives, except for nitrogen dioxide. Average nitrogen dioxide levels have reduced by over 35% since 2010, when the highest levels, at more than double the WHO air pollution limits, were recorded.

Air quality in Leicester has improved during our extended coronavirus lockdown, one of the few silver linings of what has been an incredibly difficult position for our city. We have been in lockdown, or extended measures, since July; the city with the largest amount of extended measures to date. The drastic fall in car traffic has seen levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide decrease by more than half. In that sense, I cannot wait for us to end the use of diesel vehicles that pollute our cities and our environment to an excessive degree.

However, lockdown is a unique set of circumstances. It is crucial that we keep pollution levels down when people start to return to normal life. The Government must ensure that the decreased levels of air pollution during the pandemic become the norm and that they fall even further.

Many of my constituents have contacted me regarding the need for a stronger Environment Bill for clean air in Leicester. The Government could fulfil that by enshrining the WHO’s guidelines for damaging particles, known as PM2.5, into law via the Environment Bill. Currently, the Bill falls short and merely commits us to setting a new PM2.5 target by 2022. That is not sufficient. The Government have not specified what that target will be. Our legal limit for PM2.5 is twice as high as the WHO recommends. I urge the Government, working with all of us collectively, to adopt a clear legal commitment to reduce these particles, which contributed to more than 4 million deaths in 2016.

The coronavirus crisis has further demonstrated the need for our communities to have access not only to clean air, but to green spaces and interconnectivity. That is why I believe the Government must introduce full-fibre broadband that is free at the point of use, a mass housing insulation programme, and a green integrated public transport system.

It is vital that those responsible for climate chaos—the fossil fuel companies and big polluters—are held responsible for their actions. It is a disgrace that children whose lungs are still growing are disadvantaged by the significant levels of pollution in our cities. We must bail out workers and the planet, not industries that are responsible for air pollution. Large corporations must not be allowed to profit from climate breakdown; instead, they must pay their fair share, as we collectively move our economy towards renewables so that future generations inherit a habitable planet.

Before we get there, it is our responsibility to ensure that the lungs of our children have a future, so that we are not just saving livelihoods, but saving the future lives of children and young people.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:13 pm, 20th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Charles.

I have spoken many times in this place about the poor air quality we experience in York. That is due not only to the transport system we have, but to the topography of York itself. These serious air quality issues still need to be addressed, most notably the nitrogen dioxide levels, which in places exceed the WHO targets. That is why it is so important that our air quality management area is closely monitored.

We know the causation, but we also know the cost. In my city, 150 lives are lost prematurely each year due to poor air quality. As the research and the science advance, we know more about the respiratory and circulatory problems that poor air quality causes. That could increase as we know more of the science. We know there is a link between covid-19 and lung disease, and, of course, between air quality and lung disease. More research is being undertaken in that area, but the related morbidity needs to be recognised.

York was not built for traffic. As a medieval city, it is more attuned to walking and, today, to cycling. The first e-cycle and e-scooter hire schemes will be seen in our city this month. That will be a real game-changer for the city, and will enable people to reconsider the way they travel through York, whether they be businesses, residents or visitors.

I ask the Minister to consider the conversation about modal shift. It is one thing to talk about it and to have it in policy and in papers, but until we have that one-to-one conversation to explore with residents what is possible in their lifestyles, we will not see the modal shift to which we aspire. I would like to hear from the Minister what more can be done to achieve that.

The radial road map of York pulls traffic into our city centre. While much has been done to militate against rat runs through residential areas, the proposals to widen ring roads are simply not the answer, nor the way forward. The only outcome is induced capacity and challenges in the future. Every day, commuters are blighted by congestion as the creaking infrastructure suffocates under the volume of traffic, costing York’s economy £30 million every year. Imagine if that money was reinvested in bringing about modal shift. It would be transformative.

While Labour has rightly supported the electrification of buses, the City of York Council leadership lacks the impetus needed to bring about the significant change we want. We hear rumours of local transport plans, but there was nothing advanced until Labour laid down at the start of the year the need to have a clean air zone—the first voluntary clean air zone in the country—and to ensure that we are a car-free city centre. Covid-19 has provided an opportunity to see that starting to take place. There are problems because the authority forgot to consult disabled people when putting the scheme in place, and they have been restricted, but it has made a real difference to air quality in the city.

The challenge, therefore, is not to do with knowing the causation. The solutions are evident. The key is to ensure that there is the right accountability is in the system, that there is enforcement and that sufficient resources to deliver meaningful outcomes are secured. Local authorities cannot be handed the risks and responsibility if they are not also handed the resources. Ultimately, the Government must be held to account if they fail to enable authorities to deliver change. I fear that the Environment Bill does not have the powers to make the significant difference we need. I echo hon. Members in calling for that Bill to return to the House, and for it to be robust and rigorous in addressing climate change.

I could name many pinch points in York. I fear for residents living in those areas and workers working in them, but also for children at school in those areas where there are high levels of pollution. I call for air quality monitoring outside every school to ensure that we are on top of the data and the impact it is having on developing lungs.

Perhaps the biggest irony we face in York, however, is that the Green/Lib-Dem-run city council is proposing the development of six new city centre car parks, drawing in even more traffic. I am glad that the council has paused one of the schemes due to the pandemic, but I urge it seriously to think again, because that would be deeply harmful and would increase air pollution in our city centre.

We need, instead, a strategy around public transport and active travel in the city. Ad hoc decisions and single interventions are not the solution; they just move the problem from one part of the city to another. We need a comprehensive strategy, and that is where the role of Government is important in ensuring that local government plans are robust and effective.

I make five requests today. First, we need to improve air quality monitoring across the city and outside schools. Secondly, we need year-on-year targets to reduce poor air quality and for local authorities to be held to account should they fail to adhere to those targets, as we hold the Government to account here. Thirdly, the Environment Agency may advocate change, but I seriously ask whether it has the powers to make a difference. Strong enforcement is essential. Fourthly, expertise should be brought into local authorities to enable them to put the right plans in place. We know that many local authorities have been hollowed out, not least at the moment, with their finances under pressure. We must ensure that they have the skillset necessary to bring about change. Fifthly, funding will not happen without proper investment in good transport infrastructure to make that difference, ensuring, as I keep repeating, that we can have modal shift. It is the investment in achieving modal shift that will make the difference.

We have an incredible opportunity to drive down air pollution and change the way we move about the places in which we live our lives. York has the potential to be transformative in addressing this issue and becoming a carbon-neutral—or even a carbon-negative—city. That is what we want to see, because it saves lives, it is good for the economy and it enhances our environment. We know what has to be done. The missing ingredient is leadership, and I ask the Minister whether she will provide that.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:21 pm, 20th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and to contribute to this debate initiated by Jeff Smith. He clearly set the scene and the subsequent speeches, which covered different angles, were excellent. We in Northern Ireland are committed to clean air targets, and I hope that in the short time available to me I will confirm that.

I sincerely believe that we must take all steps possible to be good stewards of this beautiful land that God has granted us, of which clean air is an essential component. I am blessed and privileged to live in the countryside. During my recent period of self-isolation, I appreciated being able to go out into my back garden and the fields to enjoy the crisp, clean air. There is no question but that I notice a difference in the air when I am here in London compared with that in my home on the Ards peninsula and my most beautiful constituency of Strangford. Even in Northern Ireland, we are finding that there is work to be done not simply to keep the quality we have, but to return to the quality that we had when I was a boy—and that was not yesterday.

I live in the countryside. Buses are few and infrequent, so a car is essential in getting to the shops, to work and to school. We must always recognise when we debate clean air targets the balance that must be struck for rural communities. The Minister lives in a rural area and will understand what I am saying, as will the shadow Minister.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland recently announced the findings from its consultation on air pollution. Its report provides details on air quality, gives a summary of results and long-term trends, and sets out information on the progress being made by councils in managing local air quality. It highlights the redesign this year of the Northern Ireland Air website and the development of the Northern Ireland air quality app. What DAERA is doing works only because the councils are also committed to it. The partnership between the Assembly and the Minister’s departmental portfolio and councils is important.

Among the key findings of the report on Northern Ireland’s collected data from 19 automatic monitoring stations in 2018 was that objectives for the key air quality pollutants were met in full, but that the objectives for nitrogen dioxide—a pollutant closely associated with road traffic—were not met at three sites close to busy roads. It was further highlighted that levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were lower at three sites than the previous year, after a recorded exceedance of the EU target in 2016. Against a stricter UK air quality strategy objective for PAHs, all three sites exceeded the objective.

One of the spin-offs from the coronavirus pandemic has been less car use and less air pollution. It has been one of the positives to take out of all the negative things, and it reminds us to use our vehicles only where necessary. As hon. Members have mentioned, we should also look at the use of electric vehicles, electric bikes and even electric trains. I read in the paper the other day that there is also the potential for electric planes. My hon. Friend Ian Paisley has a company in his constituency that is working on that.

I commend Claudia Webbe for what she said about broadband. I have a large number of small and medium businesses in my constituency—probably one of the largest numbers in the whole of Northern Ireland, although that is based on pre-covid figures. If we were to have good broadband in place, we could keep people at home and reduce covid levels even more.

Along with DAERA, district councils have a duty to carry out air quality monitoring. Where air quality falls below acceptable levels, they are required to declare air quality management areas. In 2017, there were 19 AQMAs in Northern Ireland. Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council redefined its AQMA to encompass the whole borough. It took important steps to improve air quality at that time, which was certainly good news. The Department works closely with district councils—again, it is important that it does so, because it can provide dividends—and with other Government Departments to ensure that progress is made towards meeting all air quality targets and objectives.

However, it is clear that we must redefine UK-wide targets as a whole and press for local, updated targets. Yes, we might meet objectives for an EU member state—our status will change come 31 December—but it is clear that we need local targets to keep areas with a good quality of air, which is vital.

In conclusion, I believe that the Government must work closely with the devolved regions to update a UK target and to keep us as the beautiful green nation that we have been and that we must aspire to be in the future. Can the Minister confirm what discussions she has had with the regional Administrations, particularly with the Northern Ireland Assembly but also with Scotland—Alan Brown will follow me on that—and Wales, to ensure that the regional Administrations can collectively make those targets with Westminster? It is always better if we do it together.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Thank you, Mr Shannon, for a beautiful bit of timekeeping. We have been juggling speakers. Nadia Whittome, you have two minutes.

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East 3:28 pm, 20th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am grateful to you for fitting me back into the call list and for allowing me to go and tend to my migraine. I promise I will not take any longer than two minutes— I do not think my head would allow it anyway. It is important for me to speak in the debate, because poor air quality is a silent public health crisis that is harming the lives of my constituents. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Jeff Smith for securing the debate.

Public Health England figures show that over 6% of adult deaths in Nottingham are attributable to manmade air pollution. That is more deaths than from alcohol and road traffic accidents combined. More than 400 people in my city die prematurely every year because of the quality of the air that they breathe. As my hon. Friend Alex Sobel mentioned, the figure rises to 40,000 across the country. This year, the number could have been even higher, because there is growing evidence that exposure to polluted air increases someone’s risk of dying from covid-19. That risk is not borne equitably; we know that it is the poorest people, and disproportionally people of colour, who are suffering the most.

It is no surprise that cities and towns across the country are taking matters into their own hands. I am extremely proud that Nottingham City Council has done that, leading the way in tackling the problem with policies such as a ban on motorists leaving their engines running in stationary vehicles, investing in a large fleet of electric and biogas buses, and retrofitting older diesel buses.

My plea to the Minister today is that local action is not enough. We in Nottingham, and cities and towns across the country, need national action too. If we can afford to spend £28.8 billion on roads, as the Government have pledged, we can invest in green and affordable transport too. We can decarbonise and give the support that our private-hire and taxi drivers need to join the fight in decarbonising our country and our planet. The right to breathe clean air should not be a radical demand.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Mr Brown has been very generous with his offer of five minutes. Thank you, Mr Brown, for allowing other speakers to get in.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 3:30 pm, 20th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I am sure that everyone in the Chamber is delighted that I have pledged to speak for only five minutes.

I congratulate Jeff Smith on securing the debate. He set the scene excellently, highlighting that air pollution is killing 40,000 people a year, that it affects child development and learning, its possible impact on mental health and Alzheimer’s disease, and that it exacerbates existing inequalities and increases the likelihood of covid impacts. Many other hon. Members highlighted that as well.

It is a mystery to me, when we look at the 40,000 premature deaths per year and at the strong, serious action we are rightly taking to combat covid-19, why there has been so much reticence to do more about air quality over the years. It really is a mystery. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington said correctly in that it is shameful that ClientEarth has been the conscience that has held the Government to account, winning three times in court. We need to see much better leadership on the subject.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 7 million people are killed worldwide every year. This is a global problem. Although people are rightly concentrating on their constituencies today, this is a worldwide issue. It is estimated that lower life expectancy of some three years across the world is attributable to air pollution, so again, it is a global problem. We need to work with other countries to fight it. Hon. Members have talked about not relocating issues locally by cleaning up one part of a city and moving the problem elsewhere. That is important, but equally, we need to make sure we do not do that on a worldwide scale. That is something else to take into account.

Many hon. Members spoke about low emission zones, which are required to protect public health and improve the air quality in city centres. Many spoke about funding and Government support, and those are certainly needed. In Scotland, the Scottish Government run the low emission zone mobility fund, which offers cash incentives and travel better vouchers to help remove non-compliant vehicles and provide alternative transport options for people. That is something the UK Government could consider as a wider issue. In Scotland, low emission zones will be introduced in our main cities—Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee—in 2022.

Unlike other hon. Members who have spoken today, I admit that I am lucky in that, like Jim Shannon I am quite lucky, I stay in a rural area with fantastic air quality. I am lucky that I can go for walks in the hills and enjoy the beautiful countryside, but I recognise that poor air quality is a big problem in cities that needs to be addressed.

There are things the UK Government need to look at on a strategic level if we are to tackle this issue. Aberdeen has introduced the world’s first hydrogen-powered double-decker buses. In other words, a whole clean fleet of buses has come into operation in Aberdeen. That could be rolled out across other cities. The UK Government are supposed to be commissioning a fleet of electric buses, so I want to see where that bus fund is. It also supports manufacturing in the UK at Wrightbus and Alexander Dennis Ltd. The Scottish Government have procured 35 electric buses from Alexander Dennis Ltd through £7.4 million of funding, so I ask the UK Government to look at that. We also need to look at the refrigeration of HGVs. The refrigeration units themselves pollute more than the actual lorries that move the goods about, which the Government need to tackle.

On a kind of national infrastructure-type basis, the Government also need to look at the energy efficiency of homes. We badly need a heat decarbonisation plan from the Government, because this contributes to air pollution as well. On that strategic overview, I will leave it at that.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

We need to leave two minutes at the end for Jeff Smith. I will leave the Front-Benchers to do the arithmetic, but they have about 11 minutes each.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:35 pm, 20th October 2020

Thank you, Sir Charles. It is lovely to be back in Westminster Hall this afternoon and to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a pleasure to be able to speak for Her Majesty’s Opposition in this important debate. It is good to see the Minister in her place. I am sure that we will see a lot more of each other in the coming weeks.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Jeff Smith for securing the debate and for raising the issue of clean air on behalf of his constituents in south Manchester, the Greater Manchester region and all the people we in the House represent. I know that many other Labour Members would have liked to have been able to contribute to the debate but were in the main Chamber for the Black History Month debate.

This is a timely debate, coming in the wake of Clean Air Day on 8 October. It gives us the opportunity to highlight the importance of clean air, but more importantly to repeat the demand for sustainable, long-term and comprehensive action. Colleagues across the House will know that there are many responsibilities on the Government and on us as parliamentarians, and one of the most important, if not the most important, is our responsibility to protect our environment and preserve our world. A key element of preserving our environment is clean air. It is vital that we remember that our ecosystems are damaged by toxic air and air pollution, as are our waterways and the natural habitats of our wildlife. Of course, there is also the impact on human life, which has been ably mentioned already.

Toxic air contributes to the equivalent of 1,200 deaths a year in Greater Manchester alone, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned. My hon. Friend Nadia Whittome highlighted the premature deaths in her constituency, too. During oral questions last month, I raised the fact that almost 60% of people in England now live in areas where levels of toxic air pollution exceeded legal limits last year. We cannot go on as we are.

The covid-19 pandemic has devastated families, communities and, of course, our economy. The lockdown that started in March 2020 led to an improvement in air quality across the Manchester city region, like it did in other parts of the country, as a result of the reduction in road traffic and the significant increase in active travel journeys. That showed that better air quality is achievable, and that vehicle emissions are key to reducing nitrogen dioxide exposure. However, the relaxation of travel restrictions since June has led to increasing vehicle flows.

Following a number of legal challenges by ClientEarth in the High Court, the Government have to date directed 61 local authorities to bring nitrogen dioxide levels on local roads within legal limits as soon as possible. Ministers have delegated the responsibility to address nitrogen dioxide compliance to local authorities and have set out the process and timescale for doing so, with local authorities now responsible for local road networks and their own fleets. However, responsibility for the strategic road network lies with Highways England, which has not been directed to reduce nitrogen dioxide on strategic road networks under the same timescale or process. That is mixed messaging, as my hon. Friend Alex Sobel highlighted, and needs sorting, so I hope the Minister will issue a clear instruction to Highways England with regard to air pollution caused by the strategic road network.

We want action, but we want the right action in the right way, weighing up all the factors. That means taking steps to discourage drivers and to charge where necessary on the one hand, and financial support for local authorities and businesses on the other, as my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty highlighted. That is vital, because Greater Manchester, for example, is proposing the largest clean air zone outside London, but that ambition is not being met by Tory Ministers in Whitehall. Indeed, the funding provided by Government to date has not matched the scale or ambition of these plans. When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope she will commit the necessary funding to achieve that.

Active travel has an important role to play in developing solutions to this crisis. During the lockdown, walking and cycling played an increasingly important role in essential journeys and exercise, as mentioned by my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) highlighted the need to reverse the Beeching cuts, in order to increase train travel in a bid to decrease car use. I know it is a priority for my colleague Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, who has been standing up for his region so well, to secure more walking and cycling as a positive legacy of lockdown and to mitigate against the bounce back to greater reliance on car travel.

The Environment Bill, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington and which I prefer to call the “missing in action Bill”, should be used to tackle toxic air in England. Disappointingly for many in the sector and out in the country, nothing in the Bill will stop the UK falling behind the EU when it comes to the green agenda and our environment. Indeed, the Government’s air quality plans have been ruled unlawful multiple times. Green Alliance does brilliant work on these issues and I pay tribute to Ruth Chambers of Greener UK and all her colleagues for everything they do. In a recent blog, she noted that

“existing air pollution targets expire in 2030, so it is vital to seize the opportunity now to set new limits, exposure reduction targets and emissions targets for all harmful pollutants.”

In the Chamber last week, the Minister announced that there is now an end date for the Committee stage, which is great. It is good to know the end date, but we need to know the start date, and we need to know it now. The Bill has been missing in action for over 200 days and it is simply not good enough to be told it will return soon. Can the Minister give us a date, once and for all?

We all know that air pollution is a public health crisis. This summer the Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Partnership surveyed about 14,000 people with a lung condition and found that the vast majority noticed an improvement in their symptoms, likely due to better air quality during lockdown.

Welsh Ministers in the Welsh Government recognise that we must learn from changes in behaviour and design those changes into tackling toxic air pollution levels going forward. Their plan has a big focus on tackling air pollutants from many sources, including reducing emissions from industry, agriculture and the heating of our homes. I want UK Ministers to reach out and engage with ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations, because we need a coherent focus across all four nations if we are going to clean our air in the way we need to. It is good to see the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) here to demonstrate that clean or dirty air knows no boundaries. It goes across the whole UK.

Before I was elected to Parliament, I spent more than 30 years working in the NHS as a physiotherapist, in common with my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell. Every day I saw the damage that toxic air can cause to the lungs, health and mobility of people of all ages and from all communities, including those whose lungs are damaged while still in the womb and those suffering from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other serious lung conditions. The task of making air cleaner starts with each of us.

It is important that we are all aware of the air pollution levels in the communities we live in, so we know the local challenges facing us all. That is why the Greater Manchester city region, under the leadership of Andy Burnham and my noble Friend Lady Hughes, is right to be ambitious for the area in the fight to tackle toxic air. I hope the debate, the comments we have heard and the determination of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington shows Ministers that we need more than warm words: we need action too.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Minister, if you require nearly 15 minutes, you can sit down at 3.58 pm and allow the proposer of the debate two minutes at the end. You do not have to speak for 15 minutes if you do not want to, but I thought I would say that to be generous.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:43 pm, 20th October 2020

Sir Charles, you are making it sound as if you do not want to listen to me for 15 minutes. Now I think I will make sure that I do go on for 15 minutes.

It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the chair, Sir Charles. I thank Jeff Smith for securing the debate and for the moderate way in which he led it. It is a subject on which we all agree and which is very serious. He recognised that air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health, as many hon. Members from both sides said.

Air pollution has reduced significantly over the decades, but there is much more to do, as has been highlighted today. That is why the Government have a clear ambition and policy agenda to clean up our air. I will be touching on lots of parts of that today. A key part is funding for the nitrogen dioxide plan. We have put in place a £3.8 billion plan to help to improve air quality and clean up transport. A number of hon. Members have suggested that those issues are somehow separate, but we have two huge funds. I am working closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean and our joint air quality unit, so that they are increasingly joined up.

As part of this, we are tackling the nitrogen dioxide concentrations around roads—the only statutory air quality limit that the UK is currently failing to meet. We have actually made great strides in tackling nitrogen dioxide since 2010, and levels have fallen by 33%. We are working really hard with local authorities to help them to tackle the hot spots and to reach compliance with the nitrogen dioxide limits in the shortest possible time.

We have contributed £880 million to support local authorities in developing and implementing measures to improve air quality, as well as supporting many individuals and businesses. Rachael Maskell mentioned grassroots, that the initiative has to come locally and local authorities have to be helped, but there is a great deal of Government funding and the initiative really is for solutions to come from the bottom up.

The Government have already given over £394 million of that funding to support a wide range of initiatives including bus retrofits, taxi upgrades and traffic management measures. In addition, the Government are investing £2.5 billion through the transforming cities fund to support several cities—including Manchester—to improve their transport systems. This fund was a particular focus for my hon. Friend Jo Gideon, who is a very strong voice for her area, highlighting the potential benefits it could offer to a place like Stoke-on-Trent, as it has done for Manchester, so I urge her to keep fighting for that fund and doing the good work she is doing.

The Prime Minister also recently announced a £5 billion investment to deliver cleaner buses and improved services, as well as to boost cycling and walking, to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles. A further £1 billion was introduced in the March Budget to extend the plug-in vehicle grants to 2023 and support the roll-out of electric vehicle infrastructure. I think hon. Members will agree that this is a significant amount of funding.

I have just transferred to a long-term electric car rental, a very interesting piece of research I am carrying out myself. I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington has ditched his car altogether. Electric vehicles will really help us shift to cleaner air and meet our carbon targets in the medium term.

We need action now, however, and in recent weeks we have had announcements about the first charging clean air zones to be implemented in my old home, Bath and North East Somerset, and Birmingham. Several other local authorities, including Greater Manchester, are expected to follow with similar schemes in 2021 and 2022.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Does the hon. Member mind if I press on? I want to make it clear that the Government are acutely aware of the economic impact that charging zones can have on local businesses and residents, and the fact that those impacts are further heightened by the coronavirus pandemic. It was touched on that the pandemic may have highlighted how air quality affects health and a lot of work is under way and ongoing with the Department of Health and the expert group that has been looking into the effects of the air quality and coronavirus on people’s health. There is no clear evidence of an exact link yet, but the work is continuing so we can have a clear picture.

There is always a preference for non-charging measures where they can be identified, and measures that can be effected before charging is put in place. In Leeds, where a charging clean air zone was to be introduced next year, data demonstrates that it is no longer needed, partly because allocated funds have been used to upgrade bus and taxi fleets relatively quickly, and that has had an enormous impact on the city’s clean air zone. It will still receive funding to make sure that it keeps to its commitments in the future and is still tackling air quality.

In Greater Manchester—on which we have been focusing today—the clean air zone, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned, is scheduled to be implemented in 2022. The 10 local authorities involved have been working on this enormous project—it is a huge area—to take the action that they need. Their local modelling found that nitrogen dioxide concentrations were higher and more widespread across the region than was predicted by our modelling. We have been working very closely with them and I really welcome the launch of the consultation on 8 October, which runs until 3 December. I also welcome that the hon. Member has encouraged people to take part in that consultation because we want everyone to get involved. We want it to be effective—as does he. The zone will cover the whole of the Greater Manchester region, charging non-compliant heavy goods vehicles, vans, buses, taxis and private hire vehicles from early 2022, with an exemption for vans until 2023. As the hon. Member pointed out, private cars will not be charged for entering the zone.

To touch on funding, we have already provided £77 million to Greater Manchester to implement the clean air zone, and a total of £36 million of this funding has been provided towards the implementation of the zone, while £41 million from our clean air fund has been provided to support the retrofitting of buses and to help the owners of heavy goods vehicles, coaches, minivans and private hire vehicles.

I understand that the Greater Manchester authorities are developing their funding schemes with a view to launching this as soon as possible once plans have finalised. Given the lessons we have learned from Leeds, I urge that the money is put into operation as soon as possible, as that does seem to have more of an effect.

Many hon. Members mentioned the encouragement of active travel—of cycling and walking—and how we really noticed, during the lockdown period, more and more people taking that up. In fact, I think that for four months I only ever used my bike and did not get into my car; it was an absolute joy to do my shopping and everything else in that way. I have already touched on the £2 billion package for that, and we do need to build on that paradigm shift we need in behaviour to get people out of cars and into walking and cycling, but we can only do that with the funds the Government have provided.

My hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis mentioned the transforming cities fund and how useful it could be to an area such as Stoke-on-Trent; he was very passionate about his area, as he always is. I met with colleagues from Stoke-on-Trent yesterday—we have met a number of times before and will continue to work very closely, as we are doing with all colleagues with a clean air zone—to ensure that we get the plan and project that will suit their particular area, because every area is different.

Several hon. Members—including the shadow Minister: I am very pleased to see her in her place—mentioned the issue of Highways England controlling the strategic routes. I met Highways England recently—along with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport—to raise this issue of whether it could get more involved in those roads, because so many of them cut right through, for example, areas in Manchester and other cities. There is ongoing work with Highways England on that issue.

Before I finish, I must touch on the Environment Bill—which I think was referred to as the “missing in action Bill”; it will soon be an “in action Bill”. There are not many more days to wait; we have the out-date and the in-date will become clear very soon. Aside from all of the work we are doing on the clean air strategy to help air quality, we have our landmark Environment Bill, which will introduce a duty on the Government to set a legally binding target on fine particulate matter. That demonstrates our commitment to tackling air pollution as that is the most damaging pollutant to human health. The Bill includes a duty to set a long-term target for air quality, showing our absolute commitment. As well as setting new concentration target for PM2.5, which will act as a minimum standard across the country, we propose to break new ground and develop an additional target aimed at reducing average population exposure to PM2.5 across England. The target will drive continuous improvement across all areas of the country, and I think it will be a big step forward.

I hear calls to put the World Health Organisation guidelines straight into law, as suggested by Claudia Webbe. The point is—she has heard me say this before—that the WHO itself acknowledged that guidelines should inform the setting of the air quality standards; they are not targets ready for adoption. Additionally, evidence suggests that there is no PM2.5 level under which no health impacts could happen. Alex Sobel also mentioned that. It is too simplistic to say that simply adopting those guidelines is the solution. That is why we are setting this system of getting expert advice through, once the Environment Bill has set the target, so that we can work towards achieving what we must on that.

In the Environment Bill, we are setting legal requirements for positive change for local authorities, so that they have more effective powers and a clearer framework for tackling air pollution in their areas. In short, those are responsibilities across local government structures shared with relevant public authorities, and there is a call for evidence out on that, to work out which bodies are relevant. To support these changes, we will also introduce a requirement to revise and publish a national air quality strategy and review it every five years.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

The Minister has not touched on incinerators at all. Does she have any thoughts on that, given the multiple incinerators near her own Taunton Deane constituency in Bridgwater and Avonmouth and across the Severn in my constituency?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I was just coming to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, in which he mentioned incinerators, as he often has before. Most of the incinerators he referred to are in Wales. This is a devolved issue in Wales and Northern Ireland. All energy-generating waste plants in England already comply with strict emission limits under the environmental permitting regulations. The UK puts itself at the forefront of reducing industrial pollution with an appropriate framework for regulation. Industry is being very innovative in this space and we are moving in that direction.

To return to the Environment Bill, it contains a measure to recall non-compliant vehicles and road mobile machinery, and to end the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2023.

I cannot end without mentioning Jim Shannon. As ever, he made an eloquent contribution. Air pollution policy is devolved in Northern Ireland, but it is always really useful to learn lessons from other places, as it was from Scotland, particularly the hydrogen model, which we are looking at. Our transformation of the energy system is neutral, but it is interesting to hear what is happening on the hydrogen buses.

I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington for his clear speech today, and for standing up for this important issue.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:58 pm, 20th October 2020

It has been a while since I spoke in a debate with you in the Chair, Sir Charles, and it slipped my mind that since the last time you have been awarded a knighthood, so belated congratulations, and apologies for misaddressing you at the start.

We have had a rhetorical tour of the UK in the past hour and a half. I am pleased that hon. Members have been able to speak up for their area. There have been two or three themes. First, we need to act quickly, because the more we learn about the effects of air pollution, the more worrying it becomes. Secondly, we need better targets. I welcome the new targets the Minister has just referred to, but we really need to do more and I hope that the forthcoming Environment Bill will put some of those targets in legislation.

Finally, we have heard many times about the need for Government support. The Minister referred to the £77 million that Manchester has been given; we need £150 million. It is expensive, but there are big economic and health costs to not acting. I urge the Government to act.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

The debate was a great credit to Parliament and Westminster Hall. Please clean your microphones on the way out. We need to leave quickly.

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

Sitting suspended.