The unprecedented joint inquiry was launched amid concerns over the inadequacy of the Government’s plan to improve air quality in the UK, as demonstrated by a series of successful judicial challenges in recent years.
In response to the four Committees’ report, the Government has stated it will replace the patchwork of air quality legislation with a single coherent framework; deliver a personal air quality messaging system to inform the public; provide clearer health advice; make better use of local authority air pollution data; improve oversight on air quality spending; and halve the number of individuals living in areas exceeding World Health Organisation limits for particulate matter by 2025.
Serious concerns remain, however, over the extent of the Government’s commitment to improving air quality and reducing its impact on public health.
Neil Parish MP, Chair of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said:
“Whilst we appreciate the initial positive steps, we are concerned that the Government is shying away from the bold action needed to tackle this crisis. Our report called on Government to promote cross-departmental working, force car manufacturers to contribute to a Clean Air Fund, and commit real financial support to local authorities breaching NO2 limits. We see little evidence of this happening.
“We are extremely disappointed that the Government has not taken stronger action on car manufacturers. The car industry is partly responsible for our toxic streets, and seeing the Government resist calls for an industry-financed Clean Air Fund is incomprehensible.”
“The level of support available to local authorities is currently inadequate. Defra has instructed an additional 33 local authorities to tackle NO2 breaches, but so far only £1.65 million has been allocated to support them. That is clearly not enough. We expect a properly resourced national support scheme and urge the Government to commit to significant funding increases as soon as possible.”
Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said:
“We need cities where people can move and can breathe, so it is worrying that the Government is dragging its feet on air quality, even in the face of court action by the European Court of Justice. It is also concerning that the Government is not ready to demonstrate global leadership by forcing manufacturers to produce only clean vehicles before 2040.
“The UK needs a strong, independent environmental watchdog to hold the Government to account post-Brexit. We called for a new Clean Air Act which would ensure that the Government is accountable for its post-EU commitments. The Government must bring forward detailed proposals for this Act as soon as possible.”
Lilian Greenwood MP, Chair of the Transport Select Committee, said:
“Our report called on the Government to take action to reduce our reliance on cars and increase the use of public transport.
“We are disappointed, therefore, that the response does not include any substantial public transport or urban planning initiatives. More concerning is the Government’s failure to address plans for cleaner vehicles – which will be handled in a different strategy – given that we specifically called for departments to work together.
“We expect the forthcoming Road To Zero strategy to make clear commitments to accelerating low-emission vehicle uptake, improving electric charging infrastructure, and getting more people walking, cycling and using public transport.”
Andrew Selous MP, of the Health and Social Care Committee, said:
“Poor air quality has been classified as the largest environmental risk to the health of the British public. Our report called for the health sector to play a more vocal role in tackling air pollution at a national and local level, and for a national information campaign to provide clear messages about the risks of air pollution to the public.”
“We are pleased that the Government is making more information available, but this falls short of what is required to protect the public properly. Making people aware of the levels of air pollution is of little use if they don’t know the associated health risks this brings. We need a national awareness campaign to highlight the dangers and inform the public about how best to protect themselves.”
In its report, the unprecedented four-way inquiry called for a new Clean Air Act, a clean air fund financed by the transport industry, a national air quality support programme for councils, accelerate the transition to low emission vehicles, and for the Government to require manufacturers to end the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars earlier than the current 2040 target.
The report concluded that:
- Air pollution is a national health emergency resulting in an estimated 40,000 early deaths each year, costing the UK £20 billion annually. It is unacceptable that successive governments have failed to protect the public from poisonous air.
- Despite a series of court cases, the Government has still not produced a plan that adequately addresses the scale of the challenge. Nor has it demonstrated the national leadership needed to bring about a step change in how the problem of air quality is tackled.
- The Government’s approach is more concerned with box-ticking and demonstrating compliance than taking bold, affirmative action.
The report recommended that the Government should:
- “Place the protection of public health and the environment, rather than technical compliance or political convenience, at the centre of air quality policy”;
- “require the automobile industry to contribute to a new clean air fund, following the 'polluter pays' principle”;
- “bring forward the date by which manufacturers must end the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars, in line with more ambitious commitments from around the world”;
- “introduce a Clean Air Act to improve existing legislation and enshrine the right to clean air in UK law”;
- “initiate a national health campaign to highlight the dangers of air pollution, including the fact that air quality can be far worse inside a vehicle than on the street”;
- widen the 2017 plan “to offer direction, financial resources, and technical support to the 45 local authority areas which breach NO2 limit levels but are not included under the current action framework”;
- “align climate change schemes, urban planning, public transport and fiscal incentives with air quality goals to prevent Government policy from working at cross-purposes”
- “take greater account of the costs of air pollution when establishing taxation and spending policy”; and
- “ensure that [electric] charging infrastructure addresses strategic needs and prioritises air quality hotspots.”