The government has defended its work to improve air quality after if came under criticism from Labour MPs during a session in the House of Commons yesterday (April 26).
At the Environment oral answers session, Labour MP for East Lothian, Fiona O’Donnell, criticised efforts made by ministers to tackle air pollution which she claimed was the “second biggest public health challenge”.
Ms O’Donnell said: “This is the second biggest public health challenge that the country faces, but all we have are excuses.”
She continued: “We are talking about premature deaths, so I think that Government Members should quieten down. With an estimated 29,000 premature deaths a year in the UK from air pollution, why does the only action taken by Defra try to weaken EU laws that seek to protect the public?”
In response to the criticism, Richard Benyon, parliamentary under-secretary of state at Defra, defended the government’s strategies stating that it was working to meet EU standards.
He said: “That last point is completely wrong. In fact, there is a meeting next week in Geneva on the measures that we have taken as part of the Gothenburg agreement that will result in further improvements in air quality. There is no doubt that air quality has a marked effect on people’s health, particularly if they suffer from heart or lung conditions. We have begun to improve things, but a big challenge remains in London. The Mayor inherited poor air-quality conditions and, as a result of his strategy, we have begun to see big improvements.”
Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson’s Air Quality Strategy, published in December 2010, also came under fire from the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington John McDonnell.
Mr McDonnell said: “When people enter this country – for example, to visit the Olympics – they land in the most air polluted area of the country. The Mayor’s strategy does not seem to have worked, the local air quality management zone has barely scraped the surface and we need a fresh initiative.”
Responding, Mr Benyon explained that the Mayor’s strategy had addressed many concerns and improvements were starting to be seen in a number of areas.
He said: “The Mayor of London’s Air Quality Strategy sets out a detailed plan for improving air quality in London. The Government is working closely with the Mayor to support delivery of these plans, including through significant investment in cleaner, more sustainable transport.
“We are starting to see improvements in a number of areas and I look forward to being able to report improvements in London for 2011.”
Addressing the issue of air quality more generally, Mr Benyon said that a balance had to be struck between protecting the environment and supporting sustainable economic growth.
He said: “Air quality in the UK is much improved, though more needs to be done, especially in cities, where transport is the main issue. We must strike a balance between protecting health and the environment and supporting sustainable economic growth.
”We have begun to improve things, but
a big challenge remains in London”
– Richard Benyon
“Working with local authorities and others, we are investing significantly in cleaner, more sustainable transport. Underperformance against European vehicle emissions standards is making compliance on nitrogen dioxide challenging for us and many other member states.”
Concerns were also raised with the minister by Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde Jonathan Reynolds who questioned if enough was being done to tackle emissions on ‘heavily congested’ roads that are within 150 metres of a school.
Mr Reynolds said: “I understand that air quality compliance in Greater Manchester and 16 other areas in the UK will now not be reached until 2020. Given the heavily congested roads, such as the A57, which goes through Mottram and Hollingworth in my constituency, I am not surprised. The A57 goes past Hollingworth primary school. How many children in England and Wales as a whole live or go to school within 150 metres of roads carrying 10,000 vehicles or more on average.”
Mr Benyon responded by saying that Defra did not hold information about the location of schools and that local authorities have duties to improve air quality. To aid this he explained that the government had provided funding for a range of possible initiatives including green transport schemes.
He also explained that it was working to assist local authorities in dealing with air quality hotspots, particularly those that are close to schools.
He said: “In this country, we have a very rigorous system that divides the country into 43 air quality zones. If one area in a zone is failing, the whole zone is deemed to have failed. It is up to local authorities to work with the Government to deal with problems when they occur, when there are high levels of deprivation and, as the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde [Jonathan Reynolds] mentioned, around schools. It is important that local authorities with access to that information use the funding that the Government give to address problems with air quality.”