Four government ministers faced probing questions over efforts to tackle air pollution, at a hearing of the Health, Transport and Environment select committee air quality ‘super inquiry’ in Westminster today (30 November).
Defra minister Therese Coffey appeared alongside her Transport and Local Government ministerial colleagues Jesse Norman and Marcus Jones, as well as Exchequer Secretary Andrew Jones, to face questions from the panel of MPs.
Opening questions were led by the EFRA select committee chair Neil Parish, whose questioning centred on the cross-departmental coordination of air quality policy. Mr Parish asked the trio why it had taken government “so long to get to grips with air quality.”
He said: “There’s been various court cases, there’s been lots of problems along the way, it is complex, but what are you actually doing about it now, it’s a very simple question.”
Dr Coffey opened on behalf of the ministers, responding: “The good news is that air quality is improving. It’s not improving as quickly as we would like, and we fully recognise that we are in breach in one element of the Air Quality Directive, but I don’t think that you should underestimate the amount of improvements that have happened.
“Even since 2010, nitrous [sic] oxides have fallen by 20%, we recognise completely that we are still in breach of the 2010 Directive that was signed up to by the former Transport Minister when they believed that certain technical innovations and standards would help deliver quicker improvements to vehicles in supporting our ambitions on air quality. Overall on the different pollutants it is just that one breach [for nitrogen dioxide] and we will continue to work with the air quality plan tackling roadside vehicles concerning NOx.”
The minister added that the government is ‘actively’ working with councils ‘with greater urgency’ since the launch of the third air quality plan in July, published to comply with a High Court order which overturned the government’s previous plan.
Responding to the ministers comments, Mr Parish questioned the government’s ‘urgency’ in tackling the issue, adding: “This has been going on for some five or six years and the argument is that yes, local government needs to be able to make its own decisions, but if local government does not sign up as well as government we will not deliver air quality in these hotspots.
“In our inner cities we have a real problem where there are definitely premature deaths related to air quality. How are you bringing local authorities with you, because they need help and they need some support?”
Dr Coffey noted that the government’s latest plan named 28 local authorities and London as needing to implement proposals to tackle pollution – each of which has been assigned a dedicated civil servant to oversee the development of plans.
She added that she had written to all of the local authorities to underline their responsibilities, and expressed concerns about the progress of one authority – Derby city council – in drawing up proposals to address the issue.
The minister said that further work is being developed around air pollution, after reiterating a pledge made by Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, to publish a Clean Air Strategy encompassing “not just NOx but other pollutants” in 2018.
This was followed by questions from the Transport Select Committee chair, Lillian Greenwood, who accused the government of sending ‘mixed messages’ to consumers over air pollution.
She pointed to a decision to freeze fuel duty in last week’s budget, which the Treasury claimed could raise £27.5 billion in revenue to the government in 2017/18 and asked why government is “allocating only a small amount of funding to councils to tackle air quality.”
Responding to the comments, Exchequer Secretary Andrew Jones said: “Fuel is a significant part of a household expenditure. Are we sending a mixed message? No, I don’t think we are. Since 2010 we have allocated £3.5 billion on air quality and cleaner transport options.”
However, Ms Greenwood accused the government of ‘protecting motorists from rising costs’ but failing to encourage modal shift to other means of transport include trains and buses, which she claimed were forecast to increase in cost over coming years.
Transport Minister Jesse Norman said that there were ‘wider issues’ as to why bus usage had fallen, and added that there would be “a bunch of different measures at local level about encouraging a modal shift in transport.”
Labour MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, pressed the ministers on the cost of the impacts of air pollution to the exchequer, and was critical of Mr Jones’ assertion that he did not have a figure to hand to quantify the overall cost of poor air quality in the UK.
Mr Bradshaw probed: “Do you know whether you have done a cost benefit analysis…and the benefits of reducing air pollution to the exchequer?”
Other questions centred on Brexit, the introduction of a clean air act and charging clean air zones, to which Dr Coffey responded: “When the councils have to come forward with their plans, they use that as the benchmark but I have spoken to council officers they are anxious about this.
“If you take a city they want people to still come into the city centre, they don’t want the charging to put shoppers off and to going out of town and then losing out on business. We recognise that concern. If it turns out that the charging zone is the only way…we will work with them on that.”
The, at times heated, committee session concluded after around two hours of probing by MPs.
Environmental law firm ClientEarth has described the ministers’ performance at today’s session as ‘shambolic’ with the organisation’s chief executive James Thornton claiming that ministers are in ‘disarray’ over air quality.
He said: “This morning’s appearance from ministers before the inquiry shows what utter disarray the government is in over Britain’s toxic air. Nobody seemed to know who was responsible, how much things would cost or how long things would take.
“There is chaos in government over this issue, despite seven years of illegal air pollution and ministers twice being ordered by our courts to deal with our toxic air crisis. We need to get the dirtiest vehicles out of the most polluted areas of our towns and cities.”