Questions have been raised by Peers over the way that monitoring of air pollutants is carried out in the UK by local authorities and the government, and over the funding available to councils to tackle emissions.
Concerns were aired during an evidence session of the Lords’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee yesterday (13 June), chaired by the Lib Dem peer Lord Teverson, looking at the UK’s referral to the European Court of Justice over its failure to meet EU air pollution limits.
During the session, Peers heard representations from Katherine Nield, clean air lawyer at the environmental law firm ClientEarth, which has led three successful legal challenges against government air quality plans, and representatives from three local authorities taking action to address air pollution.
Among the issues discussed in the two-part hearing were the performance to date in moving towards legal air quality limits as well as the potential legal process and penalties that the UK could face as the case is brought before the European courts.
Peers questioned Ms Nield on the current means of determining whether targets are met, which is set out in the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive, and separate from the Local Air Quality Management (LAQM) regime, through which councils assess local air quality issues.
Ms Nield, said “[The} Directive sets out requirements for monitoring and the minimum number of monitoring stations that are required. It also allows for modelling and it is this that Defra uses to assess and predict compliance with those limit values.”
Questioned further on this by the Committee, she added: “There are some concerns. There are two parallel and relatively siloed monitoring regimes. There is the national monitoring regime that Defra undertakes, based on that national modelling. There is also local authorities, under a separate regime, required to undertake their own monitoring.
“The issue that we see is that a number of local authorities under their own monitoring are seeing and measuring exceedances of the levels that are not showing up as part of the national model. It is the national model that dictates what action is required under these air quality plans, and it is our concern and a number of local authorities’ that this local data is not being factored into the national air quality planning.”
Later in the hearing, Peers also questioned local authority representatives Polly Cook, executive programme manager at Leeds city council, Mai Jarvis, environmental quality team manager at Oxford city council, and Marshall Poulton, assistant director for transport at Newcastle city council, on measures that councils are taking to address air pollution exceedances.
Following on from the representation from ClientEarth, Ms Cook explained that differences in the national and local monitoring regimes, may have acted as a barrier to action in areas which are now being considered for Clean Air Zones under the government’s NO2 plan.
She said: “When we were first named [in the government’s air quality plan] back in 2015, there was a difference between what we were being told our non-compliance was at a national level, and what we were looking at on a local level and it was to do with the way that it was taken into law.
“We were looking at it through the Local Air Quality Management Area system and there was a difference because what we were looking at was where there was long term exposure, and we took that to be where there was residential properties, whereas when we have had the 2015 plan it has taken public exposure generally.
“In the EU standards there is an hourly limit and an annual limit – Leeds doesn’t breach the hourly limit – so we have always focused on where there is that long term exposure risk and that’s why there has been a difference because we have invoked AQMAs and taken action, but there hasn’t been necessarily action that matched what we were to do in the plan.”
Questioned on where they would like to see more action from government, the panel called for more clarity on areas including funding, resources and legal powers to address air pollution.
Mr Poulton said that local authorities could be given more powers under existing legislation to tackle engine idling, for example. He added: “More could be done to alter existing legislation, such as full implementation of part VI of the Traffic Management Act, allowing local authorities more powers to enforce moving traffic offences. Another aspect in the current legislation around no-idling zones, the legislation is quite weak. Penalty notices are not able to be issued without first warning the driver.“
Ms Jarvis added that Oxford is facing similar legislative challenges in setting up a zero emission zone within the city, as it seeks to reduce air pollution emissions. She said: “London is in a different position and has different powers to the rest of us. We are trying to do something quite different as we feel that is the right thing to do. We don’t feel we wanted to go down the Clean Air Zone route as that would allow people to pay to pollute, the legislation doesn’t facilitate it at the moment.”