Air quality: A follow up report - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

1 Introduction

Fifth Report of Session 2009-10

1.  The previous Environmental Audit Committee published its report on air quality in March 2010.[1] The background to that inquiry was the prospect of the UK incurring EU fines for non-compliance with air quality directives. The UK was failing to meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10).[2] The report highlighted that life-expectancy was reduced on average by 7-8 months because of poor air quality, while in the worst affected areas this could have been as high as 9 years. Research suggested that between 30,000 and 50,000 people a year were dying prematurely because of it. Air pollution was also causing significant damage to ecosystems.

2.  The Committee found that, despite these facts being known, air quality was not seen as a priority across Government, which as a result was failing to meet a range of domestic and European targets. The quantified costs of poor air quality, used to develop policy, were out-dated and did not take account of all the known health effects, treatment costs or environmental damage. Nor did they take account of potential multi-million pound fines that could be imposed by the EU for failing to meet targets. Many Government departments did not seem fully to understand how their policies affected air quality, the impact poor air quality had or its cost to the economy. Awareness needed to be raised and public and political behaviour needed to change if air quality targets were to be met. Transport caused the most exposure to harmful air pollutants, and air quality targets would never be met without a significant shift in transport policy. Local authorities needed to do more to tackle poor air quality, and the Committee concluded that they must be given the information and power to do this.

3.   Our predecessors' report recommended a set of actions to raise the profile of air pollution, in local and central government and with the public, and to provide for better policy making:

  • Defra raising the profile of the issue by publicising the latest data on premature deaths more widely and making clear the benefits of improving air quality, with Ministers driving this from the top in introducing measures to ensure that policy decisions routinely investigate policy implications and accepting responsibility for policies that worsen air quality.[3]
  • Transport policy changing dramatically to reduce air pollution.[4]
  • The Government raising the profile of air quality with all local authorities.[5]
  • The Government ensuring early publication of research upon which local authorities could establish low emissions zones.[6]
  • The Government educating the public about the health risks from poor air quality, and about how they could limit their exposure and improve air quality. [7]

The Government response

4.  After the election the Government published its response in November 2010.[8] Its overarching theme was a shift of responsibility for delivering air quality improvements away from central government to local authorities, in line with the Government's localism agenda. It recognised that more needed to be done to tackle poor air quality. The approach to do this would be to encourage and guide local authorities rather than require particular actions. It promised that local authorities would be encouraged to communicate on action to tackle air pollution and would leave the means to local discretion through setting transport policies and priorities locally.[9]

5.  Those transport projects which were assessed centrally would follow an enhanced 'Green Book' methodology for departmental investment appraisals, that better accounted for air quality impacts.[10] While seeking ways to meet air quality standards in the cheapest way, the Government would apply a 'cost-effectiveness' approach (rather than a 'cost-benefit' approach), so that measures would be used if they helped meet pollution limits even if they involved a net cost.[11]

6.   In May 2010 the Government applied to extend the compliance deadline for European PM10 targets. In March 2011, the European Commission published a Decision accepting the UK's application and granted an extension until June 2011 to comply with the PM10 limits in London. The Government also submitted a time extension notification to the European Commission for NO2 targets in September 2011.

  1. We undertook this inquiry to assess the extent to which the Government had implemented the processes outlined in its response and to assess their results. We heard evidence from James Grugeon from the Healthy Air Campaign, Ed Dearnley from Environmental Protection UK, Professor Frank Kelly from King's College London and Councillor Richard Kemp from the Local Government Group on 8 June, and from the Minister, Lord Henley, and Defra officials on 6 July.

1   Environmental Audit Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2009-10, Air Quality, HC 229.  Back

2   PM10 is very fine particulate matter, less than 10µm in diameter. Back

3   HC (2009-10) 229, para 39 Back

4   para 50 Back

5   para 56 Back

6   para 60 Back

7   para 41 Back

8   Defra, Government response to the Environmental Audit Committee Report on Air Quality in the UK, Cm7966, November 2010 Back

9   Cm (2010-12) 7966 para 58 Back

10   para 59 Back

11   paras 23-24 Back

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Prepared 14 November 2011