Four Commons committees join forces to urge cross-Whitehall action on air quality

Written by Emilio Casalicchio and Tamsin Rutter on 15 March 2018 in News
News

Unprecedented report makes demands of six departments and calls for better oversight to ‘prevent policy from working at cross-purposes’

Car exhaust emissions. Air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK. Credit: Lewis Whyld/PA 

Four House of Commons committees have joined forces to demand the government addresses the “national health emergency” of poor air quality.

In an unprecedented move, the Environmental Audit Committee, the Health Committee, the Transport Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee launched the call for action.

They demanded a new Clean Air Act and a new clean air fund financed by the transport industry, as well as a commitment to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars ahead of the current 2040 target.

They also made specific demands of at least six government ministries, and called for “co-ordinated cross-departmental action” on tackling air pollution.


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The four committees set out their vision for improving air quality in a new report, which includes recommendations for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

Defra’s proposal to establish a new Environmental Protection Agency to hold government to account after Brexit was commended, but its latest air quality plan was criticised for focusing more on “legal compliance” than environmental and health benefits.

The department’s forthcoming clean air strategy should prioritise the latter, it should expand its approach to air quality monitoring, and examine new ways of raising funds for air quality improvements, the report said.

DfT, alongside Defra, was urged to evaluate whether there are sufficient resources to introduce more clean buses in air quality hotspots, and to ensure clean air zone plans are fully impact-assessed.

The report recommended that MHCLG play a more active role in coordinating the efforts of local authorities working collaboratively on the issue.

The committees called on DHSC, alongside Public Health England, to play a more visible and vocal role in tackling air pollution including by running a national information campaign.

The Treasury was told to take greater account of the costs of air pollution when establishing taxation and spending policy.

The report also criticised the lack of “co-ordinated cross-departmental action” in this area, and asked the Cabinet Office to ensure all departments are aware of their duty to consider air quality in policy development.

It called for an expansion of the remit of the Joint Air Quality Unit, which was set up by DfT and Defra. It said the unit should have more oversight of all departments’ measures to improve air quality.

“Improvements to air quality can only be sustained by co-ordinated cross-departmental action on policy development, legislation, taxation and spending,” the report said.

It said all climate change schemes, urban planning, public transport and fiscal incentives should be aligned with air quality goals “to prevent government policy from working at cross-purposes”.

A government spokesperson said: “By ending the sale of conventional new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2040, the UK is going further than almost every other European nation.

“Air pollution has improved significantly since 2010, but we recognise there is more to do which is why we have a £3.5bn plan to reduce harmful emissions. We will set out further actions through a comprehensive clean air strategy later this year.

”We will carefully consider the joint committee’s report and respond in due course.”

More urgency required

The demands come after the government was rebuked for the third time by the courts for failing to produce an adequate plan to tackle pollution.

In February the High Court ruled that the latest policy by ministers to tackle dirty air in 45 local authority areas was unlawful.

The joint report said it was “unacceptable that successive governments have failed to protect the public from poisonous air”.

They blasted the government for being “more concerned with box-ticking and demonstrating compliance than taking bold, affirmative action”.

Neil Parish, the Conservative chair of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, stated: “The government’s latest plan does not present an effective response to the scale of the air quality catastrophe in the UK.”

Conservative acting chair of the Health Committee Andrew Selous said: “Action must be taken to combat this national health emergency.”

Labour chair of the Transport Committee Lillian Greenwood said as well as trying to reduce the pollution from each vehicle the government must develop plans to reduce reliance on cars.

She added: "This requires more urgency, imagination and innovation than is being demonstrated by the government, local councils or transport service providers.”

And Labour chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh added that ministers must ensure air quality standards meet current levels or better after Brexit.

Air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK and is thought to cost Britain £20bn annually.

In January the government published a 25-year plan to improve the environment which aims to halve the effects of air pollution on health by 2030.

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Emilio Casalicchio and Tamsin Rutter
About the author

Emilio Casalicchio ​is chief reporter for PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appearedTamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter.

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