Environmental Audit Committee 8 June 2011
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On 8 June 2011 the Environmental Audit Committee launched a new inquiry into air quality in the UK to assess progress since the Committee’s previous report in March 2010. In particular, the Committee wished to investigate whether the Government is developing an effective strategy for meeting its obligations under the EU Air Quality Directives for PM10 and NO2.

Evidence was taken from James Grugeon (Healthy Air Campaign), Ed Dearnley (Environmental Protection UK), Frank Kelly (King's College London) and Councillor Richard Kemp (Vice Chairman, Local Government Group). When asked to highlight the health problem that poor air quality is causing, Frank Kelly set the scene by reiterating the acute but transient effects that pollution episodes have on susceptible individuals such as those with asthma and COPD, as well as the chronic, and as such more worrying effects, experienced by people who live in areas characterised by poor air quality. Statistics quoted included that approximately 29,000 people died prematurely in 2008 because of air pollution, and that the problem is believed to be responsible for a significant proportion of the 187,000 deaths, owing to heart disease, that occur in the UK each year.

In response to the question posed by the Committee as to whether the Government had improved air quality policy over the last few years, witnesses were overwhelming in their verdict that this had not been achieved despite an initial commitment in the coalition agreement to work towards EU limit values. Furthermore, the general consensus was that large parts of the UK will not be meeting the targets for NO2 and PM10 under EU Air Quality legislation and that plans are not in place to meet these obligations. A discussion then ensued over what was deemed to be a major inhibitor to this cause, namely the lack of clarity over responsibility between central Government and local authorities. Richard Kemp and James Grugeon summarised an optimal relationship whereby central Government lends strong support and sets directions by way of a national co-ordinated strategy, enabling all relevant parties within local authorities to be engaged and empowered to execute the actions needed.

The questions as to what actions should be taken to tackle the problem prompted two common themes to be voiced. The first of these was the need to implement, in an engaging way, education, awareness and ultimately behavioural changes within the public as well as policy makers. Because modern day urban pollution, in the form of tiny particles and NO2 is not visible, engagement must be blatant, put in the context of other public health risks such as passive smoking and utilise compelling messages such as premature death. Secondly, the need for smarter policies to deal with emission sources, thereby targeting those areas with poor air quality was emphasised. In London, the primary source on a day to day basis was identified as local transport and more specifically, a disproportionate amount of diesel powered vehicles in the private car pool and public transport fleet. Practical solutions put forward by Frank Kelly and Ed Dearnley to remove the most polluting vehicles included a shift away from diesel, further congestion charging and an expansion in low emission zones. In addition and in the light of evidence that current Euro emission standards for vehicles are not working as well as might be expected, the critical need to ensure that forthcoming ones (ie Euro 6 and beyond) do actually deliver in the real world was emphasised.

It is hoped that the dialogue between the Committee and witnesses will inform a later session with ministers.

Full audio from the session

Full transcript of the session

More Information

Item date 17/06/2011

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