(2 years, 4 months ago)Commons Chamber
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what steps his Department will be taking to improve transport emissions in our urban areas.
Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question.
Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health in this country and the fourth biggest public health killer after cancer, obesity and heart disease. Today marks the publication of the latest stage in this Government’s determined efforts to reduce and reverse the impact of air pollution on our health and on our natural environment. Our clean air strategy consultation, published today, outlines steps that we can all take to reduce the emission of harmful gases and particulate matter from all the sources that contribute to polluted air.
It is important to recognise, as I know my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) does, that air pollution is generated by a wide variety of sources—from the fuel used for domestic heating to the application of fertilisers on agricultural land, and from the use of chemicals in industry to sea, rail, air and road transport. The strategy published today outlines specific steps that we can take to reduce the use of the most polluting fuels, to manage better the use of manures and slurries on agricultural land, and to ensure that non-road mobile machinery is effectively policed, among other measures.
My hon. Friend asks specifically about urban transport pollution. Last year, the Government published their UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The plan allocated over £3 billion to help to reduce harmful NOx emissions, including £475 million to local authorities to enable them to develop their own air quality plans. Since then we have been working with local authorities to help them to deliver specific solutions. We have also issued ministerial directions to 61 local authorities to ensure that they live up to their shared responsibilities.
Our plan committed us to phasing out the sale of conventional diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and taking them off the road altogether by 2050. This is more ambitious than any European Union requirement and puts Britain in the lead among major developed economies. Alongside that commitment we are dedicating £1.5 billion to the development of zero and ultra-low emission vehicles, including support for new charging points across the country.
We were of course helped in the preparation of our clean air strategy by the excellent report produced earlier this year by the Chairs of the Select Committee on Health, the Select Committee on Transport and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In their excellent report on air quality, the joint Select Committees recommended introducing a new clean air Act. We will indeed be introducing primary legislation to clean up our air. They suggested that we initiate a new health campaign. As the Secretary of State for Health has emphasised, we will be introducing a personal messaging system to ensure that those most at risk receive the information that they need about pollution risks.
It was also recommended that we place health and environment, rather than simply technical compliance, at the centre of our strategy. We do that with ambitious new targets that match World Health Organisation metrics on improving air quality. Of course, we were also asked to reduce emissions from tyres and braking—the so-called Oslo effect—and today we have announced action to work with manufacturers to do just that.
Emissions have fallen consistently since 2010, and my predecessors in this role are to be commended for the action that they have taken, but today’s strategy marks the most ambitious steps yet to accelerate our progress towards cleaner air. I commend the strategy to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State very much for publishing the clean air strategy today. I know that he feels very passionately about this and works very strongly to get our air cleaner in this country. I also welcome the proposals for improving air quality. That demonstrates progress. However, I am concerned that the strategy is not as wide-ranging as it could be. I welcome the fact that we seem to be cleaning up our wood-burning stoves. We also need to deal with agricultural pollution but, in particular, we need to deal with the hotspots in our inner cities.
The strategy says that, to reduce particulate emissions from tyre and brake wear, the Government will work with international partners to develop new international regulations for particulate emissions from tyres and brakes through the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. I very much welcome that, but is it adequate? To cut the levels of particulate matter from vehicles, the Government should reduce the need for private vehicles in congested urban areas by improving public transport and by making sure that public transport is much cleaner. We have done a lot in London but we need to do much across the rest of our cities in this great country.
It is not clear that the Government have taken on board our report’s key finding that Departments are not necessarily working together effectively. This is not a criticism of the Secretary of State; it is very much to say that we need to work more with Transport to deliver many of the solutions.
Will the Secretary of State support our calls for conventional petrol and diesel engine cars to be phased out by 2040? Will he offer more support and resources to local councils to improve their air quality so that this can be tackled at a local level as well as a national level? Can we be sure that all the monitoring systems through DEFRA and through local authorities actually work?
I welcome the fact that there will be new powers for the Transport Secretary to compel manufacturers to recall vehicles for any failures in their emissions control systems and to make tampering illegal. I still continue to ask why Volkswagen has got away with what it did and why we did not do enough to make sure that it was brought to book. That is not you, Secretary of State—that is the Transport Secretary. However, can the Secretary of State offer more support for cleaner fuels that consumers can use in vehicles, especially bioethanol—E10—in petrol? That is good not only for the environment but for farmers who supply the wheat that makes the bioethanol in the first place.
Whew! The hon. Gentleman can now breathe.
As you have indicated, Mr Speaker, I think we are all admiring of the Select Committee Chair for managing to pack into his allotted time so much that was useful. I will do my very best to reply appropriately.
My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the way in which tyres and brakes generate particulate matter that finds its way into the air and contributes to air pollution. We will be working with manufacturers, exactly as he says, in order to deal with this method of pollution. He is also right that particulate matter is a particular problem with regard to public health. One of the biggest generators of particulate matter is domestic wood burning and coal burning. The clean air strategy goes further than ever before in making sure that we can deal with both those means of generating particulate matter.
My hon. Friend asks that we improve public transport. Specifically with regard to NOx emissions, the diesel vehicles on which so many rely for public transport—buses and so on—do need to be modernised. We work with local authorities to ensure that there is appropriate retrofitting of these vehicles so that the diesel emissions that contribute to poor air quality can be effectively dealt with. We are spending £475 million with local authorities to ensure that they can have bespoke solutions. That can involve the retrofitting of public transport. It can also involve engineering solutions to bring down the concentration of harmful emissions in particular areas.
My hon. Friend makes a point about the 2040 target. I completely agree that it is important to hit that target. He also draws attention to the fact that some motor manufacturers, in effect, attempted to get around regulations in order to produce vehicles for sale that did not meet the requirements for air quality that we would all want to see. We can all reflect on the way in which the regulation, which was of course fixed at EU level, did not work effectively. There has been reference, and I know there will be subsequent reference, to the court cases that have found a number of EU countries, including Britain, to be in breach of EU law on this matter. The truth is that one of the reasons Britain and other countries are in breach of EU law is that there are vehicles on our streets that had technical compliance with EU rules but, in terms of real-world emissions, were not fit for our use.
What we needed from the Government today was a comprehensive clean air strategy to show that they are really serious about tackling this public health emergency, but what we have instead is yet another consultation, which has a focus on emissions from agriculture and wood burning and is weak on cutting roadside pollution from diesel vehicles. It is worth remembering that, since the general election, there have been 25 DEFRA consultations and not one piece of primary legislation delivered.
We know that air pollution is responsible for at least 40,000 premature deaths every year. We know that it is particularly harmful to our children and our vulnerable elderly people. Effective national action must be taken to address the emissions from road transport that are contributing to illegal and harmful levels of pollution. The UK is currently routinely responsible for exceeding the legal levels of pollution. Today’s strategy states that the Government aim to halve the number of people living in unsafe levels of pollution by 2025, but that is simply not good enough. If today’s announcement is the extent of their ambition, it poses a serious question about whether this Conservative Government can really be trusted with our environment and with dealing with illegal air pollution after the UK leaves the EU.
The strategy still does not legally provide for a network of mandatory clean air zones, which DEFRA’s own analysis shows is the quickest and most cost-effective way to bring NOx levels down to legal levels. Yet again, we see more shunting of new responsibilities on to our cash-strapped local authorities, which have been cut to the bone by the Government’s unrelenting austerity agenda. All the new promises we have heard today will mean very little if local councils do not have the money or the resources to implement them.
The Government say time and again that they are committed to this being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it in, but I see no evidence of actual action being taken to deliver that. Anything being mooted by the Government on tackling air pollution will be effective only if there is a serious and independent environmental regulator after Brexit to hold the Government to account, but the Government’s recently announced environment watchdog has been roundly condemned as entirely toothless.
Labour has been calling for primary legislation on air quality since the last election. This Government only ever take action on illegal air pollution when they have been held over a barrel in the courts. I remind the House that there have been three legal challenges and a referral to the European Court of Justice. When will the Government treat this issue with the seriousness that it deserves? The time for half-measures and public consultation has to end. We need real action now to tackle this public health emergency.
I thank the hon. Lady for her points. She asks for a comprehensive strategy. That is what we have produced today. She specifically refers to our target to ensure that half of the population live in areas that meet World Health Organisation standards for air quality by 2025. What she omitted to tell the House is that this Government are putting forward a more ambitious aspiration for the cleanliness of our air than any other Government in a developed nation. It seems that, in her desire to be grudging, she failed to share with the House the detail of our ambition.
The hon. Lady asked about clean air zones. Clean air zones can be implemented by local authorities if they believe that that is the right solution. We on the Government Benches believe in the “local” in local government. It is right for local authorities to make an appropriate decision, depending on the circumstances in that area. A one-size-fits-all approach imposed from the centre may be appropriate in the Marxist-Leninist world of the Corbynistas, but we believe that it is appropriate to work with local authorities and metro Mayors. When necessary, we will apply ministerial directions, but it is appropriate to have the right approach for each individual area.
The hon. Lady asked about primary legislation. Let me remind her that a Labour Government were in place for 13 years, and how many pieces of primary legislation did they bring in on air quality? How many? It was a Conservative Government who brought in the Clean Air Act 1956 and a Conservative Government who brought in clean air legislation when John Major was Prime Minister, but when Labour was in power, we did not have clean air Acts—we had dirty diesel subsidies.
It was the Labour Government who introduced a deliberate ramping up of the number of diesel cars on our streets. We had a confession recently from none other than the hon. Member for Brent North, a man to whom I always pay close attention. Barry Gardiner admitted—it is perhaps not the first confession he will be making this week—that there is “absolutely no question” that the decision the Labour Government took on diesel was “the wrong decision” and:
“Certainly the impact of that decision has been a massive problem for public health in this country.”
Until we have an apology from those on the Labour Front Bench for the errors that they made, we will take their words on air pollution for the hot air that they manifestly are.
I always richly enjoy the Secretary of State’s performances, almost as richly as he does himself. I hope, however, he will not take it amiss if I gently point out that to refer to the hon. Member for Brent North is in order, but to name him is not.
It is shocking, as the right hon. Gentleman observes in a disorderly manner from a sedentary position.
The clean air strategy rightly sets out the compelling case for action to reduce public exposure to air pollution in order to save lives and improve the quality of life for many. We also know that there is a compelling case to get Britain moving and get us out of our cars, and that cycling and walking, even where there is a lot of traffic, exposes people to less air pollution than driving. Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that there is only a single paragraph in the strategy on active travel? I urge him to go further by strengthening measures to get people out of their cars and, where possible, on to their bikes and walking for their benefit.
My hon. Friend makes a vital point. Today’s strategy deals with a number of sources of air pollution, and I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for showing leadership on precisely the area that she draws attention to. We have spent £1.2 billion on a cycling and walking investment strategy. When my colleague the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) was Mayor of London, he introduced a cycle lane network across the capital, which has contributed hugely to an increase in the number of people cycling across the capital. I absolutely believe that we need to have a switch away from an over-reliance on traditional internal combustion engines, towards new modes of transport, and part of that is making sure that we can cycle and walk wherever possible.
In Scotland we have achieved progressively clean air over recent years through increasingly strict control of industrial emissions, tighter fuel and emissions standards for road vehicles and control of smoke from domestic premises. However, after going to court numerous times, the UK Government are not taking serious action. They are just dragging their feet by announcing yet another consultation. As has just been said, the Secretary of State has issued more than 25 consultations since the 2017 general election, but none has yet produced new laws.
The Government’s own research shows that clean air zones are the most effective solution to air pollution, so why are they ignoring their own advice? Surely they should follow the Scottish National party Government, who are funding low emission zones to take the most polluting vehicles out of the most polluted areas of Scotland. The Health Secretary has said that
“Air pollution is contributing to a national health crisis.”
Why is the Environment Secretary ignoring his own Cabinet colleagues and not taking serious action now?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He makes the point about the number of consultations we have brought forward. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it is appropriate to consult before one legislates. I think it is absolutely right to make sure that we take account of the views of the citizens of this country and interested parties before moving to legislate. However, I note that in his demand for us to legislate was implicit Scottish National party support for the laws that we will bring forward. I will bank that kind offer of support from the SNP for the legislation that we will feel necessary to bring forward in due course.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Scottish Government have shown leadership on this issue. Indeed, I am happy to acknowledge that there are members of the Scottish Government, whether it is Roseanna Cunningham or others, who take an approach to the environment that dovetails with our own, and I enjoy working with them. The hard work behind the scenes that both Governments exhibit to improve our environment is sometimes not reflected in the exchanges we have on the Floor of the House, so I want to take this opportunity to thank the Scottish Government for the work that they do behind the scenes to advance our shared environment. It is vital, as we leave the European Union, that there is effective working across the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom to achieve the goals that we all share.
Is the Secretary of State aware that there is action he could take now that would not cost the Government money and would not require him to legislate further? Regulation 98 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 states that it is already an offence to leave an engine idling when stuck in traffic or at traffic lights. Is he aware of Westminster City Council’s “Don’t Be Idle” campaign? Why do we not put some beef behind that campaign, spread it across the country and do something now that would really help, would not cost money and would make a big difference?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The phenomenon of idling engines—often, ironically, outside the very schools whose children we most want to protect from deteriorating air quality—does require action to be taken. I commend my hon. Friend for pointing out the leadership shown by Westminster, among many other councils, and I believe we need a wider application of the already existing powers that local authorities have to deal with this.
Our joint Select Committees report called for ambitious, co-ordinated cross-departmental action, yet there is virtually nothing in the Secretary of State’s new strategy to tackle the impact of road traffic. As the Chair of the Health Committee, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) has said, modal shift gets two paragraphs and active travel just three sentences. He has clearly rejected a ban on diesel and petrol cars before 2040. Can he point to a single measure or funding pot that he is announcing today that will better align urban planning, public transport and fiscal incentives, as our Committees recommended?
It is important to realise that there was widespread recognition in the report produced by the hon. Lady and other Select Committee Chairs that road transport was simply one of the sources of air pollution. In this strategy, we are complementing what was already announced last year in our roadside NOx emissions strategy, with action on ports, air travel and trains, which is a signal of the determined efforts we are taking across the Government to deal with all the sources of air pollution.
The hon. Lady says that we should move faster than to get rid of internal combustion engines by 2040, but I have to say to her that no other major developed economy is taking that step. We need to take a balanced approach towards setting a firm deadline for moving away from conventional petrol and diesel engines, while also providing industry with the time to adjust.
Precisely what are my right hon. Friend’s plans to interfere with my fireplaces and my bonfire?
I know that my right hon. Friend is one of the most responsible dwellers in the New Forest. He would never burn wet wood or coal with a high level of bitumen; only the driest and most parched twigs will find their way on to his fire and he will use only the appropriate and less smoky coal. I also know that he lives in one of the most beautiful parts of rural Hampshire, and as a result any emissions he generates are unlikely to form a particularly toxic cloud.
The Secretary of State is obviously immensely familiar with the right hon. Gentleman’s domestic arrangements, and we are all greatly fortified by the knowledge of that important fact.
For the benefit of those attending to our proceedings, the right hon. Gentleman says that the Secretary of State is very kind, but quite right, so there we are. We all feel a bit better informed.
Over the past 30 years, the cost of motoring has fallen by 20%, while the cost of bus travel has risen by 64%. Will the Secretary of State do what he can to reverse those figures? Will he look in particular at the situation in Brighton and Hove? He has written to me about my concern that data on NO2 exceedances in the city are not being taken properly into account by the Government. Does he acknowledge that we have such exceedances in our city, and if so, will he look again at our grounds for appealing the decision not to award us money from the clean bus technology fund?
Absolutely. I will look at that decision. I recognise that it is important to have accurate measuring of exceedances, but as the hon. Lady will acknowledge, one of the reasons why we have them is that the current Euro 6 diesel cars have been found to emit six times the lab test limit on average, and the new regulations that have come into effect do not accurately ensure that we can bring down exceedances to the level that we both want to see.
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is a friend, rightly, of the bees and of the fish, but he also needs to be a friend of hard-pressed motorists. The fact is that, as he acknowledged, diesel motorists were told by the previous Government to buy such cars, and his plans will give a green light to many local authorities up and down the country to whack taxes on to diesel car owners. Will my right hon. Friend look at this again? It has happened in London, and motorists are taxed far too heavily, so will he change these plans?
My right hon. Friend has been a consistent champion of small businesses and of those who rely on diesel vehicles to provide the services on which we all, more broadly, rely. As the nature of the debate in the House indicates, a balance needs to be struck. That balance is between recognising that there is an appropriate place in the next couple of decades for diesel as part of the transport mix—where either the private sector or local authorities can find support for a scrappage scheme, we will of course endorse and do what we can to facilitate that—and, as well as making sure that small business can thrive, ensuring that our children, critically, are protected from the greatest concentrations of pollution that we find in some urban areas.
The Secretary of State is right that local authorities have a big role to play in this, but they could do an awful lot more if they had the resources. Central Government have an even bigger role to play. In Tinsley in my constituency, NO2 levels are regularly above safe limits because it is next to the M1 motorway, which is a central Government responsibility. What are the Government going to do about that, apart from adding an extra lane to the motorway? In Sheffield city centre, the pollution hotspot is around Sheffield station because of diesel trains, yet this Government have just cancelled the electrification of the midland main line. When are we going to get some joined-up government on this matter?
I am a great admirer of the hon. Gentleman for all the work he has done both to ensure that the case for appropriate support for local government is made and to ensure, when it comes to planning, that we all take a thoughtful approach that takes the environment into account. However, there is one more thing he could do, which is to have a word with his Labour colleagues on Sheffield City Council and ask them to stop the tree felling campaign in which they are engaged. If we want to deal effectively with air pollution, one of the things we can do is to continue to ensure that trees—they not only act as a source of beauty and natural wonder but contribute to the fight against air pollution—are allowed to survive, rather than being chopped down by a council that is, I am afraid, in thrall to its own officers.
A properly targeted diesel scrappage scheme would enable us to get rid of the most polluting cars on our streets, and if it was properly targeted it could be done without hammering those people on the lowest incomes. Will my right hon. Friend commit to pressing the Treasury to agree to such a scheme, because ultimately it will have to do so?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The success of any scrappage scheme depends on effective targeting. What we cannot do—it would be irresponsible—would be to use public money to subsidise people who are already making a choice to get rid of a particular vehicle. The deadweight cost associated with that would not be money appropriately spent. He makes the very good point that if we can effectively target such vehicles and find the individuals whom we can incentivise to move towards a green and more sustainable method of transport, we should of course support such measures. I am entirely open-minded about any proposals that might come forward, whether from metro Mayors, local authorities or others.
Has the Secretary of State noted the very striking finding in our joint Committees report that the fumes and pollution inside a vehicle are 10 times worse than those outside a vehicle? As part of the public information campaign that he has just announced, will he ensure that it is directed at parents who drive their children to school, thinking they are protecting them when they are actually doing them much more harm than if they walked or cycled, as well as exposing other people’s children and families to more pollution and congestion?
Absolutely spot on. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. All of us need to know more about the sources of air pollution, and he is absolutely right. I did not appreciate that until the Select Committees brought it to my attention, and I am grateful to him for bringing it to the attention of a wider audience today.
There are three hotspots in my own constituency all of which are in towns. What are we going to do to increase electric charging facilities in those places to overcome this problem?
We have devoted £1.5 billion overall to supporting the growth of zero and ultra-low emissions vehicles, including a wider network of charge points, but I think there is more that we can do. One of the things I will be exploring with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Housing, Communities and Local Government is how we can do everything possible—both in planning and in the legislation that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), is bringing forward—to build on the leadership that my hon. Friend has shown.
Everyone has the right to clean air, including people in villages such as North Hinksey and market towns such as Abingdon in my constituency, yet those places have hotspots, and those sorts of conurbations are not mentioned at all in the clean air strategy. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his ambitions extend to smaller conurbations, not just cities?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. There are concentrations of poor air quality not just in our major cities but in other areas. There can be a combination of factors, including roadside emissions and emissions from domestic heating. Critically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, acknowledged, sometimes emissions also come from agriculture. The strategy commits us to providing support for all those sectors, to move towards a cleaner future.
In my constituency, the badly thought through planning policy of the failing Labour council is failing properly to take into account the critical issue of air quality. How will today’s announcement improve my constituents’ lives, given that at the moment they are at the mercy of a failing Labour local authority?
The powers envisaged in the consultation will allow local authorities to act on everything, from unwise choices made about domestic heat generation to making sure that some of the diesel machinery involved in construction and for other purposes is appropriately licensed and controlled. I note that, following recent local election results, it seems that the leadership shown by my hon. Friend has been recognised by voters in his constituency, who have moved away from their previous allegiance.
Will the Secretary of State outline progress on E10 regulations, on proper investment in hydrogen vehicles and on what is being done to tackle secondary generators and transport refrigeration units?
On secondary generators and other generators of emissions, we are giving local authorities and others powers to deal with the consequences of poor air quality as a result of their deployment.
More broadly, on hydrogen and other vehicles, the Department for Transport is neutral about future technologies but supportive of the investment required to ensure that a suitable range of technologies is available. One of the key features of the legislation being brought forward by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, which originated under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), is to facilitate precisely the type of innovation that the hon. Gentleman alludes to.
The right hon. Gentleman in question is in our midst, and that fact will not have gone unnoticed.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that new primary legislation announced today will give authorities such as Cornwall Council the power they need to protect communities such as Tideford and Gunnislake in my constituency from air pollution?
Absolutely; I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. We want to work in partnership, and local authorities such as Cornwall Council can make sure that the communities in her constituency—in particular the children who attend primary schools in those communities—can be protected from the impact of air pollution. I am grateful to her for championing much of the work in this consultation throughout her time in this House.
The Secretary of State has repeatedly told the House that the UK leads the way in phasing out combustion engines by 2040, but he must keep up to date with current events in the German Bundesrat, which has already passed legislation for them to be phased out in Germany by 2030. We also believe that in China combustion engines will be phased out by 2030. That makes our policy a laughing stock in the world.
There are some countries, including some outside the European Union such as Norway, that have a more ambitious target than our own. However, I do not think that the legislation has yet been given effect in Germany.
My right hon. Friend may seek to control what goes into them, but may I invite him to confirm that he has no intention of introducing a ban on wood-burning stoves? Manufacturers, retailers and users of them in the UK will be listening very carefully to what he has to say. Such stoves are an important part of domestic heating.
We have been working with the domestic heating industry to ensure that higher standards can prevail in future. We want to ensure that all stoves sold in future meet those new higher standards.
I commend to the Secretary of State the clean air Bill proposed by my colleague Simon Thomas in the National Assembly for Wales. In the spirit of the decentralised approach that he proposes, what consideration have the British Government given to devolving vehicle excise duty and fuel taxes to Wales, so that the Welsh Government can have a revenue stream to implement alternative transport solutions?
I am all in favour of devolution, but any questions about vehicle excise duty or taxation are properly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, I met Simon Thomas and some of his colleagues from the Welsh Assembly a couple of weeks ago. I was hugely impressed by the work that they are doing, and I would like to work closely with the Assembly and the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues.
I welcome the Government’s move towards phasing out petrol and diesel cars, but the key part will be the charging infrastructure, particularly for when people are away from home—when they are visiting Torbay this bank holiday, for example. Will the Secretary outline what plans the Government have to develop the necessary infrastructure?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are investing £1.5 billion, but it is also important for us to reflect on where people are likely to find themselves at particular times of the year—now and in years to come. One of the things that many of us will be doing this coming bank holiday weekend will be visiting beautiful English seaside resorts such as Torbay. It is important that, as they move towards cleaner and greener forms of transport, people have the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the southern riviera without polluting the air at the same time.
On the subject of natural beauty, Hull was one of 49 UK towns and cities that failed World Health Organisation standards for air pollution.
I want to return to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). What discussions has the Secretary of State actually had with the Transport Secretary about the scrapping of rail electrification schemes and his championing of bimodal trains which, as I understand it, will still pollute the air?
We have had extensive discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport, who has been leading efforts to ensure not only that we can scrap diesel trains altogether at an appropriate point, but that we can ensure that there are appropriate alternatives to those that exist at the moment.
The use of dirty coal to generate electricity in our country plummeted by 25% last year, and such generation now stands at less than 7% of the overall energy mix. Will my right hon. Friend recommit the Government to the ambitious target of getting rid of coal completely from the energy mix by 2024 and maintaining the UK’s global leadership in this important field?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and reminds us of the steps that we have already taken to ensure that we move towards cleaner methods of electricity generation. In that respect, I commend to the House the recent work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, who has been outstanding in ensuring that we can make the transition to which my hon. Friend alludes.
The Government are in the dock at the European Court of Justice for the premature deaths of 40,000 people a year. As we approach Brexit, is it not time that we had a clean air Act with the focus and priority to deliver the standards and enforcement institutions that we enjoy in Europe? We should at least match the 2030 targets for the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany so that we do not end up being the dirty, coughing man of Europe.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point. He has been in the lead among Members in pressing for primary legislation, and we acknowledge the need for such legislation in the strategy. I know the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make—it was also made by the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis)—but it is important to remind the House that the vote in the Bundesrat was non-binding. What we have in this country are binding commitments that we are determined to meet, and that is a significant contrast.
Yesterday I met representatives of Honda and BMW, both of which are determined to make a difference in this important area. Will the Secretary of State urge his colleagues to provide more clarity on the use of hybrid engines and technology as a way to help to reduce emissions year on year?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The existing motor companies will play a critical role in ensuring that we can move towards a more sustainable and cleaner method of providing personal transport. He is absolutely right that hybrids will have a role to play. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be saying more about that in due course, but I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and other Members who represent manufacturing and industrial sectors for the constructive way in which they have helped to bring people together.
I am sure that the Environment Secretary gets very frustrated with the Treasury dragging its feet on some of the initiatives he wants to push forward. It was recently reported that the £400 million plan for electric car charging infrastructure is being held up by the Treasury because it has not even recruited somebody to be in charge of the private sector investment element—it says it will recruit this summer—so will he please put a rocket under the Treasury and tell it that while people want to buy electric cars, they will not do so unless the infrastructure is in place?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for trying to present the issue in the way she did. The truth is that I cannot think of anyone in this House, apart from possibly my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who is cleaner—keener, rather—on investment. [Laughter.] He is very clean. Cleanliness is next to godliness. I do not think there is anyone in this House who is keener on moving towards ultra low emission vehicles than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As Transport Secretary and in his current role, he has led efforts across the Government to make sure we are moving in the right direction. I do not think it is at all fair to criticise him or the Treasury in that regard.
I declare an interest as the owner of two very efficient renewable fuel-burning wood stoves. On traffic emissions, it was recently discovered that the monitoring equipment in Shoreham high street had been broken for several years, which might explain the fact that Shoreham’s air quality is always deemed to be good. Volunteers have now had to carry out those tests. If we are to be serious about the quality of the air, may we put a duty on local authorities to properly maintain accurate and reliable equipment?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I will investigate what we can do.
Does the Secretary of State agree that rather than pursuing HS2, a greater priority would be the introduction of regional public transport schemes to electrify our rail lines, and to encourage the introduction of hydrogen and electric buses in our towns and cities?
The development of electric vehicle battery technology will be crucial to encouraging a supply side revolution in the uptake of electric vehicles, which would help to reduce emissions in urban areas. What progress has the Secretary of State made, jointly with the Department for Transport, in this area?
We have been working with not just the Department for Transport, but the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to ensure that we can make Britain the most attractive home for new technologies. It is striking that great British inventors such as Sir James Dyson have dedicated themselves to ensuring that Britain can compete with competitors such as Elon Musk’s Tesla to provide the right technology for clean, green, effective and sustainable transport in the future.
The clean air strategy says that during the transition to zero emission vehicles
“we will ensure the cleanest conventional vehicles are driven on our roads.”
The Secretary of State will know that most people buy second-hand cars, not new ones. Under changes introduced by this Government, vehicle excise duty rates for used cars registered after March 2017 make no distinction whatever between those that produce lower levels of carbon dioxide and pollutants that are harmful to air quality, and those that produce higher emissions. How is that compatible with a promise to ensure that the cleanest conventional vehicles are driven on our roads?
It is the case that the increase in vehicle excise duty on new cars is helping to contribute to ensuring that local authorities receive the money they require to have appropriate clean air strategies. I think that any keen student of the second-hand car market would recognise that the value and resale value of diesels has fallen, reflecting the fact that people know that they need to move away from that polluting form of transport.
With a characteristic mix of insight and eloquence, the Secretary of State has once again made the case for extending the electric charging infrastructure, thereby addressing one of the reasons why people do not buy electric cars. He will know that when we debated these matters in the House—he paid tribute to my pioneering of that legislation—one of the reasons for local authorities’ frankly inconsistent application regarding on-street parking was that the guidance was not strong enough. Will he now ensure that all local authorities make provision for electric charging infrastructure on streets?
If I might just add, Mr Speaker, I initiated a competition as Minister for the design of such infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State reinvigorate that competition so that the charging infrastructure is one day as iconic as the pillar box or a Gilbert Scott telephone box?
My right hon. Friend makes two very important points. On the first point, we absolutely need to make sure that the infrastructure is there, and his second point is also important. One of the reasons why we cherish the environment is natural beauty. When we think about the steps we take to safeguard and enhance natural beauty, we should think about man’s contribution to making sure that the aesthetics around us reflect the best of us. The best of us is, of course, exemplified by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings.
My constituents and Londoners more generally want more ambitious measures implemented, and sooner, than are outlined in the Government’s strategy. They breathe in toxic fumes on a daily basis. Why has London been exempted from the clean air fund?
We have specific arrangements with the Mayor of London to ensure we can help him to meet his ambitions. I saw the Mayor last night. I do not expect him to endorse everything in this package, but I find his constructive approach to working with central Government to improve air quality heartening. We will continue to work with him. A little while back the Mayor himself said that while resolving road emissions was critical to improving air quality, there are many other things that the Government are required to do. It was partly a result of what the Mayor said that we brought forward the strategy today.
There are 40,000 premature deaths nationally, with 10,000 in London, and the schools in my constituency fare among the worst. What impact assessment has the Secretary of State’s Department done to consider how many deaths would be prevented under the new strategy compared with if the Government committed to a clean air Act and phasing out diesel engine use by 2030?
One thing we have done is to work with the academic community. Indeed, I met some of its members yesterday at Imperial College, one of our best universities, to look at the impact of the steps we are already taking to improve public health and to save money for the Exchequer. By definition, that work is publicly available to all. I take on board the hon. Lady’s point. We are bringing forward primary legislation. We can use the model that has been constructed to see how different impacts could be generated by different policies, and I look forward to sharing those results with her.
Emissions from road traffic cause the majority of air pollution in my constituency. Given that the M4 and traffic related to Heathrow are outside the purview of the London Mayor and the London Borough of Hounslow, how exactly will the Government ensure that post-Brexit regulatory regimes will have the same powers as their current European equivalents?
On the first point, I want to make sure that, as we envisage the expansion of aviation capacity across the south-east, we do everything possible to make sure that all contributors to air quality in the relevant areas are taken properly into account as part of a balanced approach towards policy. On the second point, we are consulting on what shape a new environmental regulator should take.
Hope Street in my constituency has long been acknowledged as one of the most polluted streets in Scotland, so I am sure that the Secretary of State will have been as glad as I was to see that Councillor Anna Richardson is bringing forward a low emission zone in Glasgow as one of the first acts of the SNP city government. One of the inhibitors to the success of low emission zones is of course haulage and bus transport. Will he tell us a bit more about what conversations he has had with those industries about progressing to more environmentally friendly vehicles?
We have been keen to make sure, certainly when it applies to buses and public transport, that we make money available to local authorities for appropriate retrofitting. Hauliers recognise that there will need to be a shift. One of the things we need to do—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is doing this—is to make sure that we can move to a more efficient method of haulage in the future.
I was pleased that the Secretary of State raised electric vehicles in his opening remarks, as I have been pursuing this issue since I came to this place. I have created a nine-point plan, which I raised with the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth and more recently with the roads Minister in a debate on electric vehicles in Westminster Hall. The ideas include matching Joint Air Quality Unit funding with Office for Low Emission Vehicles funding and getting three-phase electric points. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss all nine points of my plan?
Order. A point of order would ordinarily come later. Does it appertain to these exchanges?
And is it uncontentious and not a continuation of debate, but an honest pursuit of truth by the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee?
Very good. I will give the hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt.
I am sure that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would not want an inaccurate statement to go uncorrected. He said that Sheffield City Council was felling trees and that that was adding to the pollution problems in the city. The truth is that while there has been some contention about the removal and replacement of some trees on some streets, overall there will be more trees in Sheffield at the end of the programme than at the beginning, and the city will have low-energy LED street lights throughout, which I hope the Secretary of State will welcome.
It is always useful to have a bit of additional information. We have learnt a bit more about the Sheffield tree situation, which is potentially reassuring. If the Secretary of State wishes to leap to his feet to respond, he is welcome to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman signals that he is content, such is the—
Well, I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees, but he gives no evidence of disagreement. The emollient tone of the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) has served his purpose for now—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) chunters from a sedentary position that this is an explosive issue. I do not know whether it is—[Interruption.] Locally; well, that may well be so. Very good, honour is served.