Theresa Villiers – 2021 Speech on Improving Air Quality

The speech made by Theresa Villiers, the Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet, in the House of Commons on 3 February 2021.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for improving air quality.

A key part of my plan to improve life for my constituents in Chipping Barnet is cleaning up the air we breathe. Poor air quality is the greatest environmental threat to public health. Every year, thousands of people have their health damaged or their lives shortened by air pollution. This problem is especially serious in London, with many of the country’s worst pollution hotspots here in our capital city.

Our air is now cleaner than at any point since the industrial revolution, and the Government are meeting all but one of their current air quality targets, but there is so much more work to be done. Progress has slowed in recent years and we need a concerted national effort to tackle this problem from Government, from councils, from mayors, from business, from individuals.

The Government’s 2017 clean air strategy was praised by the World Health Organisation as

“an example for the rest of the world to follow”,

but we need to go further and faster. Ella Kissi-Debrah’s case should be a wake-up call for all of us. Ella was just nine years old when she suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013. She lived just yards from the busy and congested South Circular Road, and the coroner in her case concluded that air pollution made a material contribution to her tragic death. Ella is the very first person in the United Kingdom for whom air pollution has been officially recognised as a cause of death.

In my former role as Environment Secretary I introduced the Environment Bill to this House. This landmark new law will set a framework for a rigorous system of target-setting, monitoring and accountability, and one of the most important and ambitious elements of the Bill is the requirement to set a legally binding target to reduce PM2.5 fine particulate matter. This type of pollution does the greatest damage to human health, and I hope and expect the new target to be among the most demanding in the world. There is clear support across this House for us to be the first major developed economy to commit to getting PM2.5 particulate limits down to the 10 micrograms per cubic metre maximum recommended by the World Health Organisation. The only question is what date we set, and I appeal today to Ministers to accelerate the vital detailed research and consultation needed to make that decision and set that date as soon as possible.

A crucial part of the action to deliver on the target when it is set is protection and enhancement of nature, and I applaud my local council, Barnet, for planting around 3,000 trees in the last two years, including 700 targeted at air quality and urban heat island purposes.

I appeal to the Government to ensure that the planning Bill expected in the autumn maintains and strengthens protection for trees and open spaces, which provide crucial green lungs for our towns and cities. The environmental land management schemes, which will replace the EU’s common agricultural policy, can also play an important role in safeguarding nature and thus addressing pollution, and I urge the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that these environmental schemes are used to support farming practices that emit less ammonia pollution.

Domestic burning also makes a significant contribution to particulate pollution, and more people need to be aware of the impact of their choices in how they heat their homes. The most polluting fuels used in domestic burning are due to be banned by early 2023, and the Environment Bill will make it easier for councils to introduce smoke control zones and provide more powers to enforce them. They need to use these powers.

Our efforts to combat climate change can also be harnessed to drive quality improvements. One of the reasons for recent progress on air quality is the UK’s success in shifting away from coal to cleaner ways to generate electricity, and of course the transition to ultra low emission driving is crucial both for our climate and our air quality goals. Encouraging cycling, walking and active travel of course has real benefits in terms of health, air quality and congestion, and I applaud projects that, for example, encourage parents and children to walk to school, but care does have to be taken with these schemes, such as cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods, because if they are introduced in a hurry in the wrong place without appropriate consultation, they can inadvertently worsen air quality because of the consequent congestion they cause.

But the really big change we need in our transport system is to ensure that we switch to cleaner cars, vans, lorries, taxis, buses and motorbikes. Nothing else is going to deliver the air quality improvements we urgently need.

First, the Volkswagen scandal and then the collapse of the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency prosecution of the company Klarius demonstrated that we need better enforcement of standards on tailpipe emissions and tougher sanctions when rules are broken. The Environment Bill will help, because it will mean that Ministers can require manufacturers to recall vehicles if they do not comply with environmental standards and, thus, illegally polluting vehicles will be taken off the road more quickly.

The Government are taking forward a £3.8 billion plan to reduce harmful emissions from transport, including £1.5 billion to support the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles and nearly half a billion to help local authorities implement air quality improvement measures.

Last year, the Prime Minister announced £5 billion for bus services in England, including 4,000 new ultra-low emission buses. His 10-point climate plan commits to ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. That is one of the most aggressive targets set by any country, anywhere in the world. It will require further massive investment in research and development, to make electric cars and vans a more practical, affordable option, as well as in charging infrastructure.

I welcome all the substantial funding currently going into climate and air quality-related technology projects, which are essential, including the £250 million Faraday challenge on batteries. In this country, we already manufacture a considerable proportion of the plug-in electric cars sold around Europe. We should use the 2030 target as an opportunity to create new green jobs. Nissan’s announcement on moving battery production to the UK is really encouraging news.

Lastly, I ask Ministers to give priority to tackling air quality in London, because this is where the problem is most serious. London received funding for air quality as part of the £5.7 billion Transport for London funding settlement in 2015, and has received further support for individual projects of about £150 million. That includes money to retrofit buses to reduce emissions, and all London buses were due to be Euro 6 compliant by the end of last year. However, I am concerned that the Mayor of London has not made more progress on air quality or on delivering zero-emission buses, despite the significant resources he has been given by the Government to do that. His plan for a zero-emission bus fleet will take another 17 years to complete. Shaun Bailey believes progress needs to be much faster and has set out how he would do that as a Conservative Mayor for London. I am also worried that the Mayor’s mismanagement of TfL’s budget, including through the lengthy delays to Crossrail, will make it harder to deliver the investment we need to buy cleaner, greener buses.

I have one last ask of the Government. If they are serious about air quality, they should cancel plans to build a third runway at Heathrow. Nitrogen oxides problems around the airport are already very serious, and I cannot see any way in which the promoters of the scheme can possibly find a means to comply with those limits, never mind new ones adopted under the Environment Bill, while still accommodating the huge increase in surface transport that would be generated by thousands more flights. The viability case has been severely damaged by the collapse in passenger numbers. It is time to put this misguided runway project out of its misery. It is time to clean up the air we breathe, and I commend this Bill to the House.