Thank you for contacting me about air quality.
Clean air is essential for life, health, our environment and the economy; poor air quality shortens lives, contributes to chronic illness, and is the largest environmental health risk in the UK. I therefore agree that the Government must take action to tackle air pollution.
While it is encouraging that air pollution has reduced significantly in the past decade, there is still more to do. I am therefore pleased that the Clean Air Strategy aims to cut air pollution and save lives, backed up by new primary legislation. The strategy details how the UK will go further and faster than the EU in reducing exposure to particulate matter pollution. It sets out a goal to halve the number of people living in locations with concentrations of particulate matter above WHO guidelines and I am encouraged that it has been described by the WHO as 'an example for the rest of the world to follow'.
The Environment Bill builds on this strategy. It will drive significant environmental improvement and tackle pollution by setting and achieving legally-binding, long-term targets in key areas including air quality, water, and resource efficiency and waste. I am pleased that the Bill introduces a duty on the Government to set at least two air quality targets by October 2022; a target to reduce the annual average level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in ambient air, and a further target to improve air quality.
This action is backed up by a £3.8 billion plan to improve air quality and create cleaner transport. This includes nearly a £1.5 billion investment to support the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles; £1.2 billion to increase cycling and walking and make our roads safer for vulnerable users; and £880 million to help local authorities develop and implement local air quality plans and to support those impacted by these plans. A further £2.5 billion will support a number of cities to improve their local transport systems through the Transforming Cities Fund.
Short-term exposure to elevated levels of PM2.5 can impact health, particularly for vulnerable groups. I am therefore pleased that the Government provides alerts and advice during air pollution episodes to ensure people can access the information and health advice they need in order to minimise impacts. Ministers are also taking action to increase public awareness about air pollution, including through an expanded £8 million funding pot which will be made available to local authorities through the Air Quality Grant scheme.
Under the Environment Bill, the Government will have a duty to bring forward a target for PM2.5 by October 2022. In setting air quality targets, my ministerial colleagues have sought advice from the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) on whether the priority aim should be long-term exposure rather than short-term. COMEAP advised that a focus on long-term average concentrations of PM2.5 is most appropriate to deliver public health benefits. The two air quality targets that the Government plans to set will therefore focus on reducing the long-term exposure to PM2.5 and its associated health impacts, and I am assured that actions taken to achieve these targets will contribute to reducing average daily concentrations of PM2.5.
Coronavirus and air quality
As we rebuild our economy in response to the coronavirus pandemic, I know Ministers will continue to shape a cleaner, greener and more resilient society.
I am pleased that the Government launched a call for evidence to ensure the full impact that coronavirus is having on air quality can be understood for future policy development. The independent Air Quality Expert Group has now produced a report which found that there were significant changes in the emissions of air pollutants during the initial lockdown period. The full report is available here: https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/library/reports.php?report_id=1005.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Craig Whittaker MP