Influential MPs have called for radical action to tackle air pollution including higher taxes for diesel cars and a possible devolution of powers to councils to help tackle the health impact - equivalent to 29,000 deaths a year.
A new report from cross-party MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee calls for a raft of changes to transport policy including ‘a relatively less favourable fiscal regime' and a possible scrappage scheme for diesel vehicles, which have been identified as the most significant driver of air pollution in cities.
‘We are disappointed that ministers have no plans for discussing these issues with the Treasury. Defra and the Department for Transport should work urgently with the Treasury to establish long-term goals and timescales for a step by step re-balancing of fuel duty and vehicle excise duty consistent with reducing not just CO2 emissions but also NO2 and particulate matter impacts,’ the report states.
The report is highly critical of the Government highlighting that previous recommendations from the committee made in 2010 and11 have not been implemented.
Speaking to Transport Network, committee chair Joan Walley said air pollution was now estimated to cause around the same harm to the nation's health as smoking, and as awareness of the issue rose greater pressure would be put on councils.
However she added this had to be seen in the context of the pressure already on local authorities as a result of the austerity cuts and the need for national frameworks.
Ms Walley said: ‘We have to look to the long-term strategy. The Government has a sense of localism in other areas, but air pollution does not recognise boundaries. Without a national framework in areas such as Low Emissions Zones (LEZs) it can be very difficult to move forward. These frameworks could provide the minimum standards and guidelines for councils on issues such as low emissions engines for surface transport.'
Ministers should ‘identify best practice in managing bus fleet pollution and provide local transport authorities with advice on how this issue can be addressed when putting out bus route tenders for contract’, the document suggests.
Ms Walley expressed disappointment that while Germany has more than 70 LEZs, the UK has only a handful despite the fact the committee was told they have a major impact on cutting pollution.
Devolution within the context of national guidelines could prove beneficial and suggested the deregulation of local transport services outside London could be hampering efforts, Ms Walley suggested.
'Devolution of powers is a topical debate. In transport the ability to stipulate standards for procurement of services with the enhanced powers TfL has is not replicated around the country. This would make it easier for councils to tackle these issues. To get transport investment right we need road, rail, cycling and other modes to work as part of a joined up approach,' she said.
'More needs to be done to look at the deregulation of bus services and we need look again at the kind of constraints on councils, if we are to guarantee air quality safety.’
The committee calls for ministers to ‘build in air quality obligations to transport infrastructure’ and for the Government to work with the most polluting cities to identify ‘what, if any, of the powers held by London might be replicated elsewhere to improve air quality. It should explain how far localism should operate in this policy field'.
The UK is currently facing the prospect of a £300m EU fine for breaching air quality targets in 16 areas and government officials have written to councils reminding them of the discretionary power in Part 2 of the Localism Act that allows these fines to be passed on to local authorities.
Suggesting such a move could be seen as unfair, the committee advises that a national LEZ framework ‘could provide the Government with a more credible basis on which any EU infraction fines might be passed on to the local authorities’.
Ms Walley said at first there was 'a sense of disbelief' that the Government would consider passing these fines on.
In planning, the National Planning Policy Framework should be reformed to make it ‘impossible to build new schools, care homes or health clinics near existing air pollution hotspots’.
Any redevelopment of such existing buildings 'should only be approved if they reduce pollution exposure for their users’.
A reformed Highways Agency - which ministers hope will become a Government owned company with a five year funding horizon under the Infrastructure Bill - should be given 'a legal duty to protect air quality' the report states, adding that a specific clause to that effect should be in the legislation.
A government spokesperson said: ‘Clean air is vital for people’s health and while air quality has improved significantly in recent decades we are investing heavily in measures across government to continue this, committing £2bn since 2011 in green transport initiatives.
'We continue to support local authorities in identifying the best solutions for their area and sharing best practice. Government further supports these efforts through our Air Quality Grant Scheme. We will be responding to the report fully in due course.’