The Environmental Audit Committee has expressed a “lack of confidenceâ€? that the government will seek to enforce air quality standards in the event that the UK leaves the EU.
Mary Creagh, who chairs the committee, voiced concerns that it had taken “court actionâ€? for the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to clamp down on air pollution in the UK.
But giving evidence to the committee in Westminster yesterday (8 September), Defra parliamentary undersecretary Thérèse Coffey was adamant that the government would not “step away from the tableâ€? following Brexit.
The minister was appearing as part of the EAC’s ongoing inquiry into the ‘Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum’, which is assessing what measures the UK will put in place to protect environmental legislation following its departure from the European Union.
Committee member Geraint Davies, who is Labour MP for Swansea West, called repeatedly on Dr Coffey to give a “commitmentâ€? that air quality standards would be protected as an “enforceable undertakingâ€?.
While Dr Coffey would not commit to such an undertaking, she argued that the government “would not be trying to make laws worseâ€? – and reminded the committee that it had been a UK Supreme Court and not the European Court of Justice which had ordered the government to produce a new air quality plan.
She said: “We are taking action at the moment to set up Clean Air zones across five UK cities. We would consider secondary legislation to enforce that if needed but so far they have been very helpful.â€?
Dr Coffey added: “Our air quality is better than it has been – that doesn’t mean it is the best in the world but we will continue to strive to develop it, but a lot of that has to be driven locally.â€?
The minister also explained she had a “particular interestâ€? in research by Lancaster University that poor air quality could be linked to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s – but cautioned that “not a huge amountâ€? of scientific evidence had been placed on that example.
The results have been published in the paper ‘Magnetite pollution nanoparticles in the human brain’ by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (see airqualitynews.com story).
The EAC’s concern follows its criticism of the Department for Transport last week, reporting that it needed a clear strategy to help the UK meet air quality targets (see airqualitynews.com story).