On Wednesday (13 June), the House of Lords’ Energy and Environment Sub-Committee convened a hearing into the UK’s failure to meet EU air quality limits.
The hearing touched on a broad range of issues, including air quality monitoring, funding and legal powers held by local authorities in addressing air pollution, the potential for legal action from the EU and the impact of Brexit on efforts to deliver clean air (see airqualitynews.com story).
After the hearing, the Committee’s chair the Liberal Democat peer Lord Teverson, sat down with airqualitynews.com to deliver his verdict on the UK’s progress in meeting EU air quality targets to date.
AQN: What key themes have you taken from today’s evidence session?
Lord Teverson: The importance of having clarity. We as a Committee are probably [more] aware of these issues than many people, but we learned a lot from the witnesses. What became clear to me is that the framework [is important]: knowing who is responsible for what. It is right that local authorities are the people on the ground that need to make this work, I don’t think there’s any debate about that, but that mustn’t stop the government having the proper leadership and helping get rid of those barriers in between.
Local authorities will always have a funding issue and that seems to be one area that the government can’t just say ‘get on with it’. The legal barriers are really important and more work needs to be done to understand what those are.
I was particularly impressed by things like where a vehicle might be acceptable in one Low Emission Zone, but when it does its deliveries to the next city it has a different set of rules.
The fact is that all of this is happening in a rush now when it should have happened eight years ago.
AQN: Have successive governments failed in their duty to deliver cleaner air?
LT: The British courts have found that governments have failed to take action. We pride ourselves on being one of the best nations at implementing EU law but that isn’t always the case at all.
We haven’t done enough and everything is now in a rush. Not quite as much as plastics, but this is another good cause that is starting largely because ClientEarth have pursued it.
AQN: Can we be confident that after the UK has left the EU, there will be sufficient impetus for government to continue to address air pollution?
LT: I don’t think there is room for complacency. However, this is an issue that is now so much in the mind of the public. The evidence of the damage that is caused is much, much more persuasive, and so I think that Brexit or no Brexit this is an issue that the government is not going to be able to ignore, even if it wanted to. Having said that I would feel a lot more secure if there was something with enough teeth to replace the [European] Commission or the Court of Justice.
AQN: Are you encouraged by the proposals from government to establish an environmental body to enforce existing standards?
LT: When one looks at how that arose, our expectations were amazingly low to begin with. Michael Gove said ‘we do need something here’, and we were encouraged by that positive view. We then hear that the Treasury came in and surprise, surprise, the teeth of this organisation seemed to dissolve quite quickly. Now we are in a better place than we expected to be, but still not where we need to be.
AQN: Would it be appropriate for any potential EU fine for non-compliance air quality limits to be handed down to councils?
LT: It is premature [to say]. There would be a time when local authorities have been given the toolbox to do what they have got to do, and then rightly they have got to take some of that responsibility, and, if that doesn’t work, to take some of the cost of that. Are we at that stage at the moment? No, we are not, and I think that is a disingenuous reaction from central government when it has suddenly foisted these responsibilities [upon councils] without the toolbox to deliver.
AQN: Could the House of Lords become more involved in efforts to address air pollution?
LT: One of the roles of the Lords is to get into the detail of the legislation and improve it from that side. Generally that is an unsung role that the House of Lords does and it is fairly uncontentious, but it does it fairly well. It has some of that expertise and more time to do that sort of thing than the Commons.
So, on all those types of legislation where there’s a need to dig down and get things right the House of Lords probably has a way of doing that through the normal legislative process, but it also spends a lot of time calling ministers to account through questions and air quality is something that the House of Lords has a real role in.
At the end of the day, [on any new legislation] the Commons will make the final decision.
What we will be doing from today’s session is writing an extensive letter to the Secretary of State with a number of questions that come out. We will expect a full and comprehensive reply and if the Committee is not 100% happy with the reply, we will get the Minister in front of us. To give Michael Gove his due he has made himself available to this Committee and will do in the future. It is different to some ministers in the past.
AQN: Is the UK heading in the right direction towards meeting its obligations to improve air quality?
LT: I think we are getting ourselves into the right mental place, but there is still a lot to do to sort out the right framework process, the best ways to do this stuff. We are suddenly rushing at trying to get things right we have quite a way to go. The one thing we don’t want is something that says it is up to local authorities. It is a cliché to say it has to be done in partnership, but this really does have to be.
AQN: Is there one particular area in which you think change is necessary?
LT: Most important thing is giving local authorities the proper powers and where that is required the financial ability to carry this programme through. That is the key part of this, so you enable this work.
I do think that this is something that will not go away, and whenever the next General Election is, you can bet your bottom dollar that this will be in all the manifestos.