Low-emissions zones urgently needed, say MPs

8th December 2014

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Nicholas Blyth

Zones banning the most polluting vehicles are urgently needed to improve air quality and the government should be doing far more to encourage this, according to a cross-party group of MPs.

The Environmental Audit Committee today published the findings of its third investigation in the past five years into air quality. In the report, the committee criticises the government for its continual failure to act on the issue, despite increasing evidence of the damage air pollution causes to public health and legal action against the UK for its failure to act.

The committee previously advocated a national framework for low-emission zones (LEZs) in 2011. It argues that creating LEZs would ensure rules are consistent between cities by establishing a standard for emissions and a common way of identifying compliant vehicles.

The government told the committee’s latest inquiry that LEZs should be the responsibility of local authorities. However, very few LEZs have been set up outside London, and those that have been are very limited, the committee said. Germany in contrast has over 70 LEZs, many of which focus on diesel vehicles, it points out.

In their report, the MPs identify several barriers preventing councils from establishing LEZs, including the perceived cost, and lack of guidance and support from government. Defra claims that it has provided £1.8 million to help councils with a variety of low-emission strategies and projects.

A national framework established from the government would provide a template and sufficient flexibility to allow individual councils to find ways of protecting local business from extra costs, the committee argues. It would reduce the cost of LEZs and make it easier for councils to administer them, and for fleet vehicle operators to meet requirements.

A framework could also give the government a more credible defence against the infraction proceedings it currently faces from the European commission for failing to meet the air quality directive, the committee suggests.

However, the report describes the response of Defra minister Dan Rogerson to the idea of national network of LEZs as “lukewarm”. He told the inquiry that a national framework was “something we could consider in the future”, according to the report. When asked about the possibility of establishing a common vehicle certification scheme, he stressed that strategies needed to work in each area, the report states.

Chair of the committee Joan Walley MP said: “New figures suggest air pollution from heavy traffic could be killing almost the same amount of people as smoking in the UK, yet the government seems unwilling to put saving lives before economic growth.

“LEZs in cities could save lives, but diesel drivers who face extra charges deserve to be compensated so they can switch to less polluting vehicles.”

The committee also recommends strengthening planning rules so that schools are not built near air pollution hotspots. Existing schools near the most polluting roads, meanwhile, should be fitted with air filtration systems.

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