Ministers facing ‘super inquiry’ from MPs over poor air quality

Mary Creagh MP.
Mary Creagh MP.
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Ministers are set to come under renewed pressure to tackle poor air quality as MPs launch a new ‘super inquiry’ on the issue.

Four committees of MPs are to join forces to examine the Government’s plans to reduce urban pollution amid growing evidence of the damage poor air quality is having on health.

Environmental groups have repeatedly challenged the Government’s inaction on air pollution in the courts.

Wakefield MP Mary Creagh, who chairs the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, said: “The UK courts have twice found that the Government has failed to deal with our air pollution problem properly.

“Now, ministers will face unprecedented scrutiny in Parliament to ensure they finally step up to the mark to ensure adults, and children in particular, do not have their health damaged by filthy air.”

Nitrogen dioxide is believed to contribute to the deaths of around 23,500 people every year in the UK.

Diesel engines, major producers of nitrogen dioxide, also emit tiny particles which play a part in an estimated 29,000 deaths each year.

It emerged earlier this year that Highways England is considering routinely imposing a 60 mph speed limit on a stretch of the M1 near Sheffield in an effort to improve air quality.

The Government has set out plans to create ‘clear air zones’ in five cities by 2020.

The zones will target older diesel buses, coaches, taxis and lorries which will have to pay a charge, which has yet to be set, to enter the city centre.

Privately-owned vehicles will not be targeted by the measure but drivers’ organisations have expressed concern that air quality could be used as a cover to introduce broader congestion charging.

City’s will also be expected to alter road layouts, introduce park and ride schemes and put in place infrastructure such as electric charging points.

Ministers have been told by the High Court they must publish more comprehensive plans to tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution by April.

Last month, the European Commission also warned the Government that air quality must be improved in 16 areas, including Yorkshire, or face further action.

Failure to demonstrate improvements could see the EU Commission imposing fines costing millions of pounds.

Ministers have also faced growing public pressure on the issue as awareness grows of the impact on health.

The new inquiry will see MPs on the Environmental Audit, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Transport and Health committees holding joint hearings on air quality. It will look at whether the Government’s plans will meet the requirements of the High Court and the European Commission. MPs will also look at whether there is joined-up action across different Government departments.

Sarah Wollaston, chairman of the Health Committee, said: “Poor air quality is affecting the health of millions of people across the UK because of the impact of invisible particulates and other pollutants.

“Our joint inquiry will include an examination of the scale of the harm caused and the action necessary to tackle it.”