New Defra minister sets out stall on air quality

The government’s new minister with responsibility for air quality, Rory Stewart, responded to a number of points raised during a debate on London’s air pollution in the House of Commons yesterday, emphasising his support for electric vehicles (June 9).

Rory Stewart, Defra's minister for air quality, speaking during the Westminster Hall debate yesterday (June 9)

Rory Stewart, Defra’s minister for air quality, speaking during the Westminster Hall debate yesterday (June 9)

As well as answering in relative detail to a number of London MPs’ constituency concerns during a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall, Mr Stewart appeared to suggest that the government was considering fiscal measures — such as vehicle scrappage schemes and excise duty changes — to cut diesel emissions.

Any such fiscal measures would likely be announced in the upcoming Budget on July 8.

Responding to Labour MP Barry Gardner’s calls for such diesel scrapped measures during the debate, Mr Stewart said: “The issues of fuel duty, nitrogen dioxide and emission-based pricing in general are important. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to pre-empt the Treasury or to start disrupting markets by talking about such fiscal instruments, but he is right that they are, logically, one thing a responsible Government should investigate in looking at a panoply of responses to emissions.”

Elsewhere, the Defra minister said that in order to reduce air pollution in urban areas such as London:

“Electric cars must be central, because if there is a single technology that can address many of these issues–air pollutants, public health and carbon emissions–it is them.”

However, Mr Stewart also said yesterday that there is no date yet set for the publication of the UK’s new air quality plan, which is currently being drawn up, although it has been suggested that it is likely to appear for consultation later this summer.

Issues were also raised about the capital’s busy shopping destination, Oxford Street, where air pollution has been described by scientists as among the ‘highest in the world’ for nitrogen dioxide.

But Mr Stewart, who previously served in the armed forces, said: “As somebody who lived in Kabul, in Afghanistan, for three and a half years, I find it difficult to believe that the levels of particulate matter in Oxford Street are higher than those we experienced there.”

He explained that the “more legitimate comparison is with developed European cities, and we need to make sure that London is moving in the right direction”.

The debate took place in Westminster Hall yesterday (June 9)

The debate took place in Westminster Hall yesterday (June 9)

However, the Defra minister was upbeat about possible EU action against the UK for air pollution breaches. He suggested that the UK owes Europe “a debt of gratitude in many ways for holding to account not only us, but 17 European countries that are in breach of their nitrogen dioxide thresholds”.

But, on airport expansion — with the Davies Commission expected to unleash its final report soon — Mr Stewart admitted to “evading the issue” on what concerns the government might have about air quality impacts from Heathrow Airport and its possible expansion, adding that “I am not going to take a grand stance on Heathrow”.

Finally, concluding the debate, the Defra minister commented:

“Although some progress has been made, each new step is becoming more and more difficult. We are not dealing simply with one issue, such as diesel cars, but with a dozen different issues, all of which contribute almost equally to diesel emissions.”


The debate was instigated by Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott, who is seeking nomination as the Labour Party’s candidate for London Mayor in 2016.

Current Mayor Boris Johnson, who also attends cabinet meetings as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, is standing down at the election next year after two terms, but he came in for strong criticism from Mrs Abbot for his record on air pollution.

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, is hoping to stand for London Mayor next year

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, is hoping to stand for London Mayor next year

In her speech yesterday, Mrs Abbot, Labour’s former shadow minister for public health, said that Mr Johnson’s plans for an ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) in the capital from 2020 were “too little too late” and called for it to come into force two years earlier in 2018.

She said: “93% of the most polluted roads in London will be outside the zone and may in fact experience greater pollution as vehicles circumvent the area and move the pollution into more residential and poorer parts of the city.

The Labour MP added: “With cities across Europe adopting low and ultra-low emissions zones there is a huge prize for the manufacturers of low-zero emissions vehicles. There are also very significant risks to manufacturers that choose to bet against this trend.”

Mrs Abbot also criticised the government for threatening to hand down to councils any potential fines from the EU for non-compliance with air quality directives, arguing that the UK Supreme Court’s recent judgement showed that these breaches were the responsibility of central government.

Concluding her speech, she said:

“What is the point of a government that cannot and will not deliver clean air for its citizens?”

House of Lords

However, in the House of Lords that afternoon, Defra’s spokesman Lord Gardiner appeared to be tight-lipped on vehicle excise duty changes or scrappage schemes, stating that: “While there are no plans at the moment for a national scrappage scheme, we will be keeping all measures under review.”

Recently appointed as Defra’s spokesman in the Lords in the wake of the General Election following Lord de Mauley’s departure, Lord Gardiner of Kimble also said that vehicle excise duty is “clearly a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider”.

However, he emphasised: “I know from my few weeks in the Department that this [air quality] is being considered very strongly indeed.”

Lord Gardiner’s comments came in response to a question from Baroness Jones on when Defra intended to bring forward a new air quality plan to comply with NO2 limits by 2020.

The Lord suggested that the new air quality plan for the UK would brought forward for public consultation “later this summer, precisely to deal with the point that the noble Lord made, which is that this is a health issue”.

He added: “That is why the government are determined to and will be bringing forward plans — because we are aware of the effect on people’s health.”


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9 years ago

Interesting how the IHME of Seattle reports that 2013 saw 18.8 billion, yes billion, cases of short upper respiratory infections (mostly colds) in a world of only 7.5 billion people, which swamps the next reported 2.7 billion diarrhea cases. Compare water to air to decide which is more important, duh. So clean up the air, and along with those diesels, do not forget your next door wood burner cheapo!

Anna Wadhurst
Anna Wadhurst
9 years ago

There is a moderate ( VERY visible air pollution!) alert today here across Sussex and much of uk.
I notice Defra’s air monitoring site is strategically down today AGAIN. It was down for weeks before the election under some spurious story about hacking..whilst we had repeated high air pollution….yet came back just a few days after the election. I have a snapshot from 1AM today and the whole South uk is ‘orange’ (and some yellow) I suggest people start asking these questions of their MP. “What is going to be done about increasing levels of air pollution RIGHT NOW, BEFORE planning for additional air traffic/new runways” This year has been the worst so far.

Recent Guardian article on Defra air quality site repeatedly ‘going down’ :

Defra website down AGAIN today ( this is becoming a regular thing every time we have a high air pollution spike.. it is starting to seem ‘deliberate’ especially just 2 days after this speech by the new Defra minister above ^

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