EVENT: In depth look at the Environment Bill with Rebecca Pow

With a new Committee deadline for the Environment Bill set in December 21st, the APPG took the opportunity to have an in-depth look with Minister Rebecca Pow.

Guest panellists Professor Stephen Holgate, Royal College of Physicians special adviser on air quality and Professor Elouise Scotford, Environmental Law at UCL gave their analysis of the Bill for their distinct professional points of view.

WATCH THE MEETING IN FULL :

Geraint Davies, Chair of the APPG, opened the meeting by calling for legally binding targets that can protect public health, to protect the environment and to protect the economy by giving businesses regulatory framework. 

Minister Rebecca Pow acknowledged that air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health. The Environment Bill, she noted, is the biggest piece of legislation to come through the Houses of Parliament is around two decades. In its current draft the Bill sets a legal duty on government to set a legally binding target on fine particulate matter, which has the most significant impact on human health. It also sets a duty to set an additional long-term target on air pollution. 

A new paper published in August sets out how the government will focus on reducing average population exposure, which Minister Pow said was an innovative approach. Minister Pow argued that adopting WHO guideline limits in the Bill would be too simplistic. Before setting the targets the government plan to launch a public consultation to inform their decision and MPs will have a chance to scrutinise the targets before they are set in secondary legislation. 

Aside from the targets, Minister Pow noted the additional powers that would be given to local authorities, giving them a framework for tackling air pollution. One of these will ensure that information is shared across multiple levels of local government to help tackle pollution. It will also give local authorities the powers to take action to stop people repeatedly emitting smoke without the need for long and costly legal battles in the courts. Plus, the Bill tightens control around solid fuels and gives powers to local authorities to stop them being burnt in smoke control areas, like on river barges for example. 

The government has launched a call for evidence on which public bodies should be designated to become Air Quality Partners to help local areas cut emissions.

Minister Pow, however, said that the Environment Bill was only one tool to tackle air pollution along with a wider context of measures that have been put in place, most notably through the Clean Air Strategy. A new one is due to be published and the Strategy will continue to be reviewed every five years. 

In line with discussions with the Chair of the APPG, the government is doing a review of indoor air pollution with Public Health England and are looking at targeted interventions. The Air Quality Expert Group will be producing a report on indoor air quality focusing on fine particular matter and volatile organic compounds. 

Due to the pandemic this year, the government is reviewing the link between air pollution and Covid-19, such as the link between deaths from Covid-19 and long-term exposure to air pollution. Also, the government is looking into impact of lockdown and air quality. The Minister noted that through the pandemic the government has promoted active travel and given funding to local authorities to improve cycle lanes. 

Professor Stephen Holgate made clear that public health needs to be centre of the bill, noting in particular the damage it had on the growth of babies’ lungs. He said that more needed to be made of the biology behind the threat of fine particles need much more emphasis and there needed to be greater analysis of the toxicology of particles, rather than talking generally about particles as if particles from diesel to ammonia to burnt toast were all the same. He noted that only by understanding the differential threat can we better tackle the biggest offended.

Prof Holgate lamented that the responsibility for air pollution had been devolved to national governments and Public Health England and suggested instead there should be a joined-up approach which is health focussed and places responsibilities on Transport, Planning and Housing as well as DEFRA to deliver enforceable WHO standards

While the Bill prepares to hand over more powers to local authorities, Professor Holgate pointed out that three councils – Southampton, Leeds and Coventry have abandoned planned Clean Air Zones for lack of government cash and new Covid-19 responsibilities.

Professor Eloise Scotford said the structure of the Environment Bill allows for ambitious targets to be created, yet there is also an opportunity for delay and a lowering of standards over time. The Bill therefore needs to include an objective for target setting, which for air quality needs to be around the highest level of public and environmental health. There also needs to be some signal as to when and how new targets will be set going forward. There is also a risk of their being a two-track of environmental standards, between the ones we currently have and the new ones the government will bring forward, where it seems the former will be more enforceable. Prof Scotford suggests interim targets would help plug that gap.

Prof Scotford agreed that more structures to encourage local authorities and public bodies to coordinate is a helpful step forward. Yet she noted that local authorities don’t always have competence over pollution sources like major road building, fuel duty and subsidies for cleaner transport or nearby industry and agriculture so the Bill should ensure that central government ultimately remain responsible for cleaner air.

These statements were followed by a Q&A, where audience members made up of doctors, academics, lawyers, journalists, environmental experts, local leaders, MPs and peers were able to ask questions to the panel.