David Stewart

Air Quality

17 April 2018

Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

I warmly thank the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and its clerks for a comprehensive and insightful report.

As members know, I was a member of that committee until early this year.

I thank its convener for his very kind words: I enjoyed working with him and the rest of the committee.

The key issue is how we improve air quality in Scotland.

We know from Friends of the Earth Scotland that air pollution from particulate matter alone—that is, PM2.5—is responsible for 2,000 early deaths in Scotland each year.

If we include exposure to nitrogen dioxide, the number is 2,500 early deaths each year.

That is more than all the people who die in road accidents.

If we consider the wider issue, we see that deaths from air pollution are in the top two of avoidable deaths worldwide.

Air pollution truly is an invisible killer.

It causes 670,000 people to be at high risk due to their cardiovascular conditions.

More than 65 years after air pollution first hit the headlines in the UK, that is a statistic of which no one can be proud.

Like many other members, I have been a champion of low-emission zones, and I have used many a debate in the chamber to promote them as one of the many solutions that are needed to tackle air pollution and climate change.

I was therefore delighted to see the Scottish Government finally put in motion the steps to bring the first low-emission zone to Scotland.

As we know, the Scottish Government’s 2017-18 programme for government undertook to create an LEZ in one city—which is likely to be Glasgow—by the end of 2018 and to have LEZs in Scotland’s four biggest cities by 2020.

Will that be delivered according to plan?

In its written evidence, SEPA stressed the importance of not letting timescales slip because of operational reasons including procurement, financing, staffing and legal considerations.

Donald Cameron mentioned the evidence from McGill’s Bus Services.

The committee’s report said that McGill’s Bus Services is :

“concerned it would be ‘bankrupt’ as a result of a ‘last minute LEZ scheme’ when planning and communication ‘should have taken place 5 years ago’. It also highlighted the additional costs of running retrofitted vehicles which would result in ‘fares going up to meet these additional costs.’”

Donald Cameron also touched on the fact that enforcement of LEZs is vital.

I have always been a big enthusiast for what has been done in London.

Use of automatic number-plate recognition is absolutely key.

The minister may mention in winding up whether that will be fully adopted for Glasgow.

Will there be a lead-in time to allow bus fleets to be upgraded? The report says that the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK said:

“Otherwise ... buses might not be available in those areas and therefore ‘you could have the perverse situation in which you introduce an LEZ and it encourages car use.’”

Although low-emission zones will not alone solve air pollution, they have the capacity to be one piece of the puzzle that could make a real difference to the health of people who live in our cities and towns.

Active travel is also crucial.

Using low-emission zones to reduce traffic pollution in towns and cities is just one step on the path to cleaner air.

The aim is that LEZs will also help to encourage modal shift to more active travel, as well as to increase use of public transport.

However, that will not happen overnight.

We need better investment in cycle paths, pedestrian walkways and clear signage, and traveller safety is needed, as is winning the hearts and minds of the public for increased active and public transport.

It is all well and good to talk about active travel, but what if it is not safe to walk or cycle in our local neighbourhoods, for example?

The Scottish Government’s target is for 10 per cent of everyday journeys to be undertaken by bike by 2020.

At current progress, that looks to be a hard target, but it is an important one.

Labour wants to bring into being municipal bus services through bus regulation, which would also encourage a step change away from private car use.

Proper regulation of buses would allow services to be run in the public interest rather than by private shareholders, which would allow them to be cheaper and more effective, as well as allowing for more investment to make them greener.

Of course, a great many health conditions are linked to living and working in air-polluted areas—heart conditions, lung problems, asthma, cancer and even dementia.

Those conditions are felt all too often by the most vulnerable people in society, including older people, small children, people who already have chronic health problems and people who live in our most deprived areas.

We need a step change and a modal shift to active travel in order to meet best practice in Europe.

In Amsterdam, for example, 70 per cent of all journeys are made by bike.

It seems that we can have no debate in the chamber without mention of Brexit—the ghost at every feast.

Many of the laws that currently put pressure on the UK and Scottish Governments regarding air quality come from EU law.

For example, the recent breach of the European ambient air quality directive led to legal action against the UK Government by ClientEarth.

It is therefore vital that, before we leave the EU, we pass legislation that maintains commitments to better air quality.

That is why I support the British Heart Foundation’s calls for new clean air acts from the devolved Administrations.

Will European Court of Justice rulings apply to UK environmental breaches in the future?

The jury is out, but the UK Government has made it clear that it is leaving Euratom because of ECJ jurisdiction.

Is not there a case for a Scottish environmental court to replace the ECJ if we have to leave?

Who will guard the guards?

Although everyone in the country should be fully committed to improving air quality for the health of the nation, that added pressure of enforcement from the EU has added the incentive for setting ambitious targets and strategies, which we are not meeting currently. Any loss of pressure could have devastating consequences.

Air pollution is a public health emergency.

It is also a continuing health inequality, which hits hardest the old, the young, the poor and the disadvantaged.

The report is excellent and I congratulate the ECCLR Committee.

I hope that the Scottish Government accepts the recommendations in full.

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