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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 5, 2024


Low-emission Zones

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a statement by Fiona Hyslop on protecting public health and improving air quality. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

When it comes to protecting health and tackling the climate emergency, which all of us in Parliament claim to have an interest in and which we say is a priority, the warm words and rhetoric are the easy part. The hard bit is taking action.

I recall that, when the Transport (Scotland) Bill was discussed in Parliament in 2019, Liam Kerr, a Conservative, stated:

“We believe that low-emission zone schemes are a good thing”—[Official Report, 10 October 2019; c 105.]

Colin Smyth, a Labour member, was very supportive. He said:

“The proposals on low-emission zones introduce a much-needed framework … and they are very welcome.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2019; c 94-95.]

Showing that the support extended across all parties, Mike Rumbles, a Liberal Democrat, said:

“There are good measures in the bill, such as … the creation of low-emission zones.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2019; c 99.]

The Government will never shy away from taking the tough action that is required to protect the health of the most vulnerable or from tackling the biggest threat that our planet faces. I am therefore pleased to inform members that, after several years of development and planning, we now have low-emission zones operating in our four largest cities, keeping the most polluting vehicles out of our city centres and protecting our citizens.

I will address the comments that Liam Kerr made in the chamber when he asked for the statement. He asked what flexibility local authorities have with regard to low-emission zones. The four cities were responsible for the design of, planning for and consultation on their LEZs. Each local authority gained relevant committee approval prior to submitting its LEZ scheme to the Scottish ministers for approval. The local authority has the flexibility to determine the geographical area of the LEZ, the types of vehicles that are within its scope, the length of grace periods and the granting of local time-limited exemptions. It also has the power to vary the hours of operation away from the default position of 24/7 and it may make amendments to or revoke an LEZ, subject to the Scottish ministers’ approval.

The Scottish Government is committed to low-emission zones as they are a significant public health intervention. I am sure that, with time, the introduction of our low-emission zones will be considered a watershed moment and held in the same regard as the smoking ban and, before that, the ban on lead in petrol. LEZs are an obvious, sensible and essential intervention to protect everyone’s health, but particularly that of young children, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

The benefits of better air quality are well understood, with further evidence being published continually. Members will be aware that the University of Dundee recently published a study on hospital respiratory admissions in the Tayside area. It found that respiratory admissions of children were significantly associated with elevated levels of air pollution in the area. The lead researcher on the study, Professor Jill Belch, has been very clear about the harmful effects of air pollution on the brains and lungs of babies and children. We simply cannot condemn our future generations to disease and infection when a limited and targeted intervention such as low-emission zones can make a difference. Experts around the world agree that measures such as LEZs are essential to tackle air pollution and, therefore, protect children and the most vulnerable.

We can rightly be proud of the important role that our city centres play in promoting Scotland for business and trade, attracting tourism and being the places of entertainment and nightlife that we all enjoy. However, they are also places where large numbers of people live and spend time. We want our city centres to continue to thrive, so we must be responsible and do what we can to reduce pollution in those areas. In banning only a minority of the most polluting vehicles, LEZs will deliver air quality improvements by specifically targeting those vehicles. That evidence-based policy is an obvious, commonsense intervention. I commend the four city councils for their action to protect health and improve air quality, and I welcome it.

It is not the case that Scotland is unique in introducing this type of emission-based vehicle access restriction—far from it. The four Scottish cities join more than 320 towns and cities across Europe that have similar schemes, helping to make cities cleaner, healthier, safer and more attractive places to live, work and visit.

Critics of LEZs suggest that current air quality means that they are not needed. However, the detractors fail to acknowledge that recent air quality improvements are, in part, due to preparations for LEZ enforcement. Businesses, fleet operators and members of the public have not left it until the last minute. Instead, they have invested in cleaner vehicles in the years running up to enforcement starting.

The other key point that some fail to comprehend is that the legal air quality targets are the absolute minimum standards that are required—the floor, rather than the ceiling—of our missions for health and the environment. There is no safe level of air pollution, and any air pollution has detrimental impacts on health.

Hope Street in Glasgow has long been known to be the most polluted street in Scotland. However, with the first, bus-only phase of Glasgow’s LEZ having started in 2018 and with cleaner buses in place, that street now just meets the minimum air quality targets. With all vehicles in Glasgow city centre now being required to be LEZ compliant, we can expect even better results in the future.

Any suggestion that the LEZs have made air quality in the zones worse is nothing more than mischief making and selective cherry picking of data that is based on limited information. Full monitoring and performance reports, including on air quality in the cities, are a statutory requirement and will be published in due course.

This Government has provided extensive support to those households on low incomes and microbusinesses that have needed help to prepare for the LEZs. Since 2019, £13 million has been provided through our LEZ support fund to help low-income households and microbusinesses to prepare for the LEZs. A further £5 million will be available this year, including £2 million specifically for taxis. Through that scheme, more than 3,700 of the most polluting vehicles have been scrapped and alternative sustainable means of transport supported. For example, more than 2,000 bikes have been provided in place of scrapped vehicles. That, in turn, highlights the side benefits of our LEZ policy in helping to reduce car kilometres, tackle climate change and encourage healthier travel choices.

We are acutely aware that many disabled people rely on their cars or lifts from others and that some of those vehicles may not be LEZ compliant. We have therefore developed a system whereby blue badge holders can register for an exemption for not just their vehicle but any vehicle that they need to travel in. So far, more than 15,000 blue badge holders have registered with the scheme.

I am aware that concerns have been raised about the LEZs potentially having a negative effect on footfall in the cities. However, data from Glasgow earlier this year shows that footfall in the city centre was matching the pre-Covid levels at weekends and that evening footfall is higher than before, which indicates that the LEZ has had no negative effect. It is true that daytime footfall is slightly down, but that appears to be attributable in the main to changed working practices such as home working, which mean that cities are not as busy during office hours.

I formally place on the record my thanks to the four local authorities, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Transport Scotland officials for their focus and determination in delivering the LEZs. The work that has been done behind the scenes in undertaking the detailed assessment and design of the LEZs has been under way for a long time. In addition, the extensive marketing and awareness-raising campaigns that have been undertaken since 2019 have helped drivers and businesses around the country by giving them ample time to prepare for the LEZs.

We acknowledge that, although the move to LEZs will not affect the vast majority of vehicles on the road, it will mean that owners of high-polluting older vehicles will have to take action to avoid receiving penalty charge notices. Whether that will mean switching to a cleaner vehicle—petrol cars that are newer than 2006 are generally all compliant—or to more sustainable transport options, or varying their route to avoid the relatively small city centre areas, the effect is that only the owners of the most polluting vehicles need to take action.

The introduction of the low-emission zones is an essential measure to tackle the potentially life-changing impacts of harmful air pollution. I would like to think that all members see the low-emission zones for what they are—a reasonable and proportionate response to a very real public health issue that has been largely ignored for far too long.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing advance sight of her statement. However, I have to say that there was very little point to it. It does not tell us anything that we did not already know. Apart from revealing an alliance between Liam Kerr, Colin Smyth and Mike Rumbles, it does not announce anything. It is just a defence of low-emission zones. For the avoidance of doubt, we have never been against low-emission zones in Scotland. Our view is that decisions on such zones are local decisions. Our concerns have always been about the implementation.

If we accept that the owners of older vehicles are often less well off, that gives rise to a couple of questions. What analysis has the Scottish Government done on how many older vehicles will be affected in the low-emission zones for those who live and work in the zones? How many taxis in Scotland are still non-compliant?

Fiona Hyslop

Graham Simpson has raised a number of issues. I am more than happy to take parliamentary time to promote good policies such as low-emission zones, so I am happy to be here to make the statement. I point out that the reason for the statement is that Liam Kerr did not understand where the responsibilities between national Government and local government lay and what flexibilities there were. That is why I took the opportunity to address those issues right at the beginning of my statement.

I agree that this is about local decisions. If Graham Simpson wants to talk about local implementation, that is probably not the basis for him to ask questions of me, as the national Cabinet Secretary for Transport. That is a matter for him to have meetings about with the relevant local authorities.

Graham Simpson’s substantive question was about how many vehicles are affected. Seventy-five to 80 per cent of cars that will be in the city centres are expected to be compliant. In relation to taxis, we know that, for example, there has been total support for Glasgow, which means that 1,100 taxis are now compliant in Glasgow. I can also provide the information that Glasgow City Council has provided exemptions for another 202 taxi vehicles post the end of June 2024.

I have tried to give Graham Simpson some additional information that he may not have, but I remind him that the reason for the statement is that Liam Kerr wanted to have clarity on local flexibility.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

First, I make it clear that Scottish Labour supports the view that local authorities should have the powers to be able to tackle poor air quality and air pollution where it exists. When it comes to low-emission zones, it is crucial that an authority understands the impact of introducing an LEZ and that it works with communities, local businesses and transport providers to properly assess the impact and to provide support to ensure the success of the scheme.

In Glasgow, black cab businesses could be lost, in part due to the lack of appropriate support. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that the Government undertakes a review of the implementation of the LEZs across Scotland so that any lessons that need to be learned are learned? Will she put in place options for any support that is required to ensure that the LEZs are successful?

Fiona Hyslop

Yes, I will. I reassure the member that I have had regular meetings with the council leads—the councillors for Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, and his colleague Councillor Scott McArthur in Edinburgh. We are already learning lessons from each other, and I think that that is correct. It is a very appropriate question.

I should have pointed out that licensing in Glasgow has been slightly different. For example, in Dundee and Aberdeen, far more of the taxis were already compliant for different reasons, although Aberdeen has an exemption for a further year. We know that more than 450 taxis have already been retrofitted to Euro 6, with grants providing up to £10,000 of capital costs.

The question gives me the opportunity to highlight that, in 2024-25, a further £2 million will be made available to support taxi operators with retrofitting costs.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

We know that some vehicles pollute more than others or have done so in the past. Can the cabinet secretary provide any update regarding the funding that has been provided through the low-emission zone support fund to date to enable more of those vehicles and operators to comply with the low-emission zone requirements? How many households and businesses is that fund expected to have supported?

Fiona Hyslop

A total of £13.1 million has been paid out to lower-income households and smaller businesses through the scheme between October 2019 and March 2024, which has seen more than 4,000 non-LEZ-compliant, high-polluting vehicles taken off our roads. Help to meet the LEZ standards has been provided to an estimated 2,500 lower-income households and—in answer to Mr Rowley’s point, too—to 1,600 small businesses. As I indicated, there is also a further £2 million this year for taxi operators.

Through our bus emission abatement retrofit, which has helped to improve our bus fleet, more than £24 million has been allocated to allow more than 1,100 midlife buses and coaches, operated by 59 different bus coach companies, to be cleaned up to the latest Euro 6 emission standard.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for clarifying the Aberdeen City Council leader’s misunderstandings on flexibility. On that point, crucially, the emissions data that the Aberdeen City Council used to justify imposing the Government’s 2017 LEZ appears to be years out of date, and existing emissions do not seem to come from vehicles anyway. Nevertheless, Aberdeen City Council has spent £1.5 million so far. Can the cabinet secretary tell us more about the performance reports on emissions reductions? Will those reports contain an assessment of whether such reductions outweigh the council’s spend, the negative impact on disabled, older and poorer people, and the devastating impact on Aberdeen’s local businesses?

Fiona Hyslop

I thank Liam Kerr for acknowledging that I have addressed his question on flexibility. To say that emissions from vehicles make no contribution is really overstating it, so I caution against saying that there are no emissions.

The emission zones have been operational for a number of years, allowing time for people to change their vehicles. Therefore, the data that is used would not necessarily be from the year of enforcement but could be from previous years. However, in our next meeting with the four council leads, we will address the point that was previously raised about how we monitor the process.

I also want to dispel the point about the impact, particularly on people with disabilities. I emphasise that blue badge holders can apply for exemptions not just for themselves but for a car that they are driving in, and a scheme has been established to ensure that that happens.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I welcome what the cabinet secretary has said in her statement about lung health. The cross-party group on lung health, which I am co-convener of, has heard evidence on how poor air quality can stunt the growth of children’s lungs, worsen existing lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma and even cause lung cancer. Will research and monitoring continue to be done on how low-emission zones are protecting people against poor lung health?

Fiona Hyslop

That monitoring is very important. I am pleased that Gareth Brown, the chair of the healthy air Scotland coalition and a representative of Asthma and Lung UK Scotland, has made that point. With one in five Scots developing a lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease during their lifetime, air pollution can trigger life-threatening asthma attacks and flare-ups and, as we have heard, children are more susceptible. The public health aspects of the policy are very important. I commend the work that the University of Dundee has done and I would like to see more work being done on the monitoring that Emma Harper has referred to. I pay tribute to her and others in the Parliament for raising the issue of lung disease and the impacts that it could have on people’s daily lives.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

Can the cabinet secretary give an update on what financial support the Scottish Government has offered to councils and small businesses to upgrade their fleets, particularly given the costs of upgrading to electric vehicles? Many councils and businesses want to do that, but there have been challenges in the aftermath of Covid, which impacted many of our small businesses.

Fiona Hyslop

We are very conscious of fleet replacement, both in relation to this issue and more generally in relation to support for an electric fleet. We have already provided funding for councils and we are about to provide more funding for them for fleet replacement, although I am not sure what we can announce at this time. That is an important part of it. The member asked about support for councils; we have supported them on the promotion of the LEZs and their administration. It varies as to which councils have received the money, but they are in the process of receiving the support for the administration of low-emission zones.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution, from when they are in the womb until they reach adulthood. Pollution can cause low birth weight, asthma and reduced lung function, among other things. With the European Environment Agency estimating that more than 1,200 deaths in people who are under 18 are caused by air pollution every year, does the cabinet secretary agree that air quality policies such as LEZs should protect the health of children and young people by explicitly taking into account the differences in their biology and exposure pathways?

Fiona Hyslop

In recent weeks, the contribution from health experts who have helped to explain the difference that LEZs will have for young people has been quite striking. Young people are still developing, so the impacts on them are even more severe. The University of Aberdeen has done some interesting work to look at the cognitive development of babies and children and the impact that air pollution can have on that. Air pollution is firmly in the public health arena. I am pleased that, across the cities, and from different parties, we have support for the policy.

Lorna Slater (Lothian) (Green)

The Scottish Greens welcome the enforcement of Scotland’s low-emission zones. Revenue that is raised by the policy will have a transformational effect in Glasgow, where it will be used to support local, sustainable transport projects. Organisations such as the Cargo Bike Movement in Lothian, which I visited this week, are in desperate need of similar support. The Cargo Bike Movement not only uses cargo bikes to redistribute food to those who need it but loans and rents those bikes to the community, so that people can transport goods in a low-carbon way. What can the Scottish Government do to ensure that the revenue from the new LEZ schemes will be redistributed as quickly as possible to organisations that are doing great work to get people out of their cars and on to bikes?

Fiona Hyslop

I commend the work of the organisation that Lorna Slater has referred to. I emphasise that the LEZs are a public health measure and are not for revenue raising. She is correct in saying that any revenues that are raised are required to be spent on transport and improvement measures that are chosen by local authorities. However, we want to be in a situation in which the schemes do not raise revenue and in which fewer penalty charge notices are issued because we have made improvements in the number of people coming into LEZ enforcement areas. I am keen to ensure that we pursue the policy for public health reasons, rather than to raise revenue.

Joe FitzPatrick (Dundee City West) (SNP)

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will join me in commending the fantastic work that Dundee City Council has been undertaking to electrify its vehicle fleet and support the increase in the number of electric taxis and buses in the city. It is, of course, early days for the LEZs in Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, but is the cabinet secretary aware of any significant problems with compliance or early impacts on people travelling to and around Scotland’s city centres? Does the cabinet secretary share my concerns that the interests of the Tories, rather than being concerned about people’s health, appear to be entirely connected with the upcoming general election?

Fiona Hyslop

Joe FitzPatrick has made his point. As a minister in the pre-election period, I will not comment on the latter part of his question.

It is early days, but the feedback from local authorities and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is positive. We are not aware of any operational, camera or enforcement systems issues. The first penalty charge notices are expected to land on doormats by the end of this week.

I join Joe FitzPatrick in commending the work of Dundee City Council. It has been replacing its fleets and ensuring that, through licensing, its taxis are modernised—for lots of different reasons, not least for EV use and for people with disabilities. I am very interested in how Dundee has carried out that exercise. Each local authority has developed its own scheme and has engaged with local communities on its own terms, which is as it should be. We are confident that, if we can improve the air quality in our cities, we will improve not only the quality of public health but the quality of life for those who live, work and visit there.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The cabinet secretary referred to engagement with local communities, and she is absolutely right to point to the importance of allowing local flexibility. She will be aware that residents in Orkney and Shetland often arrive in Aberdeen by ferry, sometimes for hospital appointments at the Aberdeen royal infirmary. What would her expectation be of the level of consultation and awareness raising on how people from Orkney and Shetland arriving in Aberdeen might engage with or, indeed, avoid the low-emission zones?

Fiona Hyslop

I am aware that, for some time, there has been pre-promotion by the northern isles ferry service, in particular, to ensure that people who have been using that service are being presented with information on what happens when people come into Aberdeen harbour. There is also signage around Aberdeen harbour to make sure that people are aware of where they can go.

The geography of the city centre LEZs are, on average, a square mile. It varies from city to city. In the end, between 1 and 2 per cent of the whole city environment has been affected by the measure. Of course, that is the part of the city that is most congested and where the air quality issues have historically been more problematic. We need to improve the air quality for public health reasons, as it is affecting those who live there and children in particular.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

The ministerial team has given its full backing to the low-emission zone in Scotland’s capital, which might also reduce traffic volumes and tackle congestion across Edinburgh.

Will the Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity give his backing to a project that is estimated to remove half a million cars during the central belt rush hour—a project that will be more beneficial to achieving our net zero goals than Edinburgh’s low-emission zone—and build a station in Winchburgh?

Fiona Hyslop

As Cabinet Secretary for Transport, I will be answering the question. I think that Sue Webber has been a member long enough to know that it is the same minister who answers questions as presents the statement.

I am a great champion of Winchburgh in my capacity as a back-bench MSP, and I have been for many years. As I said in committee just yesterday, I was instrumental in bringing all the players together to make sure that we got further on than we would have been otherwise. I am delighted that my colleague Mr Fairlie will be taking on that issue.

Sue Webber makes an important point. If we are to tackle congestion in cities—not just in the city centre but over wider areas—it is the people of East Lothian, Midlothian and West Lothian who have to be supported in relation to how they travel into cities. On that point, I agree with her.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I wonder whether the cabinet secretary agrees with Dr Richard Dixon when he says, in today’s Scotsman, that the successful introduction of low-emission zones in Scotland has been

“Despite a certain amount of nervousness and political parties playing games”,

which shows that

“politicians can be bolder when introducing environmental measures.”

He goes on to say that a survey found that

“3 times as many people in Scotland support LEZs as oppose them.”

Therefore, does the cabinet secretary agree that the public has more appetite for well-designed environmental measures?

Fiona Hyslop

I do, indeed, and I recognise the recent opinion polls that show that vast majority of support from the public for such measures.

I regret any party political positioning around that, but I also reiterate that our most successful policies are those on which we all come together across the parties. That is the leadership that the people of Scotland want.

Of course, we are not alone, because 320 towns and cities across Europe—an increase of 40 per cent since 2019—have introduced such vehicle access restriction schemes. Those countries include Germany, Italy, Denmark, the Czech Republic, France and Portugal, and England has clear air zones in Bath, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Portsmouth, Sheffield and Tyneside.

The public are looking to us to collectively push forward pro-public health and pro-environmental policies, and to do so in a way that takes everyone with us.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

Not all disabled people have blue badges, and often the only accessible public transport that is available to them is taxis, which many rely on to get to work or appointments or to see family and friends.

In Glasgow, despite the extension that the cabinet secretary has mentioned, 246 taxi drivers still need help to comply, because they have not been able to access the funds or mechanics to do what is needed. The result is that one in five drivers will hand back their licence, which will impact many people in the region, including, disproportionately, disabled people.

I support the aspirations of a low-emission zone, but the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council have to address that issue. What more can the cabinet secretary do to help the remaining 246 taxi drivers to stay in work? If she will not take further action on that, will she set out how she expects disabled people to get around Glasgow with fewer taxis available to take them?

Fiona Hyslop

Pam Duncan-Glancy has consistently raised that issue with me. The purpose of the statement is to recognise the flexibility that each local authority has to make changes, which she acknowledges. As we have reflected, Glasgow City Council has exempted another 202 taxis, which brings the total to 1,100 that are available for use. That is my understanding, and I will correct the record if I am wrong about that total.

As Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and my local authority have done, Glasgow has to recognise that all black cabs must have disability access. There is a variability between local authorities in the licensing that is required so that people with disabilities can use taxis when they need to. That needs to be the focus, rather than the LEZs.

That concludes the ministerial statement. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business, to allow front-bench teams to change positions.