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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 27 September 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Air Quality, City of Culture Bids (Paisley and Dundee), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Levenmouth Rail Link


Air Quality

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Roseanna Cunningham on air quality, delivering improvements for public health and the environment. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

Overall, Scotland’s air quality is good, but we have a number of localised hotspots in some of our towns and cities where additional action is required. We are working closely with local authorities and other partners to tackle those. We are very clear on our vision for air quality in Scotland: we want Scotland’s to be the best in Europe.

Air pollution remains a significant public health and social justice issue. Improving air quality is important for the contribution that it makes to everyone’s quality of life. For some groups in society—the very young and old, and those with respiratory and cardiovascular conditions—it is even more fundamental. There is no doubt that improving air quality will result in improved health, while also delivering more attractive places for living, working and enjoying recreation.

The evidence on health impacts shows that poor air quality reduces average life expectancy in Scotland by three to four months. Although that may be lower than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, it is still unacceptable, so action is required. The cleaner air for Scotland strategy sets out an ambitious work programme to deliver further air quality improvements.

Earlier this year, the first national clean air day was successfully staged. During it, we published the first cleaner air for Scotland progress report, setting out actions that have already been delivered and the current status of other actions to enhance our air quality. In that strategy, we set out our ambition for low-emission zones to be in place by 2020. We have since stepped up that ambition significantly.

LEZs set minimum emission standards for vehicle access to a defined area. We want LEZs to help us achieve, and go beyond, statutory air quality requirements. In particular, we believe that LEZs should focus on nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, which are two pollutants of special concern for human health. In last year’s programme for government, we committed to put in place the first LEZ by 2018. In this year’s programme, we have gone further and have committed to establishing LEZs in each of our four biggest cities between 2018 and 2020. By 2023, that will be extended into other air quality management areas where the national low-emission framework demonstrates their value. Delivering multiple LEZs across Scotland is ambitious. It represents the largest-ever programme of transport-based air quality mitigation in Scotland.

We are also working to further improve air quality by reducing vehicle exhaust emissions. The programme for government sets a bold new ambition on ultra-low-emission vehicles, including electric cars and vans, with a target of phasing out the need for petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032.

We will expand the electric vehicle charging network, support innovative approaches and encourage the public sector to lead the way. The ambition is underpinned by our recently published action plan “Switched On Scotland Phase Two”, and it builds on the range of incentives that we already provide to local authorities, businesses and individuals.

Delivery of those ambitions requires clear structures to maximise the benefits of this partnership. We have engaged with Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils to establish LEZ delivery groups. We have also contacted Aberdeen and Dundee city councils to discuss how similar groups could be established for their cities. The delivery groups will be supported by an independent senior scientific practitioner, who will offer a critical challenge function around the delivery of LEZs.

We will also create an LEZ leadership group across the four cities to ensure that knowledge sharing happens in a co-ordinated and constructive way, so that nationally consistent standards are applied and lessons shared. That will be a ministerially led group and, with the Minister for Transport and the Islands, I have written to invite those councils to join the group.

The decision on LEZ locations and design will be led by local authorities, in partnership with the Scottish Government and regional transport partnerships. I look forward to announcing shortly where the first LEZ will be. That will build on that council’s assessment of the evidence base that has been developed in partnership with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Transport Scotland. I know that councils are supportive of that evidence—both in assessing needs and in supporting their assessment of community and business engagement in demonstrating benefits. That evidence will be critical in determining which types of vehicles should be restricted and when. Each area will have its own specific requirements.

On 6 September we launched the LEZ consultation; it is open until 28 November. The consultation gives us the opportunity to seek views and opinions from business, the general public and other interested parties on issues that will shape our LEZ guiding principles. Those principles will ultimately aid local authorities in the design, establishment and operation of Scottish LEZs in a consistent manner.

Initial media reports suggested that there would be an immediate banning of cars and buses in 2018. That was inaccurate and misleading, and it missed many of the key points that we need to get across about benefits and managing change.

We are proposing that local authorities identify specific vehicle types that would not be allowed to enter an LEZ. That would mean that such vehicles would be subject to a financial penalty if they illegally entered a zone. We want to avoid such breaches. That is quite different from the approach that is used in other parts of the UK, where a road charge can be paid to enter. The road pricing idea is not the approach that is being suggested for Scotland.

Stakeholder engagement during the consultation’s development made it very clear that there is a need for robust lead-in periods. Lead-in times will allow commercial fleet operators and private vehicle owners time to prepare and manage the change as part of fleet management. The proposal is that a lead-in period will start once a local authority has declared an LEZ design and location, and it will run for a period after the LEZ is established. European LEZs have set variable time frames for lead-in periods, typically lasting from one to four years. We want to hear the views of a wide range of stakeholders on those very important and practical issues.

A phased introduction of vehicle types to be included in each LEZ is expected. Local authorities may decide to include private cars—as is their right—at some point if they believe that such emission sources are significant enough to warrant inclusion. The precise arrangements will be in city-specific design plans.

I would like to draw particular attention to our bus sector, which has been and will continue to be an integral partner in assisting the Government to improve air quality. Buses are a key solution to our air quality challenges, offering commuters an alternative to the private car. They are not villains—clean, low-emission buses are an opportunity. By encouraging behaviour change that moves people out of cars and into efficient and low-emission buses, we will help to reduce congestion and emissions at the same time. Those things must go hand in hand. The first LEZ will act as a case study in how the two issues can interact.

We will shortly announce the winners of the seventh round of the Scottish green bus fund, which will bring forward another 47 low-emission buses. Beyond that, the programme for government outlined our ambition to extend Government support to accelerate the industry’s move towards buying the lowest-emitting buses. Those new buses mean a step change in emissions performance, with a better offer for passengers, thereby making buses an attractive mode of choice.

In the short term, to address the air quality challenge, we are exploring options to support the sector this financial year. Support will be targeted at bus retrofitting. We are engaging with the sector, so that we can better understand the technological opportunities and challenges that retrofitting will bring.

LEZs should interact with a host of other transport polices, including action to tackle congestion, to support modal shift towards more active travel and public transport, to deliver climate change mitigation, and to support planners in making our towns and cities more pleasant spaces in which to live, work and spend leisure time.

LEZs will be designed on the basis of clear evidence that identifies the air quality issues in a given location and the specific vehicle types that cause air pollution. That will enable the size of the zone and the delivery requirements to be determined and established.

We are conscious that, in designing LEZs, potential knock-on effects must be considered. We must be alive to the displacement of air pollution to other areas. We must ensure that LEZs are delivered in an equitable manner, with consideration being given to equality issues, particularly for communities who rely on public transport to move around our towns and cities.

On funding, investment will be considered in the forthcoming spending review. Costs that are associated with LEZs, such as enforcement costs and retrofitting grants, will depend on the type and scale of the LEZs, as decided by the local authorities.

We need the views of a wide range of people across Scotland. I ask members to highlight the opportunities that well-designed LEZs bring and to encourage their constituents to respond to “Building Scotland’s Low Emission Zones: A Consultation”. The public are a key partner in our work to promote air quality and will be the principal beneficiary.

The Presiding Officer

We have around 20 minutes for questions.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for giving members prior sight of her statement.

The Scottish Conservatives broadly welcome many of the proposals in the programme for government on reducing air pollution, which present a positive and constructive step forward. However, we think that the plans fall short of expectations and need to go further.

The Scottish Conservatives take an ambitious and bold approach to reducing air pollution, for example by expanding the network of air quality monitors, in particular by introducing them in primary schools.

Last year, I met the Minister for Transport and the Islands to discuss the establishment of urban consolidation hubs, which are an essential component of low-emission zones in that they remove, in a commercially feasible way, the requirement for freight to enter city centres. Glasgow airport would be an ideal location for such a centre, and I urge the Government to consider the idea. What support is being provided to local authorities and businesses on the creation of urban consolidation hubs?

Roseanna Cunningham

The member has raised urban consolidation hubs previously and, as he said, he is having meetings—constructive ones, I hope—with the transport minister on the matter.

Some of the issues are for local authorities to consider. We are trying to empower local authorities to move ahead with what they consider to be the most appropriate approach for their areas, and we are providing support—I indicated that support will become available through the budget process this year and next year. I imagine that there is bound to be consideration of transport hubs, where appropriate. Currently, the Government is not specifying where hubs might be appropriate; we expect there to be communication, which will allow us to develop a network of hubs, where they might be useful, if they are considered to be required. I am sure that the member and others will have a continuing conversation with the transport minister in that regard.

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement.

The key issue across the chamber is how we improve air quality. Scotland has failed to meet European air quality targets in Glasgow, and across our cities and towns there are hotspots of air pollution that adversely affect the health of our children, the elderly and the ill. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that Scotland is on track to meet the initial 2018 low-emission zone target, and can she reassure the Parliament that the 2020 target, which has just been announced, will be met as well? What is the budget for the air quality fund? Will LEZs have vehicle-recognition software such as is used in London to detect buses and heavy goods vehicles that breach the Euro 6 emissions standards?

Roseanna Cunningham

The member’s last point is important when it comes to the consideration of funding. When LEZs are brought into being, it is important that they are workable and manageable, and we must plan for them in advance in order to achieve them. Until we know where the LEZs are to be and what those local authorities are seeking to do in the short, medium and longer terms, it is difficult to give precise answers on the issue of funding. An LEZ in one city might look very different from an LEZ in another city. We have talked about a roll-out beyond the four major cities after 2020, and we expect a variety of different plans to be produced.

The discussions about the first LEZ are active and on-going. We are in active conversation with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, which are the four cities in which we are looking to have LEZs by 2020. Beyond that, a decision will have to be made about the air quality management areas and whether low-emission zones should be rolled out in those. We will have to consider precisely what is being asked for in each location before we will know the precise figures that will go with that.

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

I wonder what role the Scottish Government sees for green infrastructure in tackling poor air quality. Urban greenery not only helps to reduce the amount of atmospheric pollutants that people are exposed to but contributes to biodiversity. I recognise that placing an increased emphasis on that would require a shift in planning policy to the extent that “shoulds” would become “musts”. Does the Government see a place for that in supplementing the measures that were noted in the cabinet secretary’s statement?

Roseanna Cunningham

Everybody probably agrees that improving air quality in towns and cities offers many important advantages. Public health is our first priority in that area, but such measures can also make our towns and cities more attractive places to live.

When I was last in this job, we began progress on the central Scotland green network, and an explicit part of the work on the central Scotland green network was that it would, among other things, provide attractive places for businesses and employers, who look for a range of amenity when they seek to invest, to come to. It is incredibly important that we remind ourselves that there are other benefits to be had from improving air quality in Scotland, reducing the level of pollutants and ensuring that our cities are greener and more pleasant places to live. Reducing the risk of flooding is also part and parcel of that. Those are all planning issues and perfectly valid issues that planners can take on board.

If members are not aware of the central Scotland green network, I urge them to make themselves aware of it. It is a big example of how important green infrastructure can be in tackling not just air quality but a whole range of things.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Research by the British Lung Foundation has noted:

“Children growing up in areas of severe air pollution have been shown to be five times more likely to have poor lung development”.

Will the cabinet secretary commit to working in collaboration with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport in that area? What specific action will she take to ensure that the impact of air pollution on the health of Scotland’s children is reduced?

Roseanna Cunningham

I have said that health is one of the key drivers when we are looking to improve air quality, although there are other benefits. I am grateful to the British Heart Foundation for endorsing our approach. There is recognition that what we are trying hard to produce benefits the health of all of our population regardless of age. The member is right to talk about young people but, of course, it is not just the young who are affected—the elderly and those who have pre-existing conditions can be badly hit by poor air quality, too. Those are the three most vulnerable groups that we expect local authorities to look at when considering how to take forward LEZs. Indeed, they must be a key part of their considerations.

The member’s reference to children could take me on to a discussion about air quality monitoring around schools. I am not sure whether the member wanted me to cover that topic, but I will say that our monitoring programme is sufficiently robust to pick up any issues around schools. We would expect the schools issue to be part of any consideration that a local authority might make on a LEZ.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

My question is a bit similar to Donald Cameron’s question. Will the cabinet secretary expand on whether concerns about emissions of particulates and nitrogen dioxide, which cause irritation of the respiratory system and exacerbate existing conditions in vulnerable individuals, including kids, were part of the reasoning behind the plans to establish more low-emission zones?

Roseanna Cunningham

I thank the member for her question—it is perfectly legitimate for people to want to emphasise the public health aspects. In my previous response to Donald Cameron, I meant to say that I am working with those in the health portfolio, and the impact of air pollution on health has been flagged up to them as a very serious issue. I have had conversations with consultants and commended them to my colleagues in health in order to ensure that they are aware of some of the same things that we are conscious of.

Emma Harper asked about those who are suffering from existing cardiovascular problems. One of our slight difficulties is that, although there is information about health, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, which made the original estimation that particulate matter shortens a person’s life in Scotland by three to four months, has warned that there are uncertainties with the statistics, and it is concerned that they should not be used as the basis for public policy interventions. Of course, it is very difficult to ignore the information that we have from the committee.

I think we can conclude that any measures that improve air quality at a population level would have a positive impact on public health. That instinctively feels like the right place to be. However, we are unable to break down the information to a regional or local level and capture the public health impacts of individual measures, such as LEZs. That information is not available to us yet.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased that the cabinet secretary recognises that, if we want to improve air quality, we need to see a modal shift towards buses. The cabinet secretary will be aware that, since the Scottish National Party came to power in 2007, the number of bus passenger journeys has fallen by 78 million and that almost 70 million vehicle kilometres have been stripped out of the bus network. We are not going to get people on buses if there are no buses for them to get on, and we are not going to get people on buses if fares continue to rise.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that the Government should not take decisions that could lead to increases in bus fares? Does she see that we need bus regulation to provide the public transport system that the public need?

Roseanna Cunningham

As one of the members of Parliament who uses buses, I—along with everyone else who uses buses—am understandably of the view that I would always want to have the widest possible availability of bus routes while not being charged too much. We are in a situation where a lot of the decisions are being made by bus companies, and an active conversation about the situation is going on in many local places.

I am sure that Neil Bibby has raised the particular issues with buses with the Minister for Transport and the Islands. I know that we do not want LEZs to feed through to what might be seen as a negative impact on buses. We have committed quite a lot of funding to the various bus companies to ensure that they can make the shift that they need to make towards the use of more efficient vehicles. We do not want to end up in a situation where those costs are fed through to passengers. A lot of progress is being made.

Although that might not answer the bigger, more ideological question that the member asked, I am sure that he would expect us to be aware of the potential dangers and to have them at the forefront of our minds when we have those discussions at local authority level.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

On behalf of the Greens, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement, but the fact that—as has been acknowledged—it can take up to four years to roll out an LEZ perhaps suggests that the statement is three years too late.

I want to ask the cabinet secretary about funding for the LEZ work. In the summer, the UK Government announced that an additional £200 million would be spent on tackling nitrous oxide at the roadside. The Scottish Government is putting only £2 million into council work on air quality. Will every last penny of the Barnett consequentials that will come from that £200 million be spent on tackling nitrous oxide in Scotland and, as a result of that, saving lives?

Roseanna Cunningham

I think that the Government has a good record in this area. I appreciate that Mark Ruskell might have wanted all the action that we are taking to have been taken not just three but 10 or 15 years ago, but the fact is that we are taking it now. We have better air quality than the rest of the UK does. There have been big achievements. Considerable funding has been put into areas that will affect air quality, and that will continue to be the case.

I indicated that there will be budget discussions about low-emission zones. I will not comment on Barnett consequentials—as I am sure Mark Ruskell knows, it would be more relevant to put that issue to my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution. At the moment, we are considering LEZ funding in the context of the forthcoming spending review. We recognise that it is an additional cost pressure, but we will definitely consider it. The extent of the cost will be influenced by LEZ sizes. As far as the global amounts are concerned, I am sure that Derek Mackay would be happy to engage with Mr Ruskell on that more strategic issue of funding.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing early sight of her statement and for much of its content, and for reiterating my call for not just the expansion of the electric vehicle network but efforts to improve its reliability, not least through better and more timely maintenance.

What assurances can the cabinet secretary provide that progress on LEZs in Scotland’s four largest cities will not undermine investment, support and focus on initiatives in other parts of the country—our rural as well as our urban areas?

Roseanna Cunningham

That is a separate area of funding and a separate area of conversation. I am conscious that other announcements have been made about electric vehicles—I mentioned some of them in my statement—the effect of which will apply right across Scotland and will not be confined to those parts of the country with LEZs. There are a number of issues surrounding the move towards greater use of electric cars and vans.

I think that Orkney got a special mention with regard to electric buses—I am looking to Mr McArthur to confirm that that is correct. I am glad that he endorses my recollection. That is a good illustration of the fact that the issue is one for the whole of the country. We will see electric vehicles in rural as well as urban areas, despite people assuming that they are really a matter for cities rather than country areas.

The Presiding Officer

We are a little tighter for time than I originally envisaged that we would be, but if we are quick, we will get a few more questions in.

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

Following on from that last question, the cabinet secretary mentioned that there are localised emission hotspots in some of our towns and cities, some of which are in Falkirk district, and we know that the majority of such emissions that contribute to ill health come from cars and light vans. Notwithstanding her reply to Liam McArthur, can the cabinet secretary set out how the Government is encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles, thereby reducing vehicle exhaust emissions, and does she agree that that makes our cities more attractive places to live, work and visit, which is ultimately good for business and our economy?

Roseanna Cunningham

Indeed—the answer to the final point is yes. I am sure that other members noted the list of Scottish air quality monitoring sites that was published by Friends of the Earth back in January 2017, with what we might describe as its dirty top 10. It was actually eight for nitrogen dioxide and six for particulate matter, including some that might surprise those people who assume that it is an urban or big city problem—it is not. Some of the places on the list, particularly for particulates, were not in big cities—I know that, because one of them is in my constituency—and that would probably come as a surprise to many people.

Localised emission hotspots come from a variety of vehicle sources. It is not always the case that the majority of those emissions come from cars and light vans, which is often the first assumption. That is why I mentioned some of the more surprising admissions to the list. There is no doubt that the uptake of electric vehicles and clean modern petrol and diesel will make our cities more attractive places to live, work and visit.

I have talked about the programme for government and the bold new ambition on ultra-low-emission vehicles, including electric cars and vans. We will support that approach with the expansion of the ChargePlace Scotland charging network and by encouraging the public sector to lead the way on electric vehicles. That is an important point to make—we in the public sector can be leaders on that. In a sense, it really is about us being in a place that says “Do as we do”, not “Do as we say.”

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary says that local authorities will ultimately be responsible for designing their own LEZs. That could lead to a situation in which we have a number of separate rules and regulations. It is businesses that operate many of the vehicles that might be affected by the restrictions and those businesses operate in multiple zones. Does the cabinet secretary recognise the potential confusion that might arise from a multiple regulatory environment? How will she find a balance between achieving the positive change in air quality that we all want and not causing any substantial detrimental effect to our cities’ economies?

Roseanna Cunningham

When we are talking about different designs in different parts of the country, the key to Jamie Greene’s legitimate concern is the consultation that is on-going and the development of the national low-emission framework, within which we will operate. That development will be supported by the work of the cleaner air for Scotland governance group—that is the first LEZ. It will be designed in a manner consistent with the national discussion on the NLEF, and we will use the experience of putting in place the first LEZ to inform that national low-emission framework. In a sense, we are already looking forward to how we can ensure that there is a broad framework within which LEZs will be created, which will still allow local authorities to make the more individuated decisions that they will require to make to deal with their local circumstances.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you. I apologise to members who did not get their questions in. We must move to our next debate.