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Thérèse Coffey: “It’s important to keep improving air quality – we know the challenges air pollution poses”

Geoff Lyons

7 min read

Appointed environment minister just after the EU referendum, Thérèse Coffey has had an unenviable workload over the last two-and-a-half years. Her department is one of the busiest in its Brexit preparations, much of which revolves around trying to fill the void left by EU environmental law. But that only seems to galvanize the Suffolk MP, who sits down with Geoffrey Lyons to talk about the government’s plans to reduce air pollution and devise a new framework for environmental governance after Brexit

The environment ranks high among the few issues that have managed to pierce through the Brexit fog in recent months. In early October, while the press was busy speculating about the prime minister’s efforts to woo Labour MPs into backing her ill-fated Brexit deal, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published an earth-shattering report detailing the consequences of warming the planet more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. It was a brief if sobering reminder that, whatever Britain’s fate in the coming months and years, there’s still a planet that needs looking after.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) hasn’t lost sight of that, despite having perhaps the best excuse to be distracted by Brexit. According to the Institute for Government, a think tank, the department has grown by more than 65% since the EU referendum in order to deal with a swelling workload. It’s tied with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the number of “technical notices” that have been published detailing Brexit preparations, and it claims over a fifth of the more than 300 Brexit workstreams across Whitehall.

Yet however stretched it may be, Defra certainly can’t be accused of buckling under the pressure. Just before Christmas it published its Draft Environment Principles and Governance Bill, a blueprint for maintaining high environmental standards after Britain leaves the EU, and barely two weeks into the New Year launched an ambitious Clean Air Strategy that aims to drastically scale down air pollution.

“People can say what they want about ministers, but they’re busy people,” an aide to Defra minister Thérèse Coffey says as The House waits in a space marked “ministerial waiting area.” It’s just past 5pm on the day the Clean Air Strategy was launched, and Coffey’s been in back-to-back meetings since the early morning. When she can finally spare a few minutes to talk, there’s little sign of fatigue.

“We think it’s important to keep improving air quality,” she says forcefully, looking up from a sheaf of papers that appear to be sections of the Draft Environment Bill. “There’s been a genuine move across government to recognize the challenges that air pollution poses.”

In pursuing the Strategy, which aims to cut societal costs of air pollution by £1.7bn annually by 2020, rising to £5.3bn annually from 2030, the UK became the first major economy to adapt air quality goals based on World Health Organization recommendations. Coffey agrees this is an important milestone but is not yet something to boast about.

“We’re conscious that we’re currently breaching our own law on this,” she says, referring to the government’s failure to meet EU limits on roadside NO2 concentrations (for which the European Commission has sued the UK), “but we recognize the challenge that air pollution has and we’re working not just in one sector but in several to make a change.”

Coffey sees the WHO guidelines as a “challenge,” a way for the UK to rise above the conventional approach to air pollution as a purely domestic issue. “We’re all part of what’s called the Gothenburg Protocol,” she says, referring to a transboundary pollution protocol that includes 25 states plus the European Union, “so there’s a transnational boundary situation.” And even if there were no Gothenburg Protocol, Coffey says that “particulate matter” – tiny particles in the air that are one of five major pollutants addressed by the Clean Air Strategy – can “blow over” from other countries. “That’s why we need to continue to work with other nations on this,” she says.

But the real work literally starts at home. According to the Strategy, nearly 40% of the UK’s primary emissions of fine particulate matter is emitted in homes by burning wood and coal in open fires and stoves. The devilish thing about particulates is they’re toxic. If a particulate is smaller than 10 micrometers, it can bypass nose and mucus filtration and eventually lodge itself in a lung, which some studies have shown can lead to “chronic adverse effects” on lung development in children.

Coffey’s department, in collaboration with the Department for Education, has published data showing that 42% of pupils are currently attending schools in areas that breach WHO limits for the most dangerous particulates. The issue hit the headlines again last week, when the mother of a young girl whose death may have been linked to air pollution won the right for a fresh inquest. As Coffey points out, there’s a reason the Environment Secretary launched the Strategy with the Health Secretary by his side.

“More and more claims are being made every day about a correlation between pollution and an increase in diseases,” she says. “We don’t yet have the evidence to fully back that up, but we do know that there’s a clear link with vulnerable people in particular.” Addressing the 40% of particulate emissions emanating from stoves, Coffey says these are “big numbers” that can be tackled by making “small changes” to consumer behaviour. “Part of our plan is to help consumers with their choices by phasing out the sale of the most polluting solid fuels that we have,” she says. “And that’s something we intend to put in our Environment Bill.”

Coffey is eager, too, to talk about the draft bill, which has been slightly overshadowed by the strategy’s launch. Providing a skeleton framework for environmental governance after Brexit, it’s comprised of three main elements: the establishment of environmental principles to guide policymaking, the creation of a legal requirement for the government to set out plans for improving the environment, and, controversially, the formulation of a “world-leading, statutory and independent environment body,” the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will “take action where necessary” to ensure environmental law is followed.

There are two main criticisms to the proposed OEP, the first being that it lacks teeth. Coffey’s own predecessor for Suffolk Coastal said as much to The House in October. “We need [a watchdog],” said John Gummer, “but it needs to have the powers to hold the government to account. Does anyone really think the government would be doing anything about air quality if it weren’t that you can be fined by the European Union?”

Relishing the opportunity to respond to Gummer, Coffey says that the OEP is intended to have “a similar enforcement role” to what the European Commission currently has today. “Just like the Commission, [the OEP’s] last act is to take the government to court,” she says. “That’s very much our intention, and I think that’s set out very clearly in the draft clauses.”

The second charge against the OEP is that it lacks independence. This stems from a section in the draft bill that puts funding for the body at the discretion of the Secretary of State. Coffey swiftly counters that there’s another section, which she has printed out and highlighted, requiring the OEP to put out a “statement of accounts” detailing whether or not it has been given sufficient funding. “They’ll basically have to say, ‘we’ve had enough funding or we haven’t,’ and I’m sure the government of the day wouldn’t want to be embarrassed by the body saying, ‘we haven’t got any money.’”

Coffey displays the sort of rigour and precision in her responses that one might find extraordinary were it not known she holds a PhD in Chemistry. But that doesn’t mean she’s all business. More than one online biography indicates that she’s an avid Muse fan, which she confirms by claiming “Origin of Symmetry” to be their best studio album. “My favourite track is Plug In Baby,” she says. “I think because it’s the most guitar-led.” This despite her inability to play the guitar, which she says is a “great sadness” in her life. But what Coffey lacks in guitar skills she more than offsets by helping to run one of government’s busiest departments during arguably the greatest peacetime challenge the country has ever faced. Surely that counts for something.

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