|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 274has already been done and that money will go into the pockets of developers rather than of those who have undertaken long-term programmes.
Arguments have been made about housing. Most of the 800 units would not fall into an estate agent's definition of desirable residences because they have already been sold off or are too expensive. We should like local authorities or housing associations to be given priority in improving those houses.
Other land falls into the category of miscellaneous open spaces. Hon. Friends have already referred to the importance of the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation and the National Playing Fields Association being involved in sports and social clubs. Many representations were made from Nottingham, especially in Committee. We have discussed allotments, but we need to consider other land that may not be attractive to commercial purchasers--unrestored tips and spoils that have not been properly dealt with but which should be given to people who know how to treat them. In the main, those are public sector authorities or local authorities. If they are to be given that land, they should be given proper financial help to enable them to meet their environmental responsibilities.
Some land is obviously contaminated and is being used for tipping and so on. Whoever assumes ownership of that land--I imagine that it would be attractive only to local authorities and the public sector in general-- should be given proper resources to ensure that the monitoring of that polluted and contaminated land is conducted properly.
Some land will be dealt with according to the Moynihan guidelines. That undertaking was given by a previous Minister, and we want to ensure that the land will be properly accounted for.
This sale of land is one of the biggest sales that we have experienced in this country. It covers the agricultural sector, and working farmers who plan to continue their activities for some time need time to tackle their contractual problems.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has identified another small group--elderly farmers who perhaps want only another four or five years on the land before they retire. British Coal Properties and the Government owe a responsibility to those men. They should be treated appropriately and should not be hounded into making a decision. They are a special case, and should be given an extension of the lease to allow them to finish their working lives, to contribute to the agricultural well-being of the country. We also want to ensure that tenant farmers, on whose land opencast mining is taking place, are given proper protection and guarantees that the rehabilitation of that land will be carried through with the rigour that was characteristic of the former owner, British Coal. People tend to forget that many of the tenancies were granted on the basis that opencast mining would take place. Opencast mining is being carried out in several places at the moment, but people are worried that, when it is completed, there will not be proper provision to ensure that the rehabilitation is to the standards that British Coal used to set.
Column 275I mentioned industrial development, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) gave examples from his region. Throughout the United Kingdom, there are anxieties about profiteering and about lost opportunities for the public sector to carry on the work that would attract RECHAR and ERDF funding, which would not be open to the private sector.
We want guarantees about the miscellaneous open spaces that could be swept under the carpet, the sports and social facilities, the allotments and the land that no one wants but which will require care and treatment beyond the responsibilities that the Coal Authority will have when it assumes ownership--no doubt when British Coal Properties and British Coal have washed their hands of it. We welcome the opportunity that we have had for a debate this morning. In some respects, such debates are ideally suited to this format, although I wish that there had been more constructive comments from both sides of the House on the issue.
We are discussing communities that have suffered as a consequence of the run-down of the coal industry--a run-down of which the Government are at the centre, and for which they are largely to blame. We want to ensure that the last stages of disposal of the land are carried out humanely, in a way that will result in the economic regeneration of those communities, which have been scarred by the way in which the Government have run away from their responsibilities to coalfield communities.
This is the Government's chance. This is the Minister's opportunity, and we wait with interest to hear what he has to say.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy (Mr. Charles Wardle): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on obtaining the debate. I agree that it is an important subject, as was obvious from the contributions to the debate. I share the feeling that there is much to discuss in such a short debate. I shall try to answer hon. Members' arguments in my general remarks, but if I do not answer all of them I shall write as soon as possible to hon. Members.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) for his thoughtful contribution. I am aware of the interest of my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) and of the interest of many Opposition Members, who have intervened or made contributions.
I shall begin by putting the issue of British Coal's remaining property portfolio in the more general context of the privatisation of the coal industry. For several years, it has been the Government's intention that the industry should return to the private sector--after expenditure of taxpayers' money of £20,000 million since 1979, either to cover losses or to help restructure the industry. We believe that in the private sector the industry will best be able to build on British Coal's substantial progress in productivity and efficiency in recent years and to secure its place in the competitive energy market.
As the House will know, the Government completed the sale of mining businesses last December. That represents a significant achievement in returning one of
Column 276our major industries to the private sector. The sale of British Coal's mining assets has laid firm foundations for the industry's future, but a number of other activities remain in British Coal's ownership for the time being. The residual property portfolio is only one among a number of what one might call the ancillary undertakings of the corporation, and British Coal has been pursuing a policy of disposing of its subsidiary businesses and activities with some success. I could explain what they are, but I shall move on because time is pressing.
Privatisation--whether of the mining businesses by the Government or of its own undertakings by British Coal--is bringing to an end a period of nearly 50 years in which coal has been a nationalised industry. The history of coal in this country goes back, of course, much further than that. In the course of its long life, the coal industry has acquired property for a variety of purposes, in many different areas across the country.
The property portfolio is extremely diverse, and hon. Members may find it interesting to take a look at the background of British Coal's current holdings. Some land that the corporation still owns was acquired as the property of the existing colliery companies at the time of nationalisation. Many sites have been acquired by British Coal with a view to possible future operational use. Some of the land is affected by subsidence, contamination or dereliction. Offices and other buildings, farms, woodland and recreational land are just some of the other categories of property that the corporation has built up over the years.
The portfolio has not been static. Some land, closely associated with continuing mining operations, has already transferred to the successor mining companies as part of the sale. Some land, which is likely to be used for, or in connection with, coal mining operations has been transferred to the Coal Authority. The Coal Authority, of course, is the newly established public sector organisation which, in addition to handling certain historic liabilities such as subsidence, deals with the licensing of future coal mining operations, and it will be able to make its land available for that purpose. In addition to those properties that have already been transferred elsewhere, British Coal Properties has, for a number of years and with a good deal of success, pursued commercial sales of land that the corporation has not needed for operational purposes. In each of the past three years, sales have amounted to £30 million. However, even after that exercise, there is a large and diverse portfolio for which British Coal remains responsible. Altogether 7,000 properties remain in British Coal's ownership --making, in total, holdings of almost 150,000 acres. Opposition Members have emphasised the importance of carefully assessing the options for the portfolio's future. That is precisely what British Coal and the Government are doing, in the light of the many factors at work--not least of which is the need to ensure that value for money is obtained when properties are sold.
Mr. Redmond: Will the Minister make it clear that the value of the land is the current value, not what it might be in future? If it is agricultural land, it must be sold at agricultural prices, not at prices based on the prospect of any possible development plans, and it must be clearly defined as green belt land.
Column 277to agricultural land, housing and recreational land--many of the issues that the hon. Member for Sherwood and other Labour Members rightly raised.
The need for continuing responsible ownership and management is clearly crucial to existing tenants of British Coal Properties who will want to be assured that the change in British Coal's status does not threaten the performance of obligations and duties which they would rightly expect of their landlord. That is equally important where there are liabilities attached to certain categories of land that require continuing management or where restoration and rehabilitation is still in progress. It is also of great importance for local communities where the land in question has development potential. There are many sites with potential for development, and it is important--as a number of Opposition Members have
emphasised--that they should be brought back into productive use in the private sector as soon as possible, thus boosting local communities and encouraging businesses in those areas. In addition, British Coal has many properties of recreational value to local communities, on which I should like to say a few words.
I am in no doubt about the importance that people in coalfield areas attach to land which, over the years, has been leased by British Coal for sport and recreation. We are looking at more than 200 sites in towns and villages throughout England, Scotland and Wales. The issue involves not only miners' welfare schemes--to which the hon. Members for Sherwood and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) alluded--but a host of other organisations and uses. The uses range from football pitches, cricket pitches, tennis courts and bowling greens, to the scouts, the guides and--as has been mentioned more than once--allotments. That matter is being given careful consideration--the importance of allotments is certainly not lost on me, and it will not be lost on British Coal.
Mr. Etherington: All that we are asking is that the Minister use his good offices with the coal board to ensure that allotment holders are given first choice of purchase of the facilities and the chance to join together- -perhaps with their local district councils--to obtain the land rather than having it sold over their heads to private enterprise, which has, unfortunately, happened in the past.
Mr. Wardle: I recognise the importance of allotments. We are actively pursuing with British Coal options for the future of allotments. I shall ensure that the remarks made in today's debate are conveyed to the relevant parties--they will already have been noted by British Coal. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about that issue.
We are committed to preserving the nation's stock of recreational facilities wherever possible and ensuring that they are used. Hon. Members have mentioned the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation and the National Playing Fields Association--conversations continue with both organisations.
We have made it clear from the outset that we want to deal as sensitively as we can with recreational facilities that are now in the corporation's ownership. It is therefore our objective that land that is currently in active use for sport or recreation in its broadest sense should be retained for those purposes. We are continuing to discuss with British Coal how best to achieve that objective. Those detailed discussions on the possible mechanisms for
Column 278achieving our overall objective have yet to be concluded, but I hope that what I have said clarifies our position on that subject.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): The Minister said that we are talking about Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation land, as well as other land, and that consultations were still taking place. He mentioned the land, but I did not hear him say all the land. We would like the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation to remain intact--not just the land and the sports pitches, but all the other welfare facilities and those for the disabled that are administered by CISWO. Will the Minister ensure that he is consulted about all the facilities and organisational aspects of CISWO, not just part of it?
Mr. Wardle: I am absolutely certain that CISWO will make exactly the representations that the hon. Gentleman has made. I shall not predict the outcome of those discussions, but I have said that talks are continuing with CISWO and with the National Playing Fields Association.
A further category of property that does not form part of the current packages is that controlled by British Coal Enterprise. That includes managed workshops, light industrial units and office space throughout the coalfield areas. I recognise that those have played an important part in the regeneration of the coalfield districts, and British Coal Enterprise's job creation and regeneration activities have achieved much.
As the House will be aware, the long-term future of BCE is under review. We and British Coal are continuing to explore the options for the full range of services that it provides, and no final decisions have yet been taken. It is a matter that requires careful thought and deliberation. As Opposition Members have said, it is important to deliberate carefully, and not rush the decisions.
Mr. Tipping: British Coal Enterprise works in partnership with others. When seeking a partner, one looks for a long-term relationship, and early decisions about the future of British Coal Enterprise must focus on coalfield regeneration.
Mr. Wardle: It is important to have discussions early in the process. They are taking place now and I believe that sensible decisions will flow from them. I will pick up the pace slightly in view of the time and turn to housing.
In the light of its new functions, British Coal must make early progress with plans for the disposal of its holdings. Hon. Members will be aware of British Coal's press release of 11 January, which sets out its broad plans, but it might be helpful if I highlight the main points of the corporation's proposals.
British Coal is to dispose of its residual non-mining properties under three separate portfolios, which I would like to discuss briefly in turn. I hope that it will allow me to address the points that a number of hon. Members have raised this morning.
Those portfolios consist of housing, agricultural land and what British Coal has termed the commercial and development portfolio, which includes the vast majority of the rest of the corporation's properties. British Coal has announced its intention to sell the agricultural and housing
Column 279portfolios in broadly regional packages. No decisions have yet been taken about the packaging and disposal of the commercial and development land.
In the past, British Coal has owned huge numbers of houses. Many hon. Members will recall what were virtually "coal board villages". Over a number of years, some 80,000 of them have been sold, in large part as a result of British Coal's policy of selling to sitting tenants. I understand that, in the past, houses where there were full statutory tenants were offered for sale to those tenants, and that only a tiny number of expressions of interest--fewer than 10--remain outstanding. They are being attended to.
However, significant numbers of houses--up to 800--remain in British Coal's possession. Some of them are in vacant possession, but many are tenanted by miners, ex-miners and their dependants. British Coal intends to offer those houses to the market this spring in a number of regional packages, with a view to completing all the sales within a year.
It is important that those tenants continue to have the protection of responsible landlords as British Coal approaches the end of its life. I believe that the corporation's proposals to sell off the houses in broadly regional blocks will offer the best guarantee of early transfer to continued responsible management.
In that context, I welcome the assurances that the corporation has given me that, in assessing bids, it will take every step to satisfy itself that purchasers meet appropriate tests on viability and commitment to the future of the property which they are purchasing. In addition, it will consider carefully the approach adopted by those purchasers in the context of the interest that tenants may have in acquiring their freehold in future.
Agricultural land has been the subject of many hon. Members' remarks this morning. British Coal has a total of 110,000 acres of agricultural land, 85,000 of which is farmland, including farm buildings. That represents a substantial holding across the nation as a whole, not just in England, and the disposal of such a large portfolio is naturally of great interest to many people throughout the country. Some land is in British Coal's vacant possession, but much of it is occupied by sitting tenants.
As with its housing portfolio, it is British Coal's intention to offer that portfolio to the market in broadly regional packages. The precise composition of the packages is subject to finalisation in the light of advice from specialist property and agricultural advisers, but I understand that the corporation hopes to offer the first packages for sale this spring and to conclude all sales by the spring of 1996.
Mr. Hardy: Is the Minister ruling out the right of the tenant farmer to purchase land? If so, will he consider those cases where the tenant farmer may have been given a promise or a half promise that he could purchase land?
I am aware of the concerns that were raised in many quarters while the corporation was considering the options for the future of that land. It is natural that many existing farming tenants will feel anxious about their position, but I hope that the announcements that have been made will largely remove that anxiety.
Column 280It is worth noting the protection that existing tenants have under statute. Under agricultural holdings legislation, full agricultural tenants have security of tenure, subject to the provisions of that legislation. In some cases, succession provisions apply that allow two further generations to succeed to the tenancy. There is no question of their legal rights under legislation being diminished in any way in the course of the disposal process through a change of landlord.
I can equally assure hon. Members that the Agricultural Tenancies Bill, which is before the House, does not affect the rights of existing tenants as it will apply only to new tenancies granted after its commencement.
Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) said, there is an understandable desire among some tenants to achieve additional security and independence by purchasing their own freeholds. As one would expect, the Government have sympathy with that view, but it is important to bear in mind the needs of tenants who do not wish to do so, and for whom the overriding priority must be to continue to have responsible landlords who have a long-term interest in the properties they own and who are responsive to the needs of their sitting tenants. I believe that the policy that British Coal is pursuing strikes a satisfactory balance in responding to the needs and wishes of all its existing tenants.
As hon. Members know, those tenants who have already expressed an interest in purchasing their properties are being offered the opportunity to do so by British Coal. The hon. Members for Sherwood and for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) referred to that point. I know that British Coal has now written to all of those who expressed an interest in purchasing properties seeking confirmation of their position. When tenants confirm that they wish to proceed with the purchase of their property, in the majority of cases British Coal will take forward the process of sale. Of course, management of that process is a matter for British Coal, but I am aware that the corporation is anxious to make progress with the sales, and it is clearly in tenants' interests to assist it wherever possible. The corporation's commercial and development portfolio includes a great variety of properties of various types, including sites with potential for early industrial or residential development, freehold offices, leisure properties, non-coal mineral extraction, waste disposal sites and others.
Some of those properties are still in the process of restoration or rehabilitation and others carry liabilities that may require on-going management. Ensuring that the treatment of those liabilities is not hindered in any way by the disposal process is clearly a key consideration, and one which is borne very much in mind.
I know that the corporation will have detailed negotiations with prospective purchasers about the sale of those properties. As part of its assessment of the bidders, it will take account of their suitability and it will want to be satisfied that the bidders have sufficient resources to meet the requirements. Local authorities and other bodies have wide-ranging powers to deal with any failure to comply with statutory requirements relating to liabilities, by which any purchasers will of course be bound.
Column 281colliery in my constituency closed just before Christmas. Will British Coal lay down conditions about the development of that site--whether it be by the public or private sector--so that regeneration will be firmly fixed and, on that basis, there will be a clear price for the disposal of the land?
Mr. Wardle: The appropriate safeguards relating to identified development potential will be part of British Coal's consideration. At this stage it is not possible to be more concrete about the proposals for the future of the property in the commercial and development portfolio, but I hope that I have been able to give some clarification about the nature of the corporation's plan on a broad level, and to explain some of the factors which we are currently considering where decisions have not yet been taken.
Mr. O'Neill: We suggested clawback arrangements because almost excessive profits would be achieved in relation to the original price. Will the Minister give an assurance that the contracts will take proper account of that?
In the time available I have not been able to respond to every question. I repeat my assurance that I shall write to hon. Members when I have read the debate and seen which points need specific answers. I carefully noted the views that were expressed and the House has had the opportunity of hearing a careful deliberation about a most important subject.
Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest): I am pleased to have the opportunity to come to the House today and open a debate on such an important subject as the medical effects of traffic congestion, particularly in urban and semi-urban areas. I understand that, only this morning, my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London has been giving evidence to the Environment Select Committee on volatile organic compounds, so the debate has an element of topicality, apart from its long- term importance.
Equally, we all have constituents--I mean constituents rather than professional lobbying bodies such as Friends of the Earth--who are greatly concerned about the potential effects of car pollutants, vehicle pollutants and urban congestion. Whether that concern comes from a mother who pushes her child in a pram at ground level and worries about the effect of exhaust fumes on her child, whether it is a commuter driving his car at 6 mph and imbibing all the fumes, or whether it is a cyclist or a pedestrian, it is matter of great importance for everyone in Britain.
There has been a step change in people's priorities in this matter. I understand that in the 1940s and 1950s the principal concerns were hydrocarbons, sulphur and particulates from coal burning, which were mainly the result of industrial processes. The Clean Air Act 1956 substantially improved matters and they have continued to improve. The Clean Air Act, however, led to a certain complacency about the effects of urban congestion. In 1979, the Department of Transport wrote to the Clean Air Council as follows:
"The effects of pollution by motor vehicles can be summarised; there is no evidence that this type of pollution has any adverse effects on health."
Sixteen years on, we look slightly askance at that proposition, although it is difficult to establish direct causal relationships between urban congestion and pollution, and health effects. Generally, the health effects are multi-faceted, as a variety of different atmospheric and allergic conditions have to be taken into account. Although one would not want to say that research is tentative, nevertheless it must always be regarded with caution. However, there is no doubt that for certain groups of the population--people with atopic illnesses such as asthma, eczema and hay fever, smokers, elderly people, children and people with respiratory problems--there is a significant causal relationship between certain pollutants and those conditions.
I am delighted that the Government have acknowledged that. For instance, the Minister of State, Department of Environment, who has been giving evidence to the Environment Select Committee today, mentioned
"the growing links between air pollution and health".--[ Official Report , 3 May 1994; Vol. 242, c. 432 .]
On 14 February 1994, the Under-Secretary of State for Health spoke about the Medical Research Council institute for environment and health and the fact that it regarded as a first priority the health effects of air pollution, particularly air pollution by motor vehicles.
It is not surprising that that has spawned a variety of expert groups on air pollution and health. I am grateful to the Ashden trust, which last year held a conference and
Column 283managed to bring together many of the documents recently produced on that important subject, which are often difficult to obtain. Let me give the House an idea of who is involved. The Advisory Group on the Medical Aspects of Air Pollution Episodes and the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants report to the Department of Health. The Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards and the Quality of Urban Air Review Group advise the Department of the Environment. The Photochemical Oxidants Review Group also advises the Department of the Environment.
Other bodies are involved, such as the Office of Science and Technology, which produced a report entitled "Breathing in our Cities--Urban Air Pollution and Respiratory Health". In 1991, the Royal Commission on environmental pollution also examined the problem.
A great deal of private sector and university-oriented research is being carried out. The university of Bristol has done some valuable work, particularly on the effects of benzine on leukaemia and polonium 210 which was featured recently on a Channel 4 programme about radioactivity in children's teeth.
The university of Birmingham has done an enormous amount of work, especially on the levels of particulates, which are mainly from diesel fumes, and their correlation with the death rate, particularly in asthmatics and elderly people.
It is small wonder that such eminent groups have produced a massive array of evidence--some of it contradictory. Let me give the House a flavour. "Urban Air Quality in the United Kingdom" was produced in 1993 by the Department of the Environment, which also produced "Air Quality--Meeting the Challenge" last month. "Improving Air Quality" is another such document.
The Select Committee on Transport examined transport-related air pollution in London only last year, as did the Royal Commission in 1991. There is a plethora of reports. Ploughing through The Lancet and other academic and high-minded reports gives one an idea of the complexity of the problem.
First, it might be helpful if I mentioned the evidence on congestion. There is no doubt that congestion in Britain is growing. Between 1972 and 1992, the numbers of cars and light vans doubled and the numbers of heavy goods vehicles on our roads rose by half, totalling between 22 million and 23 million vehicles. By the year 2025--the problem will not go away--it is estimated that car use and car numbers may well double again.
In addition, people not only have more cars, but, on average, they travel further. In 1986, the average mileage per vehicle was about 5, 320 miles a year, and by 1991 it was 6,475 miles a year. Of course, that has produced congestion.
In London, although there is some evidence that congestion may be improving a little faster, as the Secretary of State said last week in his evidence to the Select Committee on Transport, Department of Transport statistics show that in 1977-79, the average speed in the central area at peak time was 12.3 mph. By 1990-94 it was down to 10.2 mph. When one compares that to the speed achieved by a motorised postal van in 1912 of only 7 mph, one wonders how much progress there has been
Column 284in road transport in our urban areas--not just in London but in Birmingham and other areas, such as Kidderminster in my constituency.
There are flows of 21,000 vehicles a day on the Wolverhampton and Birmingham road. If traffic speed is reduced from 12 mph to 6 mph, fuel consumption increases 50 per cent. There is an exponential growth, the lower the speed. The amount of road works and cabling that one sees in London and major cities shows that such congestion will not lessen. The Government document "Air Quality--Meeting the Challenge" stated:
"In urban areas, road transport is the principal source of pollution."
I do not want to inundate the House with statistics, but between 1980 and 1990, 51 per cent. of nitrogen oxides were caused by transport, and they had increased by 72 per cent. Vehicles accounted for 47 per cent. of black smoke, which had increased by 75 per cent. Ninety per cent. of carbon monoxide emissions were caused by transport and they rose by 46 per cent. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is well briefed on volatile organic compounds. Thirty seven per cent. came from vehicles and they rose by 12 per cent. during the same 10-year period. There is evidence of some improvement since 1990, but from relatively high levels. Faced with the expected huge increase in car and heavy goods vehicle ownership over the next 15 years, that remains a matter of concern.
There is a significant problem not only in determining causality but in accumulating evidence of links between any particular pollutant and health risk. Monitoring is one difficulty. As the Select Committee on Transport reported two years ago, there seems little continuity between central and local authority monitoring. Smoke and sulphur dioxide monitoring is done at 250 sites by 151 authorities, and nitrogen dioxides are monitored by 300 local authorities. Although there is a consultation paper on air quality monitoring networks, enormous work must be done adequately to integrate monitoring in the UK.
Improvements in vehicle emissions in one respect may worsen them in another. Unleaded petrol was seen as a way of significantly reducing a poison--lead--in the air, and has been successful in cutting the volume of lead from 8,000 tonnes to 2,000 tonnes a year. Unfortunately, greater use of converters has increased benzene emissions, which are themselves a recognised carcinogenic that may lead to leukaemia. Diesel was also regarded as a good way of improving the environment. In 1993, the number of diesel-engined cars in the UK increased from 5 to 20 per cent. That has reduced carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions, but those of carbon particulates--such as PM , which can enter the lungs--are considerably worse.
Arguments within the scientific community soon become evident. In 1992, Professor Hallgate, chairman of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, did not believe that diesel particulates posed a danger to health. By 1994, he was saying:
"There is convincing evidence of a link between mortality and PM ."
That is a volte face if ever I saw one, and shows the problems. It is difficult to isolate cause and effect, particularly under different environmental conditions and given varying individual medical conditions.
Column 285The problem is exacerbated by inconsistency in pollutant measurement. There are variations between acceptable levels of ozones, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide as between the UK, World Health Organisation and European Union. We should consider how standards should be made both more comprehensive and consistent.
I said that, subject to certain caveats, I would describe the effects on health of 10 principal pollutants emitted by cars and heavy goods vehicles. These conclusions came from a symposium by the Ashden trust last year. Nitrogen dioxide may exacerbate asthma and possibly increase susceptibility to infection. The particulate PM is directly related to city mortality rates and is associated with a wide range of respiratory symptoms. Long- term exposure can be associated with increased risk of death from heart or lung disease. We all know that carbon monoxide is lethal at high doses, and even at low levels can impair concentration and neuro-behavioural functions. Ozone has been widely publicised. Although it is a secondary pollutant created by the interaction of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, it irritates the eyes and air passages, and it can significantly sensitise people with allergenic and atopic problems. That is one reason why, in recent years, we have seen a huge increase in the number of asthma referrals by general practitioners.
Pollution has severe consequences. It is estimated that particulates can cause 10,000 premature deaths a year. The incidence of childhood asthma has doubled since the 1970s. Around 155 children suffering from asthma are taken to hospital every day, and there are 3 million asthma sufferers in the UK. The carcinogenic effects of benzene and lead have been well known for some time but are impossible to quantify accurately.
It would be wrong to ignore the fact that much progress has been made. Since 1990, pollution caused by cars and traffic congestion has fallen. The introduction of the catalytic converter after 1993--partly due to European Community directive 91/441--has led to an estimated 70 per cent. reduction in hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. It is slightly disappointing that only 3 million of the UK's 18.9 million cars have catalytic converters fitted. It will be 2010 before the whole fleet is similarly equipped.
In March 1994, the European Union agreed to improve significantly control of diesel particulates from 1996. That should mean a reduction of about 55 per cent., and a 95 per cent. reduction from 1970 levels when the measures are implemented. It is anticipated that there will be further reductions by the year 2000.
I have already mentioned the progress made with unleaded petrol which in urban areas has led to a significant reduction in the amount of lead--a deadly poison--in the air. Nevertheless, about 2,000 tonnes a year are still emitted. Some progress has been made and we hope that it will continue.
I shall conclude by making one or two suggestions about particular courses of action that the Government could be taking to improve the position on car pollutants and thereby, on the best possible evidence, reduce the ill effects on our health caused by congestion. I do not claim to be comprehensive because this is a wide-ranging topic involving traffic management and planning policy but I shall nevertheless put forward one or two ideas.