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Column 286I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport last year had a blitz on what he called the "gross polluters". I am not sure that the figures are entirely accurate but the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said that about 85 per cent. of the most noxious pollutants come from those gross polluters. In other words, a very small proportion of vehicles cause the vast majority of the damage. It is therefore worrying that Britain apparently has the second oldest truck fleet in Europe, second only to that of Greece.
It is also worrying that so much of the pollution, especially in London, is caused by local transport vehicles. Although discussions are taking place with the Department of Transport, it was announced last year that the new Iveco diesel engines in the revamped buses did not meet even the latest European regulations. There was a six-week campaign late last year but I believe that such a campaign should be made permanent.
We need better co-ordination between the Department of Transport, the Vehicle Inspectorate and local authorities which, through environmental legislation, have increasing responsibility for monitoring and control of pollution. They should be given even more power, not only in London but outside, to stop vehicles that are patently polluting the atmosphere and to remove them from the road. That would have a very great impact, and very quickly, on the gross polluters.
Urgent consideration, with tax breaks if necessary, should be given to the retro-fitting of exhaust control equipment on the older diesel buses in urban areas. If the diesel engines in buses are causing pollution, especially through particulates and volatile organic compounds, that particular problem needs to be solved urgently. Clearly, the Government could be considering a variety of other suggestions and we could be moving a little faster on them. Reformulated gasoline now has about a third of the American market and it is estimated to reduce emissions of benzene--a carcinogenic--by between 15 and 20 per cent., together with emissions of other hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. Reformulated gasoline is a little more expensive than normal petrol but perhaps the duty on it could be reduced to make it more attractive to the consumer. As has been proved in America, it would have a significant effect on our pollution problem.
Some relevant work has been carried out by Johnson Matthey which, when it heard that I had secured this debate, wrote to me--perhaps for not wholly disinterested motives. It mentioned its "continuously regenerating trap" which, it states, can reduce carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulates emitted by large diesel vehicles. The company provided me with information about Sweden where there seem to have been significant improvements as a result of its product. The company recently carried out tests on 10 CRT units in Gothenburg. The technical director of Swebus, Leif Magnusson, said that tests had shown massive reductions in emissions: a 98 per cent. reduction in carbon monoxide emissions, a 96 per cent. reduction in the emission of hydrocarbons, and a 92 per cent. reduction in particulates. I urge the Minister to work on that possibility, which could be used to reduce the emissions of the grossest polluters.
Congestion is a very serious problem. I know that, in his evidence to the Select Committee on Transport last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was a little cagey--understandably--about a forthcoming report
Column 287on road pricing and its implications. The implications may be the opposite to what one expects but the idea needs to be followed up, and planning policy guidance 13 issued by the Department of the Environment on the interrelationship between planning and transport is a good step forward.
From the evidence that I have, it seems that the advice that the Government are getting through the Departments of Transport, of Health and of the Environment and the Office of Science and Technology should be better co- ordinated. There is a plethora of such evidence coming from all directions. Some of it is contradictory but it still needs to be better co-ordinated. Whether the Environmental Protection Agency would be the ideal body to do that is a matter for debate. However, the Environmental Protection Agency should have a role in ensuring consistency of measuring which, as I said, is not evident among the EU, the World Health Organisation and the United Kingdom.
Finally, our targets should also be extended. I understand that, at the moment, there are national standards for only about four of the 10 main vehicle pollutants. There are advisory standards but they should be put on a mandatory basis as far as possible, thus showing that the Government are giving a lead, which I am sure that they are in many other respects.
I have spoken for 25 minutes, which is quite long enough. I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. This is a very important topic to every man, woman and child, especially in urban areas. It will not go away and will not necessarily get better so I urge the Government, as a matter of urgency, to consider some of my recommendations. 11.57 am
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) for affording us the opportunity to debate, albeit briefly, this important topic and doubly grateful for the riveting half-hour to which he has just treated us.
There is no doubt that this subject quite properly exercises the minds of those of us interested in transport matters. I fear that the hon. Gentleman was not quite as critical as he might have been of Government policy because, whatever the Government say about their green credentials--no one could accuse the Secretary of State of being green--they do not show much sign of them when it comes to legislation.
Over the past 15 years, the Government have been content to increase the permitted size of heavy goods vehicles three times and to increase the maximum speed at which they are permitted to travel once. That has clearly helped to increase the total number of heavy goods vehicles on our roads. We assume that the latest European Community proposals will be accepted. We usually fight a rearguard action but there are now 44-tonne lorries on our roads. If the latest EC proposals are accepted, the millions of pounds of public money being spent on strengthening bridges will have to be justified by a further increase in heavy goods vehicles, especially the heaviest travelling the greatest distances, which will again help to undermine rail freight and transfer even more from rail to roads.
Column 288The hon. Member for Wyre Forest pointed out that much urban pollution is caused by public transport, and rightly drew attention to the pollution caused in this city and others by local bus services. Before the Prime Minister denounces me again, let me declare my interest as a non-executive director of West Midlands Travel, which I believe is currently Britain's third largest bus company.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman, but I must add--especially as the Minister for Transport in London is to reply--that the position is hardly surprising, given the effects of deregulation in major towns and cities. Some of the oldest and most clapped-out vehicles in western Europe are running around for 12 hours a day, bleeding passengers from the more profitable routes and undermining the network services provided by West Midlands Travel and other companies. Obviously that will add to urban pollution. What one of the Minister's predecessors described as the benefits of deregulation have yet to spread to London. I am not surprised, but I hope that the Minister will use his undoubted power and influence as a senior member of Her Majesty's Government to try to improve the position in many towns and cities. For instance, he could consider Government assistance for companies such as the one with which I am associated, which would like to introduce buses powered by natural gas. It is not fair to expect reputable companies to tackle urban pollution problems if at the same time they must compete with fly-by-night operators which have been attracted to the business since the enactment of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act last year.
The Government claim to be more concerned about pollution and the environment nowadays. They say that they have urged local authorities-- particularly in the west midlands--to adopt a "package" approach in their annual transport supplementary grant applications, including some public transport schemes. That would undoubtedly help to tackle the problem. In the west midlands, we have made a bid for funds for the Midland Metro--the light rail system, one of whose lines will run through my constituency--the first priority in our annual TSG application. Year after year, having encouraged local authorities to adopt a "package" approach, the Department of Transport has cherry-picked the road schemes of which it approves and provided the full amount needed for their funding; meanwhile, the Midland Metro remains in abeyance for want of public money.
That does not illustrate any great desire on the part of the Department of Transport to tackle urban pollution. Following the latest bid for funds, the Secretary of State has said that it is up to local authorities to find the cost of the Midland Metro--some £30 million. That is unfair, because local authorities, especially in the west midlands, have managed to find a considerable amount from their own resources to finance schemes that will help to alleviate the problems to which the hon. Member for Wyre Forest referred. They have, for example, spent £28.5 million on the new Jewellery line through Birmingham's jewellery quarter, thus providing a third cross-city railway line with little assistance from the Department of Transport. Yet they are continually denied adequate resources for the Midland Metro and other public transport schemes that would do so much to lessen pollution and congestion in the west midlands.
Column 289Let me now turn to a more parochial topic, and appeal to the Minister to note what is happening on the ground-- regardless of what he or his Back Benchers may say about their desire to alleviate the problem of pollution and congestion in urban areas. I have mentioned our failure to secure cash for the Midland Metro; one organisation in the west midlands, however, need not worry about cash. I refer to the Black Country development corporation. If road builders are appointed to a quasi-public body and millions of pounds of public money are chucked at them, obviously they will build roads--and that is what the Black Country development corporation has done and is doing, like other development corporations throughout the country. The building of roads, of course, helps to create the very congestion and pollution of which the hon. Member for Wyre Forest complains, and which the Minister will presumably deplore in a sympathetic manner very shortly.
In my constituency--thanks to public money--the Black Country development corporation, despite obvious public transport needs, is currently building the black country route and spine road. The road runs through West Bromwich, and will cause enormous pollution and congestion there. It will also virtually split the town in half because of the road works and the congestion that will unquestionably result once the route has been completed. It will join junction 1 of the M5 with junction 10 of the M6. No one needs to be a great map reader to work out that the best way to avoid all the congestion currently afflicting the junction of the M5 and M6 is to take the alternative route--the spine road and the black country route. West Bromwich will suffer from massive congestion and pollution. Concern has already been expressed to the local authority and to me, but the development corporation, predictably, has ignored it.
There are schools along the route, including Cronehills primary school in my constituency. The headmistress has already told me of her fears about existing lead levels in the bodies of pupils; already--especially on Friday afternoons and during the evening rush hour--there is considerable congestion outside the school. Heaven knows what it will be like when the route is completed, but we can make a guess when we see the congestion on the midland links with the M5 and M6.
The Government could take steps to tackle the problem, if only they were serious; but of course they are not. Whatever lip service they pay to the problems of congestion and pollution, they adopt policies year after year-- whether inadvertently or not--which add to those problems. This country almost worships the heavy goods vehicle, for example: there are very few restrictions on their use.
Our planning policies appear to be designed to encourage major companies such as John Lewis and McDonalds--I take those two at random--to deal with as many lorry deliveries as possible every day. They regard keeping stock on their premises as uneconomic, and the community must pay for their attitude. Day after day, heavy goods vehicles can be seen on the high streets with their indicator lights flashing, making deliveries to stores such as those that I have mentioned. They are by no means the only guilty parties, however. We must tackle the over-use of HGVs: we must apply restrictions, especially in our towns and cities.
Column 290I hope that the Minister will give us some hope, particularly in regard to the development of pollution-free public transport vehicles. There is no doubt that over-reliance on motor vehicles in general and HGVs in particular is the cause of many of the problems that we are debating, and--unless there is a dramatic change in Government policy--will be the cause of exactly the same problems, and debates on them, for many years.
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham): There is undoubtedly great and growing concern about the impact on health of pollution from road vehicles. I am particularly aware of that, as I represent an urban constituency in the London area. Although my constituency is in an outer London borough, it is noticeable that the increase in traffic, and the perception of pollution, have been even greater in outer London than in inner London.
Last summer and the summer before, there was published evidence of sudden episodes of high pollution levels, and especially of ozone in the atmosphere in the Bromley area. There followed a good deal of public concern about the impact on asthma, particularly in children. So I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) on bringing the debate to the House. I also congratulate the Government on the action that they have already taken, although the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) gave it limited acknowledgement. In fact, only on 19 January, the Department of Transport announced a series of measures to improve considerably the monitoring of pollutants and to take practical and reasonable steps to deal with the problem that they create. I also pay tribute to the London borough of Bromley, which has taken a lead in setting up monitoring facilities and working with other London boroughs to draw attention to pollutants and keep more accurate statistics. We are debating a complex subject and I shall refer briefly to four areas which are of particular importance. It is important that research is conducted to obtain accurate data on which to make decisions. One has to separate myth from reality, since it is easy to panic or pursue unproductive methods of research, perhaps because one perceives problems where there is none or one fails to see problems where they are severe.
I emphasise the need to improve collection of data on all pollutants. The Government initiative announced a couple of weeks ago makes great strides in that direction, although it is a little late. It is a pity that the figures were not collected earlier. Bromley has played an important part in setting up the London Air Quality Network. Indeed, a monitoring station just outside my constituency permanently monitors the level of nitrogen oxides, ozone and carbon dioxide and feeds the statistics into an overall databank, and one of five passive diffusion tubes, which are especially effective in collecting information about benzene, a particular risk to health, is at Royston school in my constituency.
There are plans to extend that monitoring further, but the process is already yielding valuable results. On 6 June 1993, for example, the ozone level in Bromley reached the Department of the Environment's "poor" level of 110 parts per billion, to which the sixth report of the Select Committee on Transport, entitled "Transport-Related Air Pollution in London" referred. That information was not
Column 291previously known and forms a good basis on which to assess where action needs to be taken to improve or do away with the problem. More research is also needed on the health implications. At present, much research is uncertain and based on supposition about a correlation between figures which may appear to match but do not provide direct evidence of links. Much research is needed to establish whether there are clear links or chance correlations of statistics. The data available on carcinogens are far more clear, as they have been researched a great deal more, but limited research has so far been conducted into the impact of other by-products of urban congestion. Indeed, some by-products have not been fully charted. It is noticeable that in science, especially in chemistry, a solution may appear to have been found and is discovered later to produce an equally bad by-product that was not anticipated, as I shall illustrate.
The most fundamental and important area of research is technical innovation. The means by which engines may run more cleanly and alternative means of propulsion may be introduced must, ultimately, be the key; the answer to which the statistics on health and pollution draw attention. Oxygenates are added to fuel to prevent knocking. Lead was the most famous oxygenate but is rightly out of favour because of the risk that it poses to health.
The next chemical which was added to petrol in greater amounts, although it was always present, was benzene. However, benzene is a well-established carcinogen, for which there is no safe level. Yet, super-premium unleaded petrol is estimated to contain 16 per cent. more aromatics than ordinary four-star petrol. Action should be taken to ban the use of super-premium unleaded petrol as it clearly poses a potentially severe health risk. An upper aromatic level should be imposed on all forms of fuel and a greater emphasis placed on the use of catalytic converters capable of removing some of the most dangerous pollutants from combustion products.
Other additives such as ethanol--alcohol--are used almost entirely to fuel cars, and, no doubt, for other purposes, in Brazil. That was once thought to be a clean fuel, but it has since been demonstrated that it produces dangerous by-products, so more work needs to be done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest and the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East have already referred to diesel fuel. Diesel was once thought to be clean, but that too has unfortunate by-products, especially particulates. One has only to go near the long line of taxis queueing at Victoria station, their engines running even though they are stationary, pumping out vast quantities of black exhaust fumes, to feel the pollutant effect. At the least it is highly discomfiting; at the worst it must pose considerable risks, especially to people who suffer from asthmatic or bronchial-related diseases, which are more noticeable in the summer.
Action should be taken to cut unnecessary queueing by diesel vehicles-- buses as well as taxis--as is clearly the case at Victoria, and to encourage engines to be turned off when the vehicle is stationary. There is no reason why there should not be a limit on the number of taxis queueing at Victoria station and why engines should not be allowed to run when taxis are stationary. The problem at Victoria is severe, but an example only of the problem present elsewhere.
Column 292There is no point in monitoring or establishing standards unless they are adequately enforced. Enforcement should be checked and action taken if checks reveal that pollution is above the acceptable level. Stricter MOT tests, higher standards and better indicators should be introduced. I favour, for example, the use of constant monitoring devices in vehicles so that the driver would be aware if something were to go wrong with the anti-pollution controls. I favour the use of pre-heated catalytic converters which overcome emissions from cold engines. Specifically, I would like greater random roadside monitoring and would be keen to give local authorities new powers of enforcement via a fixed-penalty system. It would be self-financing, give extra authority to local councils and enable them to concentrate on the greatest problems.
It is important that we approach the problem from a scientific point of view. Despite all the concerns, we should not act purely on an understandable emotive reaction, but in a measured manner to tackle effectively the problems identified by scientific evidence. We need realistic, practical and sensible solutions. The Government are on course, but I encourage them to continue taking action so that we may deliver to people, especially the long-suffering dwellers of our urban areas, the clean air that is rightfully theirs.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): I agree with almost every word that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) said, which perhaps should worry both of us--but on a subject such as this there is much cross- party agreement. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will respond to some of the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked.
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the air quality in London is disgusting. Some people believe that it is best to chew the air in this capital city before breathing it. I am fortunate enough to travel to many other European cities, so I can make comparisons. I know that that is anecdotal evidence, but the witnesses are my own lungs and if they tell me that I can breathe more easily in Paris or in New York I must believe them: it is a fact. I know that there are cities such as Tokyo and Manila in which the air quality is even more disgusting, but surely we are trying to measure ourselves not against the worst cases in the world but against some of the better examples.
To continue my odyssey for a moment, I have just returned from a visit to Antarctica, where the air quality was magic--absolutely wonderful. It throws the issues into stark contrast when one can make such comparisons. It seems funny that down in the Antarctic people are worried about the hole in the ozone layer whereas in London we are worried about the ozone at ground level. It is a pity that we cannot get the ozone to go up where it belongs and where it will be useful, instead of damaging us on the ground.
One can feel the pollution in London. I can tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am an exceedingly clean person. [ Laughter .] It is true; you could eat your food off my body, Mr. Deputy
Speaker--although I hasten to add that that is not an invitation. Judging by the look on your face, it would not be an invitation that you would take up were I to extend it to you. When one takes off one's shirt at night, knowing that one has bathed and showered and
Column 293everything, yet the dirt is still ingrained on the collar, one can see what the quality of the air is like in London. When we lick our lips and can feel how dirty they are--and when we have to get the dirt off our faces when we take our make-up off at night--we realise how bad the air is here.
Pollution in London has changed over the years. I am old enough to remember the pea-souper fogs of the 1950s, and so is my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). I remember those fogs well, and I must remember to ask the Prime Minister about those days, because we are both Brixton boys, although my behaviour in Brixton was somewhat more exemplary than his. We used to wait until the road was dug up, take out the tarry blocks and put them in the grate to burn. The amount of filth coming out of the chimneys made the smogs unbelievable; the 1952 smog was responsible for killing about 4,000 people.
Then Parliament took action and passed the Clean Air Act 1956. Authorities such as the London county council could take a strategic overview, test air quality and enforce the regulations, and the air quality in London improved dramatically.
Now there is a new threat, which hon. Members have already identified--the photochemical smog created by vehicle emissions. There has been an enormous increase in the incidence of asthma. At my advice surgery in Newham many parents tell me about their asthmatic kids. That may be anecdotal evidence, but it is none the less powerful. We know what is happening, and it is estimated that about 1 million Londoners are at risk of suffering from asthma. Something must be done.
In my area of the east end we live between main roads. Newham occupies three strips of land along the A11 and the A13, and the air quality there is appalling. When people go from there into the centre of London, where the air quality is equally bad, they realise how much of their time they are spending in a potentially lethal atmosphere.
I do not believe that the Government are doing enough. There is not enough co-ordination between the Department of Health, the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment in monitoring the health effects of poor air quality and in taking the necessary action to reduce emissions.
Clearly congestion and the growth of motor traffic have created many of the problems. In other cities I have also noticed that in places such as New York there are air quality reports every day. We are not given that information in London. Why not? The Minister looks as if he does not agree with me, and it is true that we are told occasionally, but only occasionally. I believe that the Minister himself suggested on the radio that we all stay at home on one particular day, because the air quality in central London was so bad.
I get the feeling that we are not being told either because not enough is known about the air quality, or because the Government know how bad it is but do not want to tell Londoners in case they are panicked into thinking that if they go out on the streets they will all drop dead. Perhaps the Minister will check on the availability of the information, but we certainly do not have the regular checks that we hear on local radio stations in the United States and other countries.
Hon. Members have already mentioned what happened at certain times in 1992, 1993 and 1994, when there were great upsurges of emergency referrals to hospitals of
Column 294people with asthmatic, bronchitic and other respiratory problems caused by poor air quality. We know all about that. One has only to go out into Parliament square, especially in summer when the build-up of photochemical smog is combined with a total lack of air movement, to know how bad the atmosphere is. Visitors to London continually complain about that, and we cannot continue to ignore it. Because the local authorities in London did not feel that the Government were doing enough, the Association of London Authorities, the London Boroughs Association and the South East Institute of Public Health formed the London Air Quality Network. That was good to see, and as a result we are now getting a far better picture of the overall quality of the air. The monitoring stations that the Government maintain are not enough, and they are also in the wrong places. Now, because of the initiative of London local authorities, both Conservative and Labour, we are getting a better picture of air quality-- and it worries us. What co-operation do the Department of Transport and other Departments extend to the London Air Quality Network, which is doing such excellent work?
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East has already said what causes some of the problems. There are the clapped-out buses and the filthy taxis, for a start. There is simply not enough investment in new London buses, and we can all see the filthy buses driving around. In my day at the Greater London council when it was responsible for transport we would not have allowed buses to go around polluting the atmosphere of London. We had much higher levels of engine maintenance, and clearly those are required now, yet they are not being practised.
We need a coherent strategy for transport in London. In the United Kingdom we have one of the highest mileages per car and one of the lowest levels of rail freight. That is the problem. There are too many vehicles on the roads, especially heavy vehicles carrying goods around London.
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley): When my hon. Friend talks about congestion on the roads causing health problems, is he aware of the number of heavy goods vehicles that come in from the continent with a tremendous number of defects? Roughly 20 per cent. of those vehicles come from the continent with defects that are hazardous to health. Because of the congestion, is that not likely to result in more pollution-related deaths?
Mr. Banks: Yes. A test carried out in London last September or October showed that up to 20 per cent. of vehicles could not satisfy the MOT test emissions standard. There are already too many heavy vehicles on our roads because of the lack of a coherent policy for getting freight off the roads and on to the railways. All those heavy vehicles should be stopped at the port of entry and tested before they are allowed on our roads. When the Minister replies, will he tell us whether that already happens?
The hon. Member for Beckenham talked about local authorities having more power. There is a Bill now before the House of Lords which would enable local authority officers to test vehicles and, if they did not satisfy the MOT test standard for emissions, to refuse to allow them to continue their journey. Some people say that that would cause a civil liberties problem, but I do not agree. I am more concerned about my liberty to breathe decent clean
Column 295air. If a vehicle were not up to standard I would not simply say, "Don't drive it." I would take it down to the crusher and give it back to the driver in a small neat cube. That is one way of dealing with the problem, although I doubt that it will appeal either to the Opposition Front Bench or to the Government. I hope that the Minister does not give us his usual highly competent emollient. One knows that he is the most proficient bullshitter that the Government have, but on this occasion we want action.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) on choosing an important subject for debate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and I remember going to see the society about seven years ago to urge it to take a stance on lead-free petrol. I was told that it thought that the scientific evidence was such that it was not necessary to do anything about increasing the use of lead-free petrol. We must think of the sea-change that has occurred since then, and we need to ensure also a sea- change in how we deal with health problems in urban areas.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest said that this is a complex subject. It is no coincidence that, as we speak, a symposium is taking place, organised by the Royal Institute of Public Health and Hygiene, on the sustainability of a healthy environment. We cannot have enough debate about the health implications of traffic and all the many problems that have been debated this morning. We need a debate in the media and at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. We must heighten public awareness, and have debates among academics and scientists.
We must make sure that research is carried out, not just on pollutants but on the long-term effects of that cocktail of pollutants. We must find out what we shall be leaving for future generations. We need to have a debate with community and environmental health practitioners, and at local council level, community level and--above all--Government level. We do not just need the Government to debate--we need Government action.
We need a common agenda, and we heard a hint of that in the speeches from hon. Members this morning. We must be able to look at what goes on in the Transport, Environment and Health Departments, and also the Treasury. We must discover how to deal with the environmental problems which many of us are increasingly concerned about.
We have heard about smog, but the growing realisation of the problem is similar to that which occurred with regard to water in the last century, when it was realised that the health problems could not just be ignored and that something had to be done about them. We cannot get away from the fact that the air that we breathe in urban and congested areas--unlike the air in Antarctica--is harming us. It is not just mothers fearful for their children who are concerned, and we should not just be worried about the increasing incidence of asthma. Simple as it may sound, we do not have a choice about the air we breathe, either in London or in other congested parts of the country. The air is polluted, but we might not know that it is polluted. As my hon. Friend the Member
Column 296for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, we have neither the right to know nor the access to the information. We cannot escape the ill-effects of our air.
Those of us who are not affected by asthma or other respiratory problems may think that we have escaped the most damaging effects of pollution, a significant amount of which comes from transport. If we are not affected by it, our families are. We have heard about the rising incidence of asthma, and there is also a rising incidence of physical injury from a disproportionate number of serious accidents in towns arising from urban congestion. There are psychological problems caused by the way in which main roads have split communities and made people afraid to walk the streets freely.
The long-term damage is catching up with us, and with our children. That is why the Rio conference and all the reports which have come out since--the Royal Commission on environmental pollution, a similar report on transport and others--have been crucial. The Rio conference defined sustainable development as the ability to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. We must concentrate on that definition.
In the short time that the Minister has to reply to the debate, I hope that he will tell us what the Department is doing in respect of agenda 21, and what progress is being made towards the notion of a common agenda. Will he comment on the fact that health and environmental issues are still the concerns of separate agencies? The Opposition and the Government differ on the Government's document on air quality, "Meeting the Challenge". We have heard congratulations from Conservative Members on the progress that the Government are making, but we do not feel that the document goes far enough. It certainly sets out policies for air quality management, but it still does not have transport policies integrated into environmental, health and Treasury strategies. That is a challenge that we all face.
Let us look briefly at the Government's record on transport. It is accepted that the Government's transport policy must go hand in hand with the roads programme. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) described the way in which development corporations are building roads, and how the extra traffic generated by those roads overflows on to local roads. It then becomes impossible to curb the growth in traffic. We must deal in the long term with the growth in traffic, as forecasts suggest that it is set to double by 2020. We must look at the effect of that on local roads.
We have heard a lot this morning about catalytic convertors, and they give us breathing space by helping in the short term. But if the current rate of traffic growth continues, we will not get the advantage from catalytic convertors in terms of air quality because they will simply be unable to keep pace.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) spoke about the enforcement of vehicle emission regulations and about cleaner cars. That may help in the short term, and we have heard about similar controls on buses and HGVs. New technology in that area has been developed by Johnson Matthey. We support that new technology, but it must be allowed to develop. Each of the improvements to air quality mentioned will not keep pace with the increase in traffic. Voluntary action and guidance--which the Government promised in a
Column 297statement released last month--is simply not enough. We need researchers, planners and transport operators to devise ways of reducing the need to travel.
It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us--we know of his Department's close collaboration with the Department of the Environment-- what specific advice he is giving in respect of the planning policy guidance note 13, which will be crucial in respect of air quality management. We must find alternatives to the many short journeys that are made in urban areas.
Children and the elderly in our urban streets fall into high-risk categories, whether from respiratory illness or from injury from accidents. Statistics might show that our motorways are relatively safe, but we need drastic speed restrictions in urban areas, traffic calming and a transport supplementary grant which would give more than voluntary guidance.
There are many concerns--there is not enough time for me to go into them now--about the impact of traffic on urban areas. I shall just summarise them. We must look at the way in which children go to school. In 1970, about 80 per cent. of seven and eight-year-olds travelled to school on their own. By 1990, that figure had fallen to 9 per cent. What can we do to make our streets safer, so that children can walk to school without feeling threatened by pollution, accidents or other dangers?
Then there is the issue of cycling. I am sure that the Minister will tell us what is being done in London to improve facilities for cycling. We need traffic calming and traffic restraint measures. We cannot have just the occasional speed hump. Traffic calming must be similar to that which exists on the continent, where in some areas 90 per cent. of urban streets are properly calmed. We must examine the matter in the long term and draw up a programme to concentrate on these issues.
We certainly need tighter enforcement of emission regulations. I remind the hon. Member for Wyre Forest that, whatever the Minister might say in his reply today, there is concern about the 20 per cent. cuts in the enforcement budget. The hon. Gentleman talked about pollutants. He did not say that the Government had been remiss in failing to ensure that adequate research was carried out. Average exhaust emissions contain up to 400 different chemicals. We do not know the effects of the cocktail or what effect those pollutants will have in the long term.
We have heard concern expressed about the high levels of air pollution in London. They were graphically described by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West. It is thanks to the London Boroughs Association and the Association of London Authorities that air pollution has been highlighted so effectively. The Government say that they are serious in their intentions to tackle air quality. Does that mean categorically that when the Lords consider the Environment Bill tomorrow the Government will support the amendments to require the development of an air quality strategy to set United Kingdom standards? Will the Government welcome that legislative opportunity, for which they say that they have been waiting, to do what they said that they would do in their recent environment and transport White Paper "Meeting the Challenge"?
Unless the Government enact legislation to set clear national and local targets to improve air quality and recognise the need to provide resources to meet those targets in local authorities' standard spending
Column 298assessments, how else can the work be done? Local authorities must be given a statutory duty to manage air quality.
There are many other detailed issues which I do not have time to go into. They included mass transit vehicles, to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East referred. All those issues must be dealt with urgently. Time is running out not only in today's debate but in tackling the health implications of environmental policy. I urge the Minister to give due regard to the important points that have been made during the debate.
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs). He not only initiated an important debate but did so extraordinarily well and made some telling points. He had an advantage over several Opposition Members who spoke in that he knew what the subject of the debate was, having devised it and spoken about it. I hope that I will not break the habit of a lifetime by attempting to answer the debate and ignoring some of the more peripheral points made by Opposition Members.
My hon. Friend referred to the proliferation of bodies involved in air quality. I understand his anxiety, which was shared by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). It is inevitable that such an issue is of interest to a great many Government Departments, local authorities, intergovernmental bodies and others. I see a virtue in that. I see no virtue in duplication or unnecessary fragmentation, but I see great virtue in many Government Departments feeling a sense of ownership of the issue of health and air quality and the elimination of unnecessary transport and offensive practices in industry or transport. That is one advantage of such an issue, which, as my hon. Friend suggested, spans many departmental interests. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) for the consistent high quality of his speech. I have had the pleasure of listening to my hon. Friend on several occasions in the House. He does a superb job on behalf of his constituents in Bromley, not least on this occasion. He touched on all the relevant issues, to which I hope to be able to respond in the time available to me.
I cannot reply to my hon. Friends' points before I mention the speeches of the two hon. Gentlemen seated comfortably and smilingly together on the Back Bench opposite. They are a veritable Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Their humour will ever mask an absence of content. Their sceptical approach to argument is such as to amuse, if not greatly to inform. The expertise of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) needs no endorsement from me. He knows that I have a bus working group examining the improvement of quality bus services, particularly in urban areas. He makes a valuable point. I want to see that work proceed.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East gave the House a misleading impression about the status of Midland Metro. He knows, as I do, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the other day that he was prepared to advance to the west midlands between £95 million and £105 million of taxpayers' money. That means that this year the west midlands, far from being starved or any of the other words that the hon. Gentleman used, will be the recipient of more taxpayers' money in its local settlement than any other region. The local health
Column 299authority will have to find some money. The entire assembled local authorities of the west midlands will have to find £30 million over four years. If they cannot do that, I wonder how seriously they want the project. That is the challenge that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State advanced to them. I hope that they will take it on board.
Mr. Snape: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Norris: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) left me very few minutes to deal with the debate. I am astonished that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, who purports to speak from the Front Bench on transport issues, condemned the work of the Black Country development corporation. They dismissed with a sweep of their hand its work in improving the infrastructure of the black country. To them it is all about simply creating pollution and congestion. That is an extraordinary proposition. I wonder whether they have discussed the matter with the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) or--which is perhaps more relevant--with all their hon. Friends who beat a regular path to my door and that of my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads, asking for road schemes in their constituencies.
There is a great law in politics. We are all against road building in general and in favour of the road scheme in our constituency. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East should talk to his hon. Friends who represent St. Helens, Barnsley, Rotherham and Sheffield, all of whom have talked to me in recent days on precisely that theme. It is extraordinary that a party that represents itself as responsible and even--however fantastic it may sound--as an alternative Government, has such a primitive attitude towards industry and industrial development as that displayed by those two Opposition Members today.
I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. I have no interest in his personal body habits. I will say no more on that subject. I envy him his Antarctic trip. I am sorry that I was not able to join him. He must not follow the advice of Nye Bevan, who said that he would never allow the facts to get in the way of a good argument. The hon. Gentleman spoke about air quality in London. Let me make it clear that London has available twice daily on Ceefax, and has had since October 1990, and on a free telephone number--0800 556677--a forecast for the next 24 hours on oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, ozone and benzene.
We are proud of our air quality bulletin system. We are the only country in Europe to provide information on the latter two pollutants on an hourly basis. They are both carcinogenic volatile organic compounds. So let us hear none of the nonsense that suggests that we have a deficit in our willingness to publish information. It is precisely because we are so open in our publication of information that we have stimulated such a helpful and constructive debate, in which my hon. Friends distinguished themselves.
I shall deal now with the standard setting for the pollutants that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest mentioned. In the air quality statement on 19 January, the Secretary of State for the Environment announced the national strategic plan to be established for
Column 300the maintenance and improvement of air quality. Within that, there will be improvement targets for the nine main atmospheric pollutants, selected on the criteria of prevalence and harm. For each, the Government will identify a base standard to which it will be the aim of policy progressively to move and on the basis of which policy targets will be set. There will also be an alarm threshold which, if reached, will stimulate immediate remedial action. It will be the Government's objective that the targets that they are minded to adopt are achieved everywhere in the United Kingdom by 2005. The Government's programme for setting standards and targets will be speeded up, with the advisory work of the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards--EPAQS--targeted for completion by summer 1996.
I shall now deal with the specific questions about health and urban road congestion. The forms of air pollution that are of most concern here are short-term episodes in which there is a high concentration of pollutants and prolonged exposure to raised levels of pollutants. Clearly, traffic is immensely important in all this, as I think we understand. The Department of Health has two expert committees on the subject: the Advisory Group on the Medical Aspects of Air Pollution Episodes and the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants--COMEAP--which was set up in 1992 to advise the Government on the effects on health of air pollutants in both outdoor and indoor air. There are two sub-groups of COMEAP, one dealing with asthma and air pollution, and the other dealing with particles.
In terms of illness groups, I shall deal first with cancer. Some individual air pollutants are either known or probable human carcinogens, as many speakers have pointed out. Diesel exhaust and petrol exhaust are probable human carcinogens. It is, however, important to remember that tobacco smoking is still the main cause of lung cancer as far as we can determine.
On average, levels of benzene may be slightly higher in unleaded petrol than in leaded. However, an EC directive limits benzene content in both to less than 5 per cent. The risks from either are, in medical terms, very small. Most benzene is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, a product of combustion rather than of the fuel itself. Virtually all the benzene in petrol is burnt in the engine. Only trace quantities occur in exhaust gases; catalytic converters remove three quarters of these trace quantities. The views of the Department of Health committee on carcinogenicity and of COMEAP were taken into account in the recommendation of the joint Department of the Environment and Department of Health Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards for an air quality standard for benzene. As benzene is a genotoxic carcinogen, the expert panel accepted that no absolutely safe level of exposure could be defined, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said. However, at the concentrations occurring in ambient air, there is only an exceedingly small risk to health in the United Kingdom.
EPAQS recommended the establishment of a five parts per billion standard as a running annual mean with a reduction in due course to a target of one part per billion. The results of current monitoring show that mean benzene concentrations in outdoor air are generally at or below the 5 ppb level. Annual mean benzene concentrations at the kerbsides of busy roads can be higher, but kerbside levels provide only a small contribution to total annual exposure.
Column 301The projected decrease in benzene emissions from motor traffic by 2000 will, however, reduce substantially urban background concentrations of benzene. The overall effect of policies now in place or agreed means that by 2000, the possibility of occasions when the 5 ppb standard is exceeded should be virtually eliminated. We will monitor progress and look at what further measures may be necessary.
There is some evidence that exposure to very high concentrations of smoke from diesel engines may contribute to lung cancer in certain occupational groups, but it is unlikely that ordinary street exposure would have an effect as the concentrations are far lower. Diesel emissions account for many of the particles present in urban air. The Quality of Urban Air Review Group advised in late 1993 that diesel emissions are more damaging to health than petrol emissions, although in terms of fuel economy and emissions of other pollutants, such as carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, diesels perform rather better than petrol engines.
The debate over petrol versus diesel as an environmentally friendly fuel is immensely complex. We still do not have absolutely conclusive evidence on this, so we neither recommend nor discourage the purchase and use of diesel cars. In the Budget, the rate of diesel fuel duty was brought into line with that of unleaded petrol. Nevertheless, the problem has been referred to the COMEAP sub-group looking at the effects of particles on health.
Particulates are particles suspended in the air, which may be inhaled as we breathe. It is the fine particles, defined as the PM particles--that is, particles with an aerodynamic diameter of less than 10 microns--that are important here. They are formed during the combustion process and they may be released in exhaust emissions. In urban areas, motor vehicles are the main source of particulates, with diesel vehicles being responsible for most of the particles measured as black smoke. The Department of Health has asked for definitive advice from COMEAP on the effects of particulates on health and we await its views.
Like the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, I saw the other day the demonstration of the continuously regenerating trap--CRT--device which was launched by Johnson Matthey. It is, indeed, an exciting development which offers the prospect of a fitment for about £3,000 to £4,000 of a device that has a spectacular effect in visible terms and, I am advised, in overall terms. Clearly, it opens up to us the prospect of even tighter standards for public service vehicles. The hon. Member for Newham, North- West, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham and I have a keen interest in London. I accept the point that it is often perceived to be buses and taxis that are the major cause of concern. It is also understood by those who are concerned about these matters that buses produce about 300 passenger miles per gallon whereas motor cars produce about 20 passenger miles per gallon. On the basis of pollution per passenger mile, buses are still an effective form of public transport and are environmentally very friendly. It is clear, however, that more can be done if the technical means are available. The CRT device offers that prospect. We also have in London the metered smoke test for taxis which, I hope, will bring about an improvement. We need to look at that matter, which gives rise to a great deal of public concern.