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Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich): The Thamesmead area, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, is partly in his constituency and partly in mine. I wonder whether he has seen the evidence produced by the former director of public health for Bexley, which showed that levels of respiratory illness in the Thamesmead area are far higher than the census economic deprivation statistics suggest. Will the hon. Member also confirm that the former director showed that the level of asthma and

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respiratory illness among children in the area was the third highest in the south-east Thames area, the highest being in the part of the locality that I represent?

Mr. Evennett: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I share his concern. I have seen that report, and I hope that there will be some action to reduce the problems of respiratory illness in that area, particularly among young people.

The provisions of the Environment Act 1995 which relate to air quality management will come into force in 1997. My borough of Bexley has already made it known to the Department of the Environment that it would like to take part in the pilot project to test the implementation of the new statutory controls contained in the Act.

The pilot scheme is due to commence soon--perhaps as early as April. I hope that Bexley will be one of the councils allowed to participate in it. I urge the Minister to give a favourable response to Bexley's application, because of the concerns in the borough about the level of air pollution.

To add to the pollution problems caused by local industry, the power stations and the east winds that seem to blow pollution into the borough, the local environment is also threatened by an application by PowerGen and Cory to build a huge waste energy incinerator at Belvedere in northern Bexley. The proposal, which is strictly the responsibility of the Department for Trade and Industry, has been refused once, but if it is allowed to be built, that could result in further pollution problems for my area.

The application has been refused by Bexley council, and it is opposed by all local people, organisations, political parties, community groups, the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker), myself and others. I hope that there will be a public inquiry to allow local views to be aired more fully.

Mr. Austin-Walker: The hon. Gentleman referred to the threat from the Cory-PowerGen proposal. Does he agree with the statement of the Baptist minister for Belvedere, Mr. Goode, in his letter to the DTI? He said:

Mr. Evennett: I certainly endorse that view, although I do not like the emotive language. I would not use such language.

The issue of refuse disposal is important. Unfortunately, because of shortage of time, I was not called to participate in our recent debate two weeks ago. However, I did sit through the whole debate. I was encouraged by the Minister's speech, and by the general tone of the debate. Of course there is a need for more recycling--a message that came loud and clear from both sides of the House. However, I believe that we need local solutions to local problems.

Bexley council and the residents are keen to have local solutions to Bexley's refuse problems. What they do not want is to become a home for huge amounts of waste from neighbouring boroughs--and possibly, in time, other parts of Europe. With the PowerGen-Cory proposal, some

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1.2 million tonnes of refuse will be required to operate the vast incinerator, yet only 7.5 per cent. of that would emanate from Bexley borough.

Although some of the refuse would travel on the Thames, the rest would travel across the borough and add to the pollution on our already overcrowded roads. I strongly objected to the proposed incinerator on many grounds, but in particular on the environmental issues and the threat of increased transport pollution. I look forward to a public inquiry into the matter.

We had hoped that the excellent proposals for the development of the Thames gateway would mean a rejuvenation and regeneration of the Thames riverside, with new clean industries. For far too long, the potential of the area has been under-utilised and damaged by the dirty and polluting industries of the past. Thamesmead, Belvedere, Erith, Slade Green and Crayford look forward to new investment, jobs and homes as part of the initiative. A waste-to-energy incinerator was not what we had in mind to improve the area. I hope that it will not prejudice the development of the clean industries and new homes and jobs that we want in the area.

I pay tribute to the organisation BADAIR, set up to lead the campaign against the PowerGen-Cory incinerator proposal, and in particular its former chairman Alec Tapper and vice-chairman Commander John Mankety--local people, determined to improve the local environment.

Having dealt with incineration and the problems associated with emissions from that, I want briefly to deal with pollution from lorries and cars. The problem of increasing traffic and the environmental consequences of exhaust fumes is widespread across London; it is not just an issue in my borough. However, the position is exacerbated locally because of the inadequacy of local roads and the increasing number of vehicles travelling through residential roads in Crayford, Bexleyheath and Bostall in particular. Huge lorries thunder along roads that were never meant to take them.

For example, Crayford has become a continuing traffic nightmare, with the stop-start progress of cars and lorries emitting exhaust fumes causing more pollution. There has often been near-gridlock in the town centre, with exhaust fumes causing a cloud over the town.

Meanwhile, on the major motorway crossing our borough--the A2--traffic has increased dramatically over the past few years, causing increased pollution and creating more difficulties for those whose homes are close to the road. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) has raised the problems experienced by his constituents with our hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London.

The road now ranks among the busiest in the United Kingdom. At times, it is so congested that cars and other vehicles travel at low speeds, stop-start and create more pollution. The road is fairly busy for some 20 hours a day, and has changed out of all recognition from when it was opened.

Traffic from the A2 causes great environmental problems across the whole of the borough. While I realise that that is not the subject of today's debate, and needs to be pursued with the Transport Minister, it nevertheless highlights the problems of Bexley caused not just by industry but by traffic passing through the borough to other destinations and by the heavy lorries that come to

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Bexley's industrial areas. The increasing frequency and size of lorries and the growth in the number of car journeys in the area contribute to the poor air quality, which is being monitored by Bexley council.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department to do all they can to improve air quality and reduce levels of pollution across London, but especially in Bexley. In the short term, I believe that Bexley has a strong case for joining the pilot scheme and for monitoring the new statutory controls under the 1995 Act. I also believe that the Department's overall responsibility for the Thames gateway initiative will allow it to help to invigorate and rejuvenate the area as part of a riverside community, with environmentally friendly industry, in which it is a pleasure to live and work.

Our area has great potential, but it needs help from the Government and the local authority, as well as local industry, to kick-start the development. We need clean industry and cleaner air for the residents, the visitors and everyone who works in the borough of Bexley.

12.47 pm

The Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency (Mr. Robert B. Jones): I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate, as it enables me to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who has waged an energetic and single-minded campaign to improve the environment of his constituency. He is a respected campaigner on this and many other issues, and Bexley is fortunate in having him as a champion.

As my hon. Friend said, Bexley contains one of the air pollution monitoring stations belonging to the Department of the Environment's automatic urban monitoring network. It shows that Bexley experiences levels of pollution that are, on the whole, not unusual for any urban site in the United Kingdom. For example, levels of nitrogen oxides can approach, although they rarely breach, the Department's poor air quality threshold. It was breached for only a single hour in each of the last two years. Levels do not approach the European Community's limit value, which I remind the House is 200 g/m 3 and the 98th percentile of hourly means over a calendar year.

We recognise that levels of sulphur dioxide have occasionally caused poor air quality, as defined by the Department's air quality banding. The poor air quality threshold for sulphur dioxide roughly coincides with the World Health Organisation's guideline value. This level was exceeded in Bexley on four days in 1994, and on 13 days in 1995.

That is the picture of air quality in Bexley. The question of sulphur dioxide apart, it largely reflects the air quality to be found in other urban sites. The Government recognise that there is nationwide concern over growing evidence on the health effects of some pollutants and the desire to improve living conditions--particularly in our cities. The Government are determined to take effective action where the need to bring down levels of air pollution has been identified. I will outline the broad framework of pollution control.

The United Kingdom already has in place one of the most sophisticated industrial air pollution control systems in Europe. It was introduced in the Environment Protection Act 1990, and consists of two elements--integrated pollution control and local authority air pollution control.

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Integrated pollution control applies to large industrial installations and is currently administered in England and Wales by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. Its authorisations set limits on emissions to all environmental media from such installations. Local authority air pollution control, which is administered by the relevant local authority, covers emissions to air from small and medium enterprises.

In both systems, authorisations are based on best available techniques not entailing excessive cost--BATNEEC--for the industrial process in question, and are reviewed every four years, so that changes in the available technology can be taken into account. Across the UK, some 2,000 processes are authorised under integrated pollution control, and there are about 13,000 local authority air pollution control processes nationwide. The figures for the London borough of Bexley are five IPC processes in operation and 31 LAAPC processes. I will refer later to industrial emissions in Bexley and the east Thames corridor.

Emissions of sulphur dioxide and smoke from domestic households are controlled through the smoke control areas system, which was introduced in the Clean Air Act 1956. Bexley has completed its smoke control programme, so 100 per cent. of households in the borough fall within smoke control areas.

As to pollution from transport and road traffic in particular, emissions from the transport sector are mainly controlled through European Community legislation--specifically, through emission standards on new vehicles sold in the Community and standards on the quality of automotive fuels. Standards that make compulsory the fitting of catalytic convertors to petrol cars took effect from 1993. Stricter standards for vehicles have been agreed for 1996-97. The effect of the standards already in place will be to bring about a continued dramatic reduction in emissions of traffic-related pollution well into the next century.

We recognise that the steady rise in the size of the vehicle fleet will militate against that downward trend. It is estimated that, on current policies, emissions will begin to rise again around the year 2010. If we are to achieve and maintain our air quality targets and objectives in the face of transport fleet growth, further progress is needed in reducing average emissions per vehicle.

The European Commission is expected to bring forward this year new proposals for vehicle emission and fuel quality standards for the year 2000 and beyond. We shall be looking to agree a positive, cost-effective package of measures that will bring down emissions further and bring us closer to meeting our air quality objectives.

As cleaner vehicles come to predominate in the fleet, we are also tightening up the MOT standards, to ensure that we pick up on catalysts that have stopped working efficiently, and that vehicle owners keep their vehicles properly tuned. In addition, we are tackling the volatile organic substances given off when tankers load and unload at fuelling stations.

Reducing pollution cannot be left entirely to technological fixes. Air quality can also be improved through changes in patterns of behaviour. We are encouraging public and private fleet operators to act in an environmentally responsible way, and we are providing the public with information about greener motoring habits.

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To deliver a sustainable improvement in air quality in areas where quality currently exceeds the levels that are considered desirable, a national framework of air quality objectives and assessment, and management practices within which the right balance of policies can be set, are needed. The Environment Act 1995 committed the Government to producing a national air quality strategy.

That strategy, which we will issue this year, will set out the framework. It will be based on sound scientific advice about the health and other effects of air pollutants--recommendations from the independent expert panel on air quality standards and information from other sources, such as the World Health Organisation, which will provide the technical expertise to provide that scientific basis; clear national standards and objectives for air quality, to be achieved by a given timetable; a national strategy backed up by flexible and cost-effective action at a local level, through the system of local air quality management areas; a commitment to keep Government policies under review, to ensure that progress is maintained; and clear and accessible information for the general public and advice on how they can help. We need to keep the strategy flexible, so that we can continue to find cost-effective solutions and to ensure that as further air quality targets are agreed in Europe, the mechanism can encompass them.

The work of laying the ground for the air quality strategy has already started. It is fairly clear that a single solution for the whole country is unlikely to be cost-effective. To ensure that action is not unduly burdensome or bureaucratic, problems must be solved where they occur--whether across the whole of Europe or in one congested high street. To ensure that solutions can be put in place, a new legal structure for local authority action is needed.

The Environment Act 1995 requires local authorities to review their air quality against the standards and targets in the strategy. Where targets and standards are not going to be met, an air quality management area will be designated and a more thorough assessment will be made, to work out where the problems are, how bad they are and what is causing them. The local authorities involved will be required to prepare and undertake a plan of action to remedy the situation.

The Government are currently drawing up guidance, in consultation with local authorities, on how they can meet their duties under the Act. Furthermore, we are initiating the first phase of local authority assessment and reviews this year. It will include a Londonwide initiative.

Our aim is primarily to ensure that air quality can brought to acceptable levels and sustained. Local authorities will be free to use all the powers at their disposal in the discharge of their duties under the Environment Act 1995. Those powers encompass the setting of conditions in local authority air pollution control authorisations--which in future must have regard to the forthcoming air quality strategy.

Over the long term, local authorities can bring their planning powers to bear on air quality. Guidance has already been issued to them on ways of lessening the need for private transport through judicious planning.

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I have outlined the Government's national approach to controlling pollution, all of which has great relevance to my hon. Friend's constituency, and I will make a few comments specific to the area that he represents.

As to sulphur dioxide, there are no major processes regulated by HMIP within Bexley that release significant amounts of the pollutant. There are a number of major sources within the wider area, within a 25 km radius. Most prominent among them are the power stations at Littlebrook and Tilbury, oil refineries at Coryton and Shellhaven, and a cement producer at Northfleet. All those processes are to the east and to the north of Bexley, which is upstream of the prevailing winds. It is possible--under certain, infrequent weather conditions--that these processes contribute to the raised levels of sulphur dioxide in the Bexley area.

Nationally, we are committed to a significant reduction in emissions of sulphur dioxide over the coming years. By 2010, emissions should have been cut by 80 per cent. on 1980 levels. That continued reduction is administered under the national sulphur plan and will be delivered largely by increasingly strict conditions in integrated pollution control authorisations, which should mean that the risk of raised levels of ambient sulphur dioxide should also reduce significantly.

In 1992, Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution commissioned a major study of the environmental impact of all the major industrial releases of nitrogen oxides in the east Thames corridor. A number of processes were subject to application for authorisation and their potential effect was considered. The ensuing report reached the conclusions that existing industrial processes make a relatively small contribution to annual nitrogen oxide concentrations, accounting for not more than 17 per cent. of current levels; each new plant would make only minor additions to the existing levels of nitrogen oxides; and all the releases of the proposed new plants would not threaten the statutory EC directive limit value.

HMIP has used and will continue to use the BATNEEC principle to ensure that state-of-the-art technologies are used to minimise the release of nitrogen oxides and other pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, from the major industrial processes in the area. Of the 10 processes proposed at the time of the study, three are in operation and performing to the required emission standards.

Of the remaining seven, the most significant plants for Bexley are the sewage sludge incinerators at Crossness and Beckton, and the waste to energy plant at Belvedere. The sludge incinerators, which will be operated by Thames Water, were authorised in 1994, and are currently under construction. They have been designed to meet the tight emission standards imposed by HMIP for plants in the east Thames corridor.

Cory Environmental Ltd. was granted an IPC authorisisation in 1993 for a waste and energy plant at Belvedere, designed to treat 1.2 million tonnes of London's waste and to produce 108 MW of electricity. I understand that the prospective operators of the plant have not been successful so far in obtaining planning permission, and it is not appropriate for me to comment at this stage on the application, in the event of any further procedure under the planning regime.

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I hope that what I have said will reassure my hon. Friend that the Government have very much in mind his concern about environmental quality, and that we are committed to the measures necessary to enhance and improve it over the years ahead.

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