Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.15 pm

On a number of occasions in Committee, Labour Members raised the point that when a local authority is required to develop strategies to reduce air pollution in its area, some of the measures that it would like to take are outside its control, not least because there is clear evidence that many emissions are likely to come from roads that are outside the local authority's control, especially trunk roads and motorways. If a local authority is required to reduce air pollution in its area, and yet has no control over the activities that take place on trunk roads or motorways, it is powerless to achieve the very objectives that the Government are rightly setting it.

What can the local authority do about that? The obvious step is to work in conjunction with the Highways Agency, which is in a position to do something. The agency has

9 May 2000 : Column 776

said that it is anxious to work with local authorities in developing local transport plans and other strategies to reduce pollution and congestion. One would think that everything in the garden was rosy, and that the local authority could say to the Highways Agency, "We have a lot of problems with pollution from your roads. Will you do something about it?" One would hope that the answer would always be yes. The sad truth is that that is not always the case.

I know that the Minister is very well briefed on the problem in Sheffield. The local authority wanted to reduce pollution in the Tinsley area of Sheffield, but the main concern was pollution from the M1. Sheffield council asked the Highways Agency for help in reducing the speed limit on that section of the motorway. The evidence is that such a move would reduce pollution and, as a by-product, reduce congestion. As the Minister knows, despite all the evidence of speed limit reductions on the M21 reducing congestion and pollution, the Highways Agency was unwilling to accede to Sheffield council's request.

The new clause would ensure that the local authority could at least say to the Secretary of State, "If you agree with our proposals, will you make it a requirement on the Highways Agency to enact them?" In that way, we would have joined-up thinking between local government, central Government and the Highways Agency. They would all work together with the aim of reducing congestion and air pollution.

The Government, and in particular the Minister, have given helpful indications of their intention to take this further. However, it is about time that the Government showed a real commitment to the issue by including in the Bill measures that would make this proposal a reality, rather than promising that that will happen at some time in the future.

I hope that the Government are prepared to accept the new clause.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I would like to make a few general observations about the new clause, moved so eloquently by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), before dealing with his specific questions.

The new clause would allow the Secretary of State to direct the Highways Agency--which I shall refer to as the HA--to take specific measures, such as reducing speed limits on trunk roads and motorways, with the aim of reducing air pollution within air quality management areas--which I shall refer to as AQMAs. Those are areas identified by the local authority where the air quality objectives, as prescribed in the air quality regulations 2000, are unlikely to be met.

Where an AQMA has been designated, the local authority has to draw up an action plan setting out the measures it intends to take in pursuit of air quality objectives. Where the actions needed to improve air quality in an AQMA are outside the local authority's responsibility, such as the case cited by the hon. Gentleman--the reduction of pollution from a trunk road and motorway--the local authority's plan would have to show what action would need to be taken by the HA.

I can fully understand the principles behind the new clause. Local authorities will no doubt have concerns about working towards achieving the air quality objectives

9 May 2000 : Column 777

in their areas, especially where the action required is outside their control. I also agree that it is important for local authorities to have the full support of the HA when they designate their AQMAs and draw up action plans.

However, the provision is unnecessary. It would allow the Secretary of State to direct the HA to take action, including imposing slower speed limits on trunk roads or motorways within an air quality management area. However, the Secretary of State already has powers, under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, to regulate speed on trunk roads and motorways; that is carried out by the HA.

The HA already has a role to play within the local air quality management--or LAQM--process. First, it is a statutory consultee under schedule 11 of the Environment Act 1995. Local authorities therefore have to consult the agency on their air quality reviews and assessments, their proposals for AQMAs and their AQMA action plans. The HA has also provided a technical advice document for local authorities to use when carrying out the review and assessment process.

Secondly, the HA will have to work alongside those local authorities that designate air quality management areas covering trunk roads and motorways where traffic levels are the main contributors to local air pollution problems. The HA is committed to working with local authorities, and is encouraging local authorities to set up small working parties, which would include the relevant HA area and route managers, to identify any possible HA measures that may be taken in pursuit of the air quality objectives.

The HA could take several measures in pursuit of the air quality objectives in AQMAs. For example, better use could be made of the existing messaging service on motorway gantries, such as an advanced warning system of incidents on motorways. The HA is also working with transport operators to encourage people to use public transport.

On the specific issue of introducing slower speed limits on motorways, the HA is not opposed to that in principle, but would want to consider each case on its merits. In considering any such measures on its roads, the HA would have to have regard to the following criteria: safety; economy; integration; environment and accessibility.

All new trunk roads are now subject to environmental impact assessment in accordance with an EU Directive. That assessment includes considering air quality impacts evaluated under the air quality strategy. Local authorities are always consulted on any such proposals.

It is evident that the HA is already fully involved in the LAQM process; it will be working closely with local authorities during the action plan stage to identify action that it can take, bearing in mind the cost-effectiveness of those measures. Furthermore, should local authorities experience any difficulties in liaising with the HA, we would encourage them to approach my Department for further advice.

I therefore hope that the House will agree that, although the principles behind the new clause are to be welcomed, it would not be appropriate to accept it for the reasons that I have outlined. However, before I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it, I shall deal with the questions

9 May 2000 : Column 778

that he raised. I am grateful for the notice that he has given me of the questions. That reflects the extremely close working relationship that we developed in Committee over many hours and months and the singular experience that he and I had in a lonely Westminster radio studio in the middle of the night on Thursday 4 May and Friday 5 May.

First, the hon. Gentleman asked whether I could confirm that, where air quality management areas are declared, enforcement activities will be considered to be consistent with the objectives of the authority's local transport plan. We acknowledge the fact that local authorities are having to complete their local transport plans before they have completed their reviews and assessments. The majority, however, should by now have a clear view of any major local air quality problems and their likely causes.

In our revised local air quality management statutory guidance entitled, "Air Quality and Transport", which was issued to local authorities on 6 March 2000, we have advised local authorities to ensure that their local transport plans contain all the air quality information that is available at the time, even if it is only provisional. Where possible, they should also reflect the likely designation of any AQMAs. It is important for local authorities to make sure that the LAQM is closely linked into the local transport process, particularly because the plans will be judged by their links to air quality issues.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked about authorities that declare air quality management areas, which they are under a statutory obligation to do. He asked whether I would make additional funds available to authorities to fund the designation of AQMAs and the development and enforcement of statutory air quality action plans.

We recognise that local authorities' air quality management duties have financial implications. Since 1997-98, we have made provision in the annual revenue support grant settlement to assist the running costs associated with those duties, including undertaking the air quality reviews and assessments, designating any air quality management areas, drawing up action plans and undertaking public consultation exercises. At the same time, we introduced a programme of supplementary credit approvals--that is to say additional borrowing powers--to support the necessary capital expenditure on air quality reviews and assessments. More than £12 million has been awarded so far. Letters inviting SCA bids for expenditure in 2000-01 were sent to authorities in February.

On the development and enforcement of AQMA action plans, let me say that local authorities can use their existing powers and controls, such as local air pollution control, domestic smoke control, transport and land use planning, to implement their action plans for achieving the air quality objectives. Authorities may also, for example, wish to use the local transport plan process to bid for funding for transport projects that aim to reduce transport-related emissions and improve air quality. Local authorities declaring smoke control areas may apply for SCAs to cover the necessary costs of conversions in domestic premises.

Next Section

IndexHome Page