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Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I have listened carefully to the Minister's arguments about the powers of local authorities. Will he help me on a point of detail? Do local authorities have any powers to promote public awareness
Mr. Hill: I shall be entirely candid with the right hon. Gentleman. I am not sure that specific funding lines are available for that purpose, but every local authority has ample local financial resources. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, being a resident of Lambeth during his sojourn in the capital, many local authorities produce a range of publications in which they raise such issues with the public. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to such publicity.
On funding for AQMAs, it is up to local authorities to ensure that the measures proposed in their plans are proportionate and cost-effective. Some of the actions needed to improve air quality may lie outside the local authority's responsibility, and it will have to work closely with other bodies, such as the Environment and Highways Agencies.
I turn now to the query of the hon. Member for Bath about the timing of conclusions on the Motorists' Forum's recommendations and the possible consultations on extending emissions tests and additional powers. I am grateful to the Motorists' Forum, which represents a broad range of interests, for its work on this matter. We are actively considering its recommendations and will announce our decisions in due course. My Home Office colleagues and I propose to consider additional powers.
The hon. Member for Bath raised the interesting case of Sheffield, where, last Thursday, Labour increased its share of the vote, but the Liberal Democrats increased their number of seats on the council. That is a consequence of the first-past-the-post system which the hon. Gentleman may not wholly deprecate.
I shall correct the version of events in Sheffield that the hon. Gentleman related to the House. Sheffield city council suggested to the Highways Agency that it should impose a 50 mph speed limit on the M1 where it passes through the Meadowhall area, which colleagues assure me is called Tinsley. Sheffield had calculated that if speed limits on the motorway were reduced from 80 mph to 50 mph where it passed through the city, there would be a significant reduction in pollution. The optimum speed for fuel consumption and emissions is at a constant speed between 40 and 50 mph.
Mr. Don Foster: Lest it be thought that a Transport Minister is not aware of the motorway speed limit, I give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to correct the record immediately because I am sure that when he said that the speed limit was 80 mph, he meant 70 mph.
Mr. Hill: It is a matter of public record that I am not a driver and have never learned to drive a car, so these matters are not always at the forefront of my mind, but I willingly accept the hon. Gentleman's correction. I shall now proceed to correct his version of events in Sheffield.
If speed reduction measures were to be introduced, we would need to be sure that the benefits of improved air quality would outweigh the economic impact of lower speed limits on journey times. Emissions from vehicles on the trunk road network are usually more significant for air quality in urban areas. Traffic on such roads is unlikely to be travelling at the legal speed limit--the point raised by the hon. Gentleman--and, especially in congested areas, will cause far more damage to the environment in terms of emissions than if it were travelling at the legal speed limit.
Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire): Following on from the remarks made by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and the Minister's saying that, if district councils or town councils want advice on how to interpret the air quality rules, he will be happy to provide it, I rise to raise a specific case in my constituency: that of the extremely congested A5 route through the centre of Dunstable.
The Minister will be aware of our lengthy campaign to get a bypass. As long as there is no bypass, air quality worsens. An additional cause for urgency is that the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has designated Luton and Dunstable as a growth area for housing; therefore, more people will be affected if the problem continues. Furthermore, without the provision of the bypass, 11 Dunstable schools, with hundreds of children, that lie close to the A5 will continue to endure the massive pollution generated by crawling, stop-start traffic. Similarly, many houses are affected by the problem. The benefit equation is, therefore, massively in favour of the bypass being built.
We have campaigned for many years to get the bypass built. I hope that the Minister will give a favourable hearing to councils if, following Thursday's elections, they approach him asking for advice on whether they can use air quality rules to hasten the building of the bypass. The Minister might wonder what last Thursday has to do with the new clause. The fact is that, during the district and town council elections in Dunstable, only the Conservative party campaigned for a full bypass; Labour and the Liberal Democrats have always been uncertain, even wobbly, on the issue. The result of Thursday's poll was that every single ward in Dunstable returned a Conservative district councillor; and a town council comprising 17 Labour and three Conservative councillors was transformed into one comprising 17 Conservatives and three Labour representatives. The people of Dunstable have given a clear and massive endorsement to an early start being made to the bypass, not least on grounds of air quality.
I make those points to the Minister in the hope that my words, and the council's representations, will cause him to look most favourably on starting a public inquiry into the bypass--not least after what has been said during this important debate about people being badly affected by poor air quality resulting from massive traffic congestion, which we certainly have in Dunstable.
There is some debate about maps and whether many continental drivers of articulated lorries see on the map the green route, which appears to be the most direct route, and so come through my constituency, causing road congestion problems. However, my argument tonight focuses on the relationship between speed, air quality and new regulations that will permit lorry weights to be increased from 40 to 44 tonnes. There is real concern centring on arterial routes, such as the A49. Lorry drivers are equipped with mobile communications equipment, so by the time they go over the Thelwall viaduct on the M6 coming south, they know whether there is congestion around Birmingham. If there is, they leave the M6 and come down the A49 through Warrington and through the constituency of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), before entering my constituency. The lorries then plough through my constituency before joining the M54.
The lorries do not follow direct motorway routes and, as we well know, air quality relates to lorries getting up to speed. On a non-motorway route, there are many bends and hills and, especially on the A49, sharp bends to negotiate. Lorries slow down, particularly owing to their added weight. They then have to get back up to speed; they are keen to travel, when possible, at the maximum speed permitted.
I hope that the Minister will take into account that issue in assessing the impact of the increase in lorry weights, given the nature of the roads on which lorries habitually travel partly because of congestion, particularly around Birmingham on the M6 leading up to the junction with the M5. As the many letters that the Minister and I have exchanged will testify, that has a real impact on my constituents.
I am not sure that the new clause would address the problem, but I listened carefully to the Minister. In assessing air quality measures relating to the speed and routing of lorries, it will be important to take into account measurements on lorries' ability to maintain speed. That in itself can lead to many more air pollutant quotas--however one measures it.
I urge the Minister to consider incentives for lorries once again to travel on the main motorway network, as that would address many of the concerns and alleviate many of the serious and legitimate worries of my constituents, many of whom live on those routes. Owing to the position of the original tracks, the houses are perilously close to the road, resulting in concern and danger.