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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Air Quality (England) Regulations

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 22 March 2000

[Mr. Bowen Wells in the Chair]

Draft Air Quality Regulations

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Air Quality (England) Regulations.

It is a pleasure for me to serve for the first time under your chairmanship in Standing Committee, Mr. Wells. You will recall that we have sat opposite each other on many occasions in Standing Committee. You were always a congenial opponent, and I am sure that you will prove an equally congenial Chairman.

There is a tendency to belive that air pollution is a problem that has been solved-that we have cracked it-because we no longer suffer the peasouper smogs of the 1950s that led to the deaths of thousands of people in London, for example. Indeed, figures confirm that air quality in our towns and cities has improved considerably in the past decade. We should be proud of that record, but we should not be lulled into a false sense of security, because air pollution remains a serious problem. Medical experts estimate that as many as 24,000 people die prematurely each year in the United Kingdom from its effects. Although air pollution does not cause asthma, it can trigger attacks. Moreover, the effects of air pollution are felt by all of us: it impacts on the quality of our lives, buildings and countryside.

Since the 1950s, industrial pollution has been increasingly tightly regulated and is no longer the main form of air polution in this country. However, it has been replaced by a new type of smog that is caused by traffic fumes. Largely thanks to tighter European Union vehicle emission and fuel standards, vehicle emissions have reduced by approximately 80 per cent. in the past decade. By 2010, emissions of air pollutants from vehicles should have reduced by about a further 50 per cent. Nevertheless, many of our towns and cities are still likely to contain localised pollution hot spots, and the benefits of technical improvements will soon be outweighed by increasing traffic.

I fully acknowledge that the previous Administration made a good start in recognising our current air pollution problems. The 1997 UK national air quality strategy provided a framework for air quality policy and set objectives for reducing the levels of the eight most prevalent air pollutants that are harmful to human health. However, it did not offer the most practical protection for human health; nor did it address fully how the objectives would be met.

On coming to office, we endorsed the 1997 strategy and implemented it as a matter of urgency, but we also set in hand a review, with the intention of tightening objectives where practicable. We took account of the latest scientific information and information on health, air quality monitoring, and costs and benefits. After exhaustive consultation, we issued the new air quality strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in January this year. It sets new and tighter objectives for five of the eight pollutants-benzene; 1,3-butadiene; carbon monoxide; lead and nitrogen dioxide-with which the 1997 strategy deals. It replaces the particles objective with the European Union limit values, and retains the objectives for ozone and sulphur dioxide. Its publication marks an important step towards clean air and the protection of the vulnerable in our society from the harmful effects of air pollution.

I should like to say a little more about the strategy's air quality objectives because they form the basis of the regulations. We have been criticised for replacing the 1997 objective for particles with the less challenging European Union limit values. Indeed, that has been the focus of media interest and has distracted attention from the real achievements of the new strategy, such as the tighter objectives for five pollutants, including lead, which are the most stringent in Europe. The objectives may be challenging, but they should be achievable. We now know from more detailed information that was not available when the 1997 objective for particles was set that it is simply not achievable in the short term in a large part of the country. We shall review the objective later this year when further information becomes available.

Under the Environment Act 1995, local authorities are required to identify where poor air quality means that prescribed air quality objectives will not be met and to draw up action plans setting out what they propose to do to improve matters. We introduced the Air Quality Regulations 1997 to establish a system of local air quality management and in the 1997 strategy we set the objectives towards which local authorities must work. Now that the new strategy is in place, we must give statutory effect to the new objectives for the purposes of local air quality management. The regulations before us today will replace the 1997 regulations in England-there are separate regulations for Scotland and Wales. We are confident that the objectives are based on the latest and best scientific and health information available and that they offer the best practicable protection for health without imposing unacceptable economic or social costs.

Local authorities play a vital role in the Government's overall strategy for delivering clean air. Measures that can be taken at a national level-for example, setting improved vehicle emission and fuel quality standards-will go a considerable way towards meeting the objectives. We expect that national measures will be sufficient to meet some of the objectives, but it is not always desirable, practicable or cost-effective to eliminate potential air quality problems through national policies alone. There is a significant local dimension to air quality that local authorities are best placed to tackle.

Since the 1997 regulations came into force, local authorities have been hard at work reviewing and assessing air quality in their areas against the objectives set in the regulations. I have been impressed by their commitment to the task. In addition to providing information on local conditions, local air quality management is also the best tool for dealing with localised pollution. Because of local factors, even after the introduction of national measures and the regulation of industrial processes to ensure the application of modern emission control technologies, some local pollution hot spots are likely to remain. Local authorities are in the best position to understand the causes of the pollution and to take appropriate action to reduce it.

Local authorities are not expected to achieve the objectives single-handed. Earlier this month, we issued new guidance to local authorities to help them with their local air quality management responsibilities. New technical guidance will follow shortly. We recognise that local air quality management has financial implications. Since 1997, the annual revenue support grant settlement has included provision to assist authorities with their running costs and we have introduced a programme of supplementary credit approvals to support the necessary capital expenditure on air quality reviews and assessments. That programme has enabled local authorities to acquire the necessary air pollution monitoring equipment to improve their information on air quality in their areas. More than 12 million has been awarded in credit approvals so far.

Local authorities have a range of tools that they can use to implement their action plans, some of which, including their smoke control and land use planning powers, were not originally intended for that purpose but can play a significant role. Circumstances will vary for each authority and there will always be a delicate balance between keeping traffic out of town centres and keeping those town centres viable. We can expect local authorities to consider all or some of the following: traffic restrictions where appropriate, bus quality partnerships with bus and freight operators, commitments by local authorities to running a green fleet and requiring their contractors to do the same, and measures to make cycling and walking more attractive. A raft of new powers are being considered, or prepared, particularly concerning road transport, which will provide significant additional measures for authorities to consider as they tackle local air quality issues.

The Government are committed to meeting our right to clean air. We all have the right to expect that the air that we breathe will not harm us while we go about our daily lives. The regulations will increase the overall protections that are offered to human health by setting new objectives for local authorities to improve air quality in their area, and by empowering them to take the necessary action to achieve those objectives. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

4.39 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): It is, as the Under-Secretary said, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wells. We promise to behave better than your pager.

The Chairman: It is now turned off.

Mr. Green: I am glad to hear that.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his authoritative exposition of these important regulations and for his generous acknowledgement that the policy that underlies them was set in train by the previous Government. There is no controversy in that regard-we all want better air quality in our cities, towns and rural areas. The Under-Secretary reminded us of the original and important move by the Conservative Government in the early 1950s to clean up the pea-soup fogs in London, which were romantic in literary terms but which had been deadly in practical terms for far too long.

I want to make a few points about practical application, to which I trust the Under-Secretary will respond when he winds up. He said that the proposals had been criticised by Opposition Members and by outside observers for reducing the stringency of the original targets for certain particulate emissions. That was done, he explained, in order to make the targets more achievable. On achievability, how will local authorities perform their duties under the regulations? He rightly referred to the resources-revenue and capital expenditure-that the Government are giving to local authorities to help them to meet the duties that the regulations will place on them. The Minister for the Environment pointed out in a written answer that supplementary credit approvals to the value of 12 million had been granted. How much will each authority receive, how many authorities have applied for credit approval, and how much has been allocated? Local authorities constantly complain about the fact that the Government give them additional duties not not sufficient resources to carry them out effectively. If that happened in this context, it would be regretted by Labour and Opposition Members.

The Minister validly argued that we have moved from an era in which industrial pollution was the principal problem to one in which road traffic is the main problem. One of the few welcome provisions in yesterday's Budget was the change in vehicle excise duty, which will encourage new vehicles and improve CO2 emissions. Why did the Government choose that policy rather than our approach of encouraging less polluting vehicles with lower emissions of CO2 and other noxious gases? That is relevant in this context, because those other noxious gases will be covered by the regulations and their emission would be reduced if our approach were adopted.

Will the Under-Secretary expand on the Government's view of the controversial report on this subject by Professor Stephen Glaister of Imperial college, London? He said that the millions of pounds that are spent fighting traffic pollution may be wasted, because vehicle emissions cause little harm. The Minister will be aware that that is a deeply controversial view, and I hope that he will take this opportunity to give us the Government's considered response to it.

Will the Minister comment on the point that was made when his colleague the Minister of State made the pledge on which the regulations are based? Friends of the Earth believes that by making the regulations lighter, the Government are simply moving the goalposts and attempting to make it appear as though the problems are no longer there. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are not seeking to do that?

Many people feel that the problem with the Government's approach is that, although they have announced the pledge and set a target for the fairly distant future, they may not be willing to commit to the practical means to achieve that target. I hope that the Minister accepts the validity of those concerns. Setting impressive-sounding targets and producing the usual departmental press release is not enough. People are genuinely worried that the spin may have overtaken the substance and that not enough practical measures are being taken to ensure that emissions can be sufficiently reduce to hit the Government's targets, which is what we all want.

I look forward to the Minister's reassurance on those points.

4.46 pm

 
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