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Mr. Knight: Any commitment that my party might give must be given from the Front Bench. I would be extremely unwise, given the position from which I speak, to give a commitment on behalf of our new leader and his team. My Front-Bench colleagues have heard the Minister's remarks and will no doubt respond in due course.
One of the problems concerning the availability of gas has been the local authorities' planning permission role. Petrol tanks at filling stations are underground, but those filling stations that wish to start selling gas must apply for planning permission to have a tank on display above ground. A number of local authorities have refused permission for that to be done. I hope that the Minister will encourage local authorities to be sympathetic when they receive planning applications from garages that wish to stock this new, cleaner fuel.
Attempts to lower pollution should be part of a broad strategynot an attack on the motorist per seand should not be confined merely to encouraging the motorist to use cleaner fuels. The type of fuel used is important but it is only one aspect, and other measures should be considered. For example, if we manage to increase the number of motorists using cleaner fuel but congestion still increases at an alarming rate, reducing pollution per engine revolution will be meaningless if it is outweighed by longer engine running times. The Government, along with their crusade to encourage cleaner fuel use, should look at reducing congestion. This does not always have to be anti-motorist, and I hope that the Minister will be prepared to have an open mind in this area.
The nearest I get to road rage is when I am travelling in a non-rush hour period and, along with others, I am forced to sit at traffic lights that go to red in the direction I am facing to allow absolutely no traffic to come across the junction. For years, we have had traffic lights that work on a road sensor, so they can sense when traffic is waiting and give priority to traffic moving in that direction. In the year 2001, why do we still have traffic lights that work on a time basis? Many of these lights are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), and I encounter them when I leave this House late in the evening.
In America, there is an interesting system that has not led to an increase in road accidents. In non-rush hour periods, traffic lights are switched off from their normal use and all the lights at that junction will flash amber. The message to motorists is that they are approaching a road junction and should cross it with care. However, there is no mandatory instruction from the lights for motorists to stop; they approach with caution, the lights flash amber, and they can proceed on their journey if nothing is coming the other way.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): That is an interesting point. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Germany there was an experiment whereby people travelling at the legal speed limit in the ring road system could go through something called the green wave, which prevented them from being endlessly encouraged to speed up to get through the next set of lights or being punished for keeping to the speed limit?
Lembit Öpik: I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman again. The Minister seems to be showing an interest in this, so could I add one more thing? The other element of the green wave is that the timing of the lights and the distance between them is such that, if people drive at, say, 50 kph the lights will go green all the way around. It is simple to arrange that and it is extremely popular with motorists; by keeping to the speed limit, they reach their destination faster.
Mr. Knight: The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) makes a good point. The Minister is nodding, so I hope that he will look at these matters which, I trust, he finds helpful in the quest to reduce congestion on our roads.
We must also look at the pollution caused by so-called traffic-calming measures. Several local authorities are gung-ho about the introduction of speed humps. Insufficient consideration has been given to the increased pollution caused by motor vehicles having to brake, negotiate a hump before invariably gathering speed before the next hump and braking again. That process is noisy, as car suspension units rattle over the humps, and more fuel is consumed. In many cases in which road humps have been introduced, local residents who, before the introduction of humps were in favour of them, wish that they had never supported the scheme; they are kept awake at night and their lives are made a misery. We must look at the guidelines under which local authorities operate before they are allowed to put speed humps on our roads. Most humps are ineffective anyway against one culprit, the motorcyclist, because they usually have gaps in the middle allowing motorcyclists to roar through unimpeded without having to slow down.
The other issue that I wish to raise en passant is the M1 motorway. When my party was in power, we constructed an offside lane hard shoulder on the northbound carriageway of the M1, just south of the intersection with the M25. After it was constructed, members of the local constabulary refused to police that stretch of carriageway as they felt that motorists would use it as an overtaking lane. We therefore authorised the gravelling over and kerbing of that hard shoulder. The Minister should consider bringing it back into use as an extra traffic lane at the busiest point of the M1, where it runs across the M25. That lane would be available if the gravel and kerbing were removed, and could be used as an extra lane to facilitate traffic movement during the rush hour. I hope that the Minister will look at that.
We should all welcome the move towards cleaner fuels, but we must remember that pollution, not the motor vehicle itself, is the problem that we should be addressing. As we look ahead, we should strive for cleaner fuels that are readily available across the United Kingdom and are
Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): It would be preferable to live in a country where public transport was so efficient and affordable that the goal that, I believe, we all share, of overall reduction in road traffic would appear credible. We do not live in such a country at the moment, but I believe that we will. Perhaps one day, the market, consumer preference and benevolent Government policies will lead to less traffic on our roads. However, it must be admitted that a significant reduction in road traffic is some way off, which makes addressing the pollution that we suffer all the more urgent.
I represent the constituency of Reading, East in the Thames valley. Every summer, a toxic pall of pollution hangs over us, and hospital admissions for asthma rocket. In that context, the game becomes one of minimising the negative effects of traffic, which is where cleaner fuels come in. My preferred mode of transport is the cleanest available; it is the bicycle, from which there is no pollution at all. I find it the best way to get around, but I know that it is not possible for everyone to manage that. I am interested in the passion of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) for classic cars. I have never seen their attraction myself, but I know that a great many people do.
Fuels already exist that dramatically cut noxious emissions and noise. Successive Governments have added incrementally to the incentives to create a real, self-sustaining market for such fuels. From time to time, the Treasury has been tentative in constructing such incentives, but those for road fuel gases have been building up since the mid-1990s. Only recently have the Government finally seen the beginnings of a self-sustaining market in one of those fuelsliquefied petroleum gas. The cost has been not so much deadweight expenditure as dead time in getting the overall regime right. That cost can be measured in human mortality, diminished quality of life and environmental damage.
I am not going to go into great detail about the widespread benefits of LPG emissions over petrol and diesel, which are well known to hon. Members. However, I shall mention more recent scientific analyses that further underscore the benefit of greener fuel. Recent research has shown that car users, far from being insulated from the emissions that they inflict on pedestrians and cyclists, are in fact exposed to levels of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide that are between three and six times greater than those at urban background locations. We often see cyclists wearing masks to help protect them from pollution, but perhaps drivers should wear masks. It is very much in the interests of drivers, particularly those whose occupations involve driving, to get their act cleaned up.
We know that the health gains from reducing particulate levels are greater than those of reducing any other pollutant. Recent evidence suggests that there may not be a safe threshold for the health effects of particulates at all. Evidence is strengthening that the larger particlesPM10smay not be the measurement most representative
I met my hon. Friend the Minister during the summer to address some of those matters, and inter alia, we discussed my belief that the London Mayor risked damaging or reducing the air quality benefits resulting from congestion charging by refusing to discount the great majority of LPG vehicles. I take the point about the difficulty of monitoring and assessing whether a vehicle is running on LPG. I am a great supporter of congestion charging and I live in hope that my local authority, Reading borough council, will introduce it one day. So far, it seems disinclined to do so.
My hon. Friend the Minister may ask why we should continue to give incentives for LPG use when it appears to be on the brink of a self-sustaining market and other, even cleaner technologies may be out there that need more help. I would argue that LPG technology is here, it works and it is practical. Some 4 million vehicles run on it worldwide and it powers some 50,000 vehicles in the UK, although that is not enough.
Consideration has been given to increasing support for CNGcompressed natural gaswhich has a similar emissions profile to that of LPG, but there are only about 500 natural gas vehicles in the UK and not enough refuelling points. However, the number of refuelling points is increasing, as hon. Members have already pointed out. The problem with CNG relates to the "C"compressing the gas means that the fuel tanks have to be heavy, and the refuelling infrastructure is much more costly and takes up more land space. Back in the early 1990s, my local bus company, Reading Buses, was a pioneer of using biofuels for its fleet of buses, and I invite my hon. Friend to visit Reading to see some of the initiatives that the company has taken.
Everyone has been talking about hydrogen lately, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) mentioned hydrogen fuel cells. It would be wonderful if the great dream of hydrogen cars could become a practical reality. However, there is a grand total of one taxi propelled by a fuel cell in the UK and there is no commercially available production of vehicles powered by hydrogen. The prospect of developing commercial production of vehicles powered by hydrogen is said to be promising in the not too distant future. In 1874, Jules Verne predicted the derivation of energy from water via hydrogen and 100 years later, in March 1974, "Road and Track" magazine predicted a future for hydrogen-powered cars. The phrase "hydrogen economy" was coined by General Motors four decades ago. Some 40 years on, the managing director of Toyota, Hiroyuki Watanabe, said on 10 April this year that fuel cells are