Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)




  20. I thought you were referring to the demonstration effect?
  (Mr Meacher) And, before you ask the question, Mr Chairman, I do try to abide by that myself, in a small way. I do think that congestion charging, which is an option, and certainly likely to be exercised in London, and maybe elsewhere, will certainly begin to have an impact. But I think there is a much greater readiness to understand that this is a problem, and I would think there are 20, 30 per cent perhaps of the population who are very sensitive to these matters and do try to reflect it in their own behaviour.

Mr Barker

  21. I think we have exhausted this last five years pretty comprehensively; we are all agreed that it was a lot more difficult than you anticipated, and the Government has failed. But, the next five years, if, in five years' time, and now you know the score, these indicators are still either static or rising very moderately, will you have failed and will we be able to hold you to it?
  (Mr Meacher) Perhaps I could take you back to your earlier premise. We are all agreed that it has proved more difficult than, I think, any of us anticipated. I do not think the Government has failed, I think we have only partially succeeded; that is a rather different way of putting it. I do think, I insist, that there has been a change, and that is some partial success; and, I think, in the light of that experience, it would be very unwise for any Minister, or any Government, to make prognostications of where we are going to be in five years. We intend to intensify these pressures, as I have just indicated to Mr Challen, and I do anticipate that those will increasingly bite; but whether it bites sufficiently to get a reduction, an overall reduction, in five years, I am not making that prediction, but I do not think that that is impossible.

  22. So how should the public, the electorate, look to hold you to account, what measurable indicator can they look to, to actually hold you to account, so you have, in layman's language, succeeded or failed, in the simple argot of John Prescott?
  (Mr Meacher) That is a matter for the public, is it not, it is not a matter for Government to lay down; and we are very concerned, what does the electorate feel about this, what are their views about what they would like the traffic situation to be. As I say, most people, if not virtually everyone, would like traffic to be less; the question is, are they willing to make their contribution to it, in order to ensure that everyone makes a contribution to it. Now I am not sure what the public's attitude is, I think it is very mixed, I think it is very ambiguous. So it is not for the Government to set a target and then say, "Well, we're being held to it," it is for the electorate, I think, to take a view, to which we will be very sensitive, I can assure you.

Mr Savidge

  23. You have partly answered my question, in your response to Mr Challen, which is, what further policies do you have for trying to actually reduce traffic; you have mentioned congestion charging, any other issues that you would like to raise?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. I have mentioned these, so I will not repeat them, but the other one which I think is quite important is air quality. We have a commitment to statutory application of air quality targets in 2005, now only three years away, and let me make clear what that means. There are eight main air pollutants, and each local authority in the country is required to ensure that it, within its own territory, remains below the ceiling level for each of those pollutants. Now, of course, some of them, particularly NOx and PM10s, which are associated with transport, are often very difficult, in very heavily-used roads, near intersections, centres of cities, and local authorities have now been required to examine such hot spots, as they are called, in order to determine whether it is necessary to have an air quality management area designated, and action taken by the local authority, and which it will determine what that is, in order to bring the level of pollution of each of those pollutants below the threshold level. Now that is also going to lead to change, it may lead to change in traffic configuration, possibly road architecture, it is for the local authority to decide, but I think this will influence the pattern of traffic, both its speed and its volume.

  24. Just on specifically the traffic-related matter of air pollution, because I suspect we will be talking about air pollution further later on, how far do you think the news today, of the possibility of producing petrol which will contain a mixture of biological products with oil, does that possibly give a way forward for reducing air pollution from traffic?
  (Mr Meacher) That will certainly have an impact on traffic pollution, and indeed I think there will be a major change in the next five, ten years in that respect, as we move towards hybrid vehicles; which, of course, can be produced now, it is all a question of recharging, and the redesigning of vehicles in order to take the necessary tanks, and, of course, questions of cost. But the big change, of course, is as we move towards the hydrogen fuel-cell car, and I know no more than anyone else about when that is going to happen, but I would certainly anticipate that it will be in commercial use within ten, 15 years.


  25. A long way off, I think?
  (Mr Meacher) Ten, 15 years, if that is a long way off, yes.

Mr Savidge

  26. Do you think Government could take more steps, either fiscal or otherwise, to actually encourage that process?
  (Mr Meacher) Well, as we are all trained to say, that is a matter for the Chancellor, and it is one on which, of course, we give him advice; but it is his decision.

  Chairman: We want to move on to some other indicators, I think, after discussing that, which has had a rather lengthy exposure. I know Mr Gerrard wants to come in here.

Mr Gerrard

  27. Can we move on to the wildlife indicator, which is the population of wild birds. In the report, you have shown a small decrease again in farmland species but an improvement in woodland; but if we look at it long term, certainly if you look back over a couple of decades, there is a very serious decline in both. How clear are you as to the actual causes of that, and what needs to be done to start turning it round?
  (Mr Meacher) I think we are pretty clear as to some of the reasons, and, probably, the main reasons, whether we yet understand all the main reasons I would be less sure. Certainly, intensification of agriculture is unquestionably the main one, and that is reflected in, for example, the reduction in field margins, the destruction of hedgerows, the switch from spring to autumn sowing and, of course, extensive use of pesticides, as well as fertilisers. Now all of those, directly or indirectly, impact on bird survival.

  28. How far do we know that level of affect on individual species? These are collective data here, for quite a large number of species, I think, if one looks at the `all species' figure, not woodland or farmland; but there has certainly been a very significant change in London, say, over the last 20 years, where probably the most common birds you see now in gardens in London are pigeons and magpies, rather than the sorts of birds that were there 15, 20 years ago?
  (Mr Meacher) Of course, it is significant that, whilst there has been a reduction in both types of species, the reduction in farmland is dramatically more; the reduction in woodland birds since 1970 is about 15 per cent, in the case of farmland it is 43 per cent. And that, I think, simply reflects the factors that I have referred to, intensified agriculture and all that goes with it; and it is the reversal of those practices which will steadily, we believe, restore the populations towards where they were.

  29. Do you think that we really will significantly reverse those trends on intensified agriculture, if that is the answer?
  (Mr Meacher) Again, we are at a very early stage in a switch away from the most intense stages of the Common Agricultural Policy. Last year, as these figures show, there was a 9 per cent increase in woodland species, and about level, in other words, no further drop, in farmland species. Now what are the policies behind that; an increased shift towards the second pillar of the Agricultural Policy, away from subsidised production towards agri-environment, there has been a quite significant shift towards organic, it has happened all across Europe, it is happening even faster here, and has certainly been very much supported by Government support subsidy as well. Modulation, which was introduced by the previous Minister for Agriculture, from 2 to 4Ö per cent; a modest but significant change compared with past trends, and one of which, of course, the Curry Commission, which is probably the single most important instrument, has recommended should increase substantially further. And, indeed, the Curry report on sustainable agriculture, `Commission on Food and Farming', as it is called, really seeks to reverse a lot of these trends; and, I can assure you, the Government takes very careful note of the Curry report, we have yet to set out our proposals, but we are certainly impressed by that report and are keen to see much of it implemented.

  30. You say in the report that in future you are going to look at both trends, farmland and woodland populations, which was not initially the case. Was there a reason not to separate those indicators initially and just have the one?
  (Mr Meacher) For those who were engaged in the statistics before my time, I think it is because we did not appreciate the differentiation between these types of species at the outset, and it became clear that there was a clear and major dividing line, and almost certainly related to causation; so I think that was why the change was made.
  (Mr Adams) Having put both lines on the same graph, we are then faced, if they are going in different directions, with the requirement either to compromise as to what the story is or to say that the story is different as between the two, and that was what we decided to do this year.

  31. Can I ask about two other specific indicators, the two that, in the small table that is being handed out, since the strategy, are both shown as "insufficient or no comparable data"; the obvious one, perhaps, first of all, waste, which is a key area, one where we are expecting, according to Government targets, very significant change over the next eight years to meet targets for 2010. Why is it that we have not got the systematic monitoring to give us the data we want?
  (Mr Meacher) I think it is because, of course, we have got it now, but we did not have it, I think, in 1990; is that correct?
  (Mr Adams) I think what has happened here is that we deliberately chose an indicator for all waste streams, but we do not have equally good data for all waste streams; we have reasonably good data for household waste and we can track that year by year, but we will not have, for another year, or so, another comprehensive set of data to set alongside that.


  32. But is it not household waste which matters, because that is the one which causes the problem?
  (Mr Adams) Household waste is only a minority of them.

  33. I know, but it matters, does it not? Municipal waste, collection of waste from homes, is the one that is significant; the others, commercial waste, industrial waste, are more handleable?
  (Mr Meacher) They are more handeable; it is important to look at the quantification of this. I think it is about 120 million, 130 million tonnes a year, of which—

  34. But it is smaller, but it is the problem; it is the problem, and we know that it is going up by 3 or 4 per cent a year. So why is it not in here, that is what we are saying?
  (Mr Meacher) What you are saying is, why have we not looked extensively at household waste.

  35. Not put the figure in here?
  (Mr Meacher) We could have done, I quite agree, but it would be an odd thing to do. I think the level is about 28 million tonnes, currently, and if you look at it with commercial and industrial waste it is around 130; it would be odd to concentrate on one-fifth of the total.

  36. I do not think so, because it is the problem. The other is between large organisations, which, by and large, can sort it out?
  (Mr Meacher) The question is, have they, and do they, and are they.

  37. Maybe they are not either, but, nonetheless, it seems strange, when we all know waste is a problem getting worse, to have no figures in here, to say there is no data, when clearly there is; that strikes us as extraordinary?
  (Mr Adams) There are data for household waste, which are published separately, and we are not trying to hide or disguise those. This is the indicator for waste we chose three years ago. Now there is an interesting discussion to be had as to whether that was an appropriate choice to have made.

  38. Maybe, in the case of birds, you should change the indicator there?
  (Mr Adams) We have not changed the indicator, we merely split the analysis in terms of the tick and the cross, but we are quite reluctant to change the indicators, because one of the benefits of a time series is that people can see what is going on.

  Chairman: But this is not telling us anything, because you say you have no data, so there is no information.

Mr Gerrard

  39. When will we have the answer to this question, when will we have the data?
  (Mr Adams) In 2003-04, we will have new data on a basis on which we can update what is in the Strategy.


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