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Air Quality (Market Towns)

11 am

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): I am grateful for the opportunity for this debate on a matter of great concern to many people in my constituency. Transport Ministers have now pretty well admitted that the Deputy Prime Minister's 10-year transport plan will fail to meet its targets by 2010. That is a great pity, because, of the 120 air quality management areas in England, two happen to lie in small towns in my rural constituency. Had the plan been on course, I might not have felt it necessary to ask for the debate, and we could all have been outside making snowmen in the ever-increasing snow falling around the House.

Last year we remembered the London smog of 1952. Overall since then things have, mercifully, improved. However, two things have happened at the same time, relating to the consideration of air quality in smaller centres. Our insight into the likely health effects of levels of atmospheric pollution that are, by historic standards, low, has improved dramatically. Also, the contribution to air pollution by industry has of course been eclipsed by that made by road traffic.

Unfortunately, the improvement evident in cities has not necessarily been matched elsewhere. Indeed, when air quality assessments were carried out by local authorities from the mid-1990s onwards, people in the field were, it is probably true to say, caught rather on the back foot by the extent of the problem in unexpected locations. In Wiltshire there are six air quality management areas—one in Bradford-on-Avon, one in Westbury and four in Salisbury. None are in Swindon, which is by far the biggest conurbation in Wiltshire.

We expect pollution in our big industrial cities and alongside motorways, and by and large we find it there. However, we do not necessarily associate it with pretty market towns and pocket cathedral cities such as Salisbury; but it appears that we are finding it in those places too. Consequently, a national air quality strategy that anticipated having to deal exclusively with cities must now attend to the special needs of smaller centres.

Market towns are pathetically ill-equipped to deal with 21st century traffic. Traffic is forced to wind through ancient trackways, competing all the time with the needs of pedestrians. Workable solutions are devilishly difficult and planners have little room for manoeuvre. Not only do they struggle to marry the competing needs of residents, businesses, motorists and pedestrians, but they must deal with historic buildings that are blackened by traffic effluent. Air pollution does not respect anyone, including politicians. An acidic sandstone leprosy has eaten away at the rather handsome façade of my constituency office. That building is not unique in west Wiltshire and the small towns that I represent have a wealth of historic buildings that are gradually being spoiled by traffic effluent.

Alarming though such effects are for the townscape, my chief concern is for the well-being of people who live along major through routes in Bradford-on-Avon and Westbury. One of the defining characteristics of market towns is that residents' front doors often give directly on to major thoroughfares. In gentler times, when all that passed by one's front door was a coach and horses, that perhaps was not a problem. However, when the road

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has evolved into the A350 through Westbury, a road that Ministers are seriously considering as a south coast to Bristol and Bath super-highway, it is a different matter entirely. We know that pollutants fall away the further one gets from traffic, but when the exhaust-to-sofa distance is measured in inches, there is a problem. That applies in larger centres also; however, in many cities the traffic is not juxtaposed with vehicles in quite the same way as it is in many historic market towns. People would not plan to live so close to traffic these days as those who live in small towns that were built hundreds of years ago.

Most authorities that need to put in place air-quality improvement plans will rightly try to avoid the difficult option of building themselves out of difficulty. However, for the Westbury bypass, as a local scheme that is independent of the south coast to Bristol and Bath study, a road is the only realistic solution. There is no other way that decent air quality can be delivered to my constituents who live in the middle of the town. I commend the bypass to the Minister, although I realise that his powers are limited in that respect. I hope that, in the next few months, his Government will think again about the stop that they put on the Westbury bypass at the tail-end of 2001.

Although air pollution in smaller towns is predominantly the result of traffic, industry also surprisingly features. Indeed, the Westbury cement works presents an additional challenge for the town. Blue Circle has taken to burning tyres with the Environment Agency's support. The Environment Agency has more than simply the welfare of my constituents in mind as it works towards the EU-driven landfill directive.

To meet the terms of the directive, the Government appear to be going for the easy option of energy recovery, which is hardly carbon-neutral, over retreading and recycling, which are. That may be good news for the cement industry, but many of my constituents who live in the lee of the Blue Circle chimney are yet to be convinced that what comes out of the stack does them any good. It is sad that our Government do little to support tyre-recycling, apart from sponsoring a bit of research. They might like to consider the United States, where the recycling of tyres is more actively promoted. In the States there is a statutory minimum recycled content for road surfacings that must be derived from old tyres. I hope that the Minister will comment on that and also reconsider my request for a meeting to discuss air pollution in Westbury.

Anyone who doubts the challenges facing market towns should visit hilly, mediaeval Bradford-on-Avon, which is a quintessentially beautiful small town. If it were snowing there—my wife tells me that it is not snowing in Wiltshire at the moment—the town would be particularly attractive. I recommend that the Minister pay a visit at any time, but particularly to look at the problem that I describe today. Were he to take his life into his hands, he could walk up Mason's lane in Bradford-on-Avon. There, fumes from traffic that climbs a steep incline are retained by high structures on either side that produce a canyon effect. That road,

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which is in the middle of one of the most delightful towns in England, has one of the poorest air qualities in the country.

To get an idea of local opinion in Bradford on remedial measures, I personally delivered more than 400 letters to residents and businesses in the middle of the town during the festive period. The response has been impressive.

One of my chief concerns is that a planned development at a redundant industrial site called Kingston mill should be disallowed in its current form. The site is plumb in the middle of Bradford, and the developer is no doubt relishing ministerial diktat on housing density that is promoting the shoehorning into the site of 127 de-luxe dwellings, no affordable housing and a quantity of commercial premises. The effect that that will have on traffic and air quality in Bradford in the 3 to 4-year construction phase and in the long term is blindingly obvious.

Any proposals that Wiltshire county council might come up with to re-route, to slow down and, in a myriad clever ways, to alter traffic behaviour would almost certainly be eclipsed by such an application. My constituents have lost no time in pointing that out. They are rightly calling for a holistic approach to air quality management in the town. I hope that Ministers will allow latitude in planning guidance to ensure that the special nature of settlements such as Bradford-on-Avon is recognised.

Many of my Bradford correspondents are calling for a bypass to lift their misery. Realistically, that is a distant prospect, but it would be nice to have reliable data on which to base relief measures. Unfortunately, according to their own advisers, the Government are using wrongly computed data to project future pollution from car usage. Last month, the advisory committee on business and the environment said that the Government had substantially underestimated the reduction in road transport emissions that would be achieved by the end of the decade. It is important to sort that out quickly, because it would be unfortunate if structure plans were drafted and road schemes hatched on the basis of shoddy data. I hope that the Minister can offer the appropriate assurances in that regard.

Last year, DEFRA published revised draft guidance with its proposals for rolling air quality reviews and annual reports. The guidance makes it clear that Ministers want to get a tighter central grip on local air quality management. That is fine, and the proposal is no doubt driven by the Government's need to meet EU directives. However, local air quality management suddenly looks like no more than local air quality monitoring, with most of the management being done centrally.

The evidence base for the health effects of historically low levels of pollution is not firm. Guidance based on levels will encourage a deterministic approach, when a stochastic one might be more appropriate. Clearly, further research is needed into the effects of pollutants and particularly into the toxicology of particulates, given the emerging evidence on lung cancer and circulatory disease. I hope that the Minister will see such research as a potentially fruitful area for Government funding.

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Ministers must take the lead in promoting cleaner, more sustainable fuels through suitable abatements in vehicle excise duty and by adjusting duty on alternative fuels to reflect the EU minimum rate. I welcome what the cleaner vehicles task force and Powershift have done so far, but alternatively powered vehicles are still marginal. The Government must further increase the fuel duty differential in favour of alternatives such as liquefied petroleum gas, compressed natural gas, biodiesel, and electricity and hydrogen cells. We must also support research and development.

I welcome the enforcement of MOT and roadside emission checks, and I am intrigued by the possibility that the low-emission zones enforced in European towns might also be applied in towns here. However, such strategies are financially regressive, and much of my constituency lies in a low-wage economy. The less well-off tend to own older, less efficient vehicles, and I would be interested to know what assessment the Minister has made of the possible impact of the initiatives on such people.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that a car is no luxury for people in the countryside, where public transport is often not an option. I hope that Ministers will be true to their word in rural-proofing any policies that they come up with for improving air quality, so that my rural constituents are not disproportionately disadvantaged.

In their worthy market towns initiative, the Government have at least been good enough to nod in the direction of such towns, and that is welcome. No one expects the scheme to turn the fortunes of small towns around—much less that it will greatly improve the road traffic situation. However, I hope that it indicates a willingness on the part of Ministers to recognise that market towns have distinct problems, as well as difficulties, such as poor air quality, that are traditionally associated with large conurbations.

11.13 am

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) for raising a wide range of important issues and for the constructive and well-informed way in which he debated them.

It is worth saying at the beginning that there have been real improvements in air quality over the past decade and, indeed, the past 50 years. In that respect, we should recall that we marked the 50th anniversary of the great smog of London only a few weeks ago. That improvement in air quality applies in market towns just as much as it does in larger cities. That is a tribute to the improvements that have been made in vehicles and fuels, as well as to the reduction in industrial and domestic emissions.

However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the issue is important and that the problems have not gone away. There are still areas with unacceptably high levels of pollution, and we must address that problem, not least because of the health impact of exposure to air pollution. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman referred to the need for further research into those health effects, and I agree with his point. I am therefore pleased that the Department of Health recently announced £1 million worth of new research projects.

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The committee on the medical effects of air pollutants has been asked to advise the Government as soon as possible on new evidence that is emerging from research. With his medical background, the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with many of the impacts of air pollution, for example its links with asthma, cancer and reduced life expectancy. That underlines the importance of the issue that he raised this morning.

I certainly agree that, in smaller towns, increasing volumes of traffic cause particular problems, some of which the hon. Gentleman described eloquently, although I suspect that some pollution problems were caused by the coaches and horses that used to pass through Wiltshire towns in earlier days. We are all familiar with the problems of narrow streets, which were never designed to cope with the volume of traffic that goes through those towns today. I agree that those problems need to be tackled, but it is also important to get the balance right.

Towards the end of his remarks, the hon. Gentleman made one important point. We need to improve air quality but we also need to improve transport links—a key issue not only for market towns but for the rural hinterland. It is important to improve transport for people in rural areas, as well as for the rural economy, in which communications play a crucial role. That is especially true as the economy becomes more diversified and we try to maintain the standard of life in rural communities. That is an important part of my work and that of DEFRA, which is focusing, for the first time ever, on rural issues in that way.

The problem is that there is no one-size-fits-all policy to deal with all the issues. That is why the Government have introduced the system of local air quality management, the purpose of which is to allow local authorities to identify pollution hotspots and to put in place local measures to deal with them. We also have a system of local transport plans, under which local authorities are able to bid for new capital funding for local transport measures. Many authorities have successfully bid for schemes to alleviate local pollution problems. It is something of a quiet revolution that that is becoming such an accepted part of a progressive approach towards improving the environment.

In Wiltshire, funding for integrated transport measures is being increased from just over £350,000 in 1998–99 to nearly £4 million in 2002–03. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the possibility of a bypass. Indeed, I believe that he referred to that possibility in connection with two locations. I am sure that he is aware of the importance of the Bristol/Bath to south coast study, which is examining how best to manage traffic flows in the area. The consultants are creating a strategic traffic model, which will allow options to be tested. We might reasonably expect the study to address the issues associated with the possibility of a bypass for Westbury, which would improve air quality there. It would not be right to speculate on the outcome of the study before it is published because the issues are complex and need to be addressed in the round. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that the consultants have been asked to complete the study by the summer in time to allow Wiltshire county council to apply for funding as a supplementary local transport bid, if the study's findings support that approach.

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The hon. Gentleman said, rightly, that levels of pollution at the roadside can be high, and some properties are built far closer to the road than would now be acceptable as a construction standard. That poses a problem in several market towns. Local authorities have a variety of powers at their disposal to tackle that, and the problem must be addressed locally, sometimes by taking the strategic approach that a bypass implies and sometimes with other more local approaches.

In trying to deal with local air pollution problems in the way that I have described, several local authorities have identified considerable air pollution problems in smaller market towns. Levels of pollution at the roadside in those market towns can sometimes be high enough to cause real concern, and clearly must be dealt with. In trying to improve air quality, the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the air is no respecter of artificial boundaries. For that reason, national and local measurements have a role to play. Local measures are the most direct effective way of dealing with local air pollution problems. Local authorities are best placed to decide what will work in their areas, whether it be new traffic management systems, parking restrictions, or partnerships with bus and freight operators.

Where levels of air pollution are high, we have also given local authorities new powers and new funding to carry out roadside emission testing, which can be an effective way of encouraging motorists to behave responsibly—by getting their vehicles tuned, for example. Several powers are now available to local authorities because of the increased importance that we place on the issue. What works in one town, however, might not in another, and local authorities are best placed to decide what will and will not work well in their areas.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the recycling of tyres and it is important that we deal with the problem of used tyres in the United Kingdom. I cannot comment about the local issue that he raised in detail, but a cement works would be regulated by the Environment Agency, which considers all emissions when it sets the pollution permit conditions. If he has not already done so, the hon. Gentleman should examine the particular circumstances and the Environment Agency's approach in his area. I would be happy to help if that would be of any use to him.

We take the issue of air quality very seriously. There are air pollution problems in some market towns just as there are localised problems in our bigger towns and

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cities. Local measures have a key role to play in dealing with those problems. The Government will continue to support local authorities financially and through the provision of policy and technical guidance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the link between air pollution and land use planning, which I agree is of the utmost importance. Planning authorities must be alive to the impact of new developments on air quality, but each case should be examined on its merits. As with so many things, the specific issue must be seen in the context of the wider economic, social and environmental effects. The point of sustainable development is to ensure that each of those three elements is properly balanced when reaching individual decisions. The guiding principals must be those of sustainable development.

I do not wish to comment on particular planning applications—it is not appropriate for Ministers to do so—but it is worth touching on a few broad principles. First, air quality can be what planners term a material consideration in any application. Whether it actually is, and the weight to be attached to it relative to other material considerations, are matters for the local planning authority in each case. For example, a planning authority may decide that it is worth accepting a slight deterioration in overall air quality if the economic or social gains of a particular development outweigh it. In other cases, the authority may decide that the impact on air quality is likely to be so significant that the development should not go ahead. What is important is that the issue is dealt with appropriately in the planning process.

Secondly, we cannot totally rule out developments in areas where the local authority has identified an air pollution problem, but in such areas, air quality is more likely to be a material consideration in the planning process. Local planning authorities may also consider whether to request developers to put in place mitigation measures, through planning conditions or other agreements with the developer.

Finally, we have encouraged local planning authorities to bear in mind air quality in their development plans for an area. When they set out the long-term blueprint for future developments, they must ensure that they do not create new pollution hot spots or worsen old ones. Such a balanced approach should be pursued. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured about the way in which the Government are taking such issues seriously that he raised in the debate.

11.24 am

Sitting suspended.

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