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Session 2002 - 03
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Air Quality (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 5 December 2002

[Mr. James Cran in the Chair]

Draft Air Quality (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

9.55 am

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Air Quality (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002.

It is appropriate that we are considering air quality today because it is the 50th anniversary of the great London smog, which lasted four days, led to the premature deaths of more than 4,000 people and caused even more to become ill. Those of us who are old enough to remember London in those days will recall the various occasions when it was difficult for people to see their hands in front of their faces. The difference between the autumn and winter in the city now and what it was like then is quite dramatic. When my parents and I used to visit my uncle, who was in the Metropolitan police, the pleasure of going around London was undoubtedly far less than it is nowadays. The effect on people's health and the dramatic increase in illnesses caused by the air quality at the time was a serious issue, which prompted the passing of the first Clean Air Act in 1956.

We no longer suffer the smogs of the 1950s. There is no doubt that air quality in towns and cities has improved considerably, and the latest figures show that trend continuing. The number of poor air quality days fell from 59 in 1993 to 21 in 2001. We can be proud of that, but we should not be complacent. Air pollution is still a serious problem and its effect on health is still considerable. Medical experts estimate that as many as 24,000 people die prematurely each year in the United Kingdom because of the effects of air pollution. Long-term health effects can be considerable: the latest evidence shows that air pollution does not cause asthma, but can trigger attacks and other respiratory problems. All of us may feel its effects from time to time, and we recognise its impact on our quality of life and the environment.

We are now dealing with a different type of smog, caused mainly by traffic fumes. A great deal has been done to tackle the problem. Industrial emissions are now tightly regulated and are no longer the main source of air pollution. In the past decade, increasingly tight controls on vehicle emissions and fuel standards have reduced emissions by about 60 per cent. Our 10-year transport plan includes a £180 billion investment programme to improve public transport, cut congestion, reduce pollution and boost choice. We have grant schemes to assist companies to clean up older vehicles and convert them to cleaner fuels. By 2010, emissions from vehicles should have been reduced by about a third again. However, the benefits of technical improvements may be outweighed by the increase in traffic, and we are

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likely to see localised pollution hot spots in towns and cities.

The national air quality strategy is worthy of consideration. The previous Administration made a start by recognising the problems. In 1997, the national air quality strategy provided a policy framework and set targets for eight main air pollutants, but did not offer the best practicable protection for human health or address fully how the targets would be met. We set up an urgent review to see how cleaner air could be delivered more quickly, the result of which was the air quality strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that was agreed in January 2000. It set out our policies and measures to improve air quality, and set tighter objectives in respect of several pollutants. We then carried out a further review of the strategy, which ended in August 2002 when my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment announced new objectives in respect of four pollutants. It is the new objectives in respect of two of those pollutants—benzene and carbon monoxide—that are in the draft regulations. The new regulations will require local authorities to work towards tighter objectives for those pollutants, and should ensure that the level of the pollutants remains safe throughout the country.

How exactly will the measures work? Local authorities are required to review and assess air quality in their area regularly against the objectives that we prescribe in regulations. When objectives are unlikely to be met, the authorities declare air quality management areas and draw up remedial action plans setting out how they intend to exercise their powers in ''pursuit of the achievement'' of those objectives. The authorities are not obliged to meet the objectives, as the responsibility for action to control sources of pollution often lies with the Government or other organisations—the Environment Agency has a particular role. Many of the authorities have completed their first reviews and assessments. More than 100 authorities have now declared air quality management areas and have started work on their action plans. I have been impressed by the commitment that they have given to that work.

Local authorities are due to start the next round of reviews and assessments of air quality. This time, as a result of the regulations, they will have to check local air quality against tighter targets for benzene and carbon monoxide. Because of the work that has already been done, we do not expect that many local authorities will identify new hot spots in respect of those pollutants, but we cannot rule out that possibility. That is why local action is absolutely critical. Local authorities are best placed to check for causes and to take appropriate action. That system provides the best insight into local conditions and is the best one for dealing with local problems.

We do not expect local authorities to address the problem single-handed. We are consulting on revised guidance for local authorities to help them with their duties, and we have established dedicated helplines to help councils with technical issues. We will provide financial support via the annual revenue support grant settlement and through supplementary credit

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approvals—that is, the additional borrowing powers for capital expenditure. Since 1997, more than £20 million has been awarded in credit approvals.

As I have said, new objectives are to be prescribed in the regulations for the use of benzene, which we measure in micrograms per cubic metre, and carbon monoxide, which is measured in milligrams per cubic metre. The new objective for benzene is 5 micrograms per cubic metre in ambient air as an annual mean to be met throughout England by the end of 2010. That is more than three times tighter than the current objective. The new objective will supplement the current one for benzene, which is due to be met by the end of 2003. The new objective for carbon monoxide is 10 milligrams per cubic metre in ambient air as a maximum daily running eight-hour mean, and is to be met by the end of 2003. The new objective, which replaces the current one, corresponds to the limit value in the latest European air quality directives, but we have set it to be met two years earlier than the directive's achievement date of 2005.

The objectives are based on the latest and best scientific and health information available to us. They offer the best practicable solution and best practicable protection for health without imposing unacceptable economic or social costs. The accompanying regulatory impact assessment sets out the detailed costs and benefits. The benefits are improved health protection. Benzene is a recognised carcinogen and has no absolutely safe level. Carbon monoxide reduces the capacity of blood to carry oxygen, which affects people with conditions such as angina. The costs to local authorities should not be significant. Authorities are already required to check the levels of those two pollutants in their area; the regulations simply prescribe slightly tighter targets.

What will the regulations achieve? From the modelling work, we expect that the new objectives will be met largely through national measures—tighter controls on vehicle emissions, fuel standards and industrial processes—but some localised problems that authorities need to consider might remain. That is why monitoring is so important. The general effect of the regulations will be that local authorities check on the new objectives in their next reviews and assessments, which are due to start early in 2003. The regulations should not result in any significant additional costs. Local authorities have been required to check benzene and carbon monoxide against the previous objectives since 1997. Systems are already in place and have produced substantial amounts of data. Checking tighter objectives will be achievable without requiring significant additional work or expense.

The regulations are an indication of our desire to deliver cleaner air more quickly. They will provide a firm basis for further reviews and assessment of air quality by local authorities, and ensure that they identify any localised pollution hot spots for the two pollutants and work towards eliminating them. We do not believe that they will impose significant additional costs on local authorities.

The Government are committed to meeting people's right to clean air: we all have the right to expect that the air we breathe as we go about our daily lives will

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not harm us. The draft regulations will help to increase overall protection to human health by allowing local authorities to check against the tighter objectives to give a clear picture of the pollution at a local level, and to take appropriate remedial action, if necessary. I commend the draft regulations to the Committee.

10.5 am

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): It is a pleasure to serve under your esteemed chairmanship, Mr. Cran. I welcome the Minister back from Marylebone road, where he was this morning—I am glad that he made it back in time for the Committee.

In August, the Minister for the Environment announced that

    ''Air quality is getting better. Levels of most pollutants have fallen considerably over the last few years through measures to cut emissions from industry and traffic''

We can only hope that the Government's optimism is not overshadowed by revelations that, since 1997, the level of carbon dioxide has been increasing in Britain. Although we cannot hold the Minister wholly responsible for global climate change, we can hold the Government to account for the quality of the air that we breathe. That is why I am surprised that the Government's particles target remains weaker than the target inherited from the Conservatives in 1997.

The Minister for the Environment has said that by 2010, a 24-hour objective of 50 micrograms per cubic metre will not be exceeded for more than seven days per year in Scotland and most of the United Kingdom, and 10 days per year in London. However, the targets under the Conservatives were not seven or 10 days, but four days per year by 2005. Furthermore, the Minister has not explained why London has lower air quality targets than the rest of the country. I recognise, as do the Government, that

    ''the challenge for London of such a target will be at least as great as that posed by the target for the rest of the country''

but surely that is an argument in favour of extra action in London rather than a weakening of objectives. Such planned inequality would clearly be unacceptable in any other area of health policy.

The proposed amendments to the Air Quality (England) Regulations 2000 are partly an outcome of the Government's September 2001 consultation on proposals for air quality objectives for particles, benzene, carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. For the purpose of local air quality management, the proposals are welcome. Tighter long-term objectives for the pollutants concerned are necessary if the health protective focus of the air quality management regime is to be maintained.

Benzene is a recognised genotoxic human carcinogen. The draft regulations add a new target to reduce further the concentration of benzene from the present 16.25 micrograms per cubic metre to 5 micrograms per cubic metre or less by 2010. The methodology of measuring the level has also changed: it is now assessed on a running annual mean. The method of measuring a running annual mean for benzene has also changed in the regulations. Under the current regulation, the running annual mean is the average of hourly levels of benzene recorded by

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monitoring equipment over 8,760 hours—the number of hours in a year.

It might sound terribly technical, but there is a reason for explaining how the measurements are made, because the new method will be based on readings taken over a 14-day period, with each day being assigned the average result for those 14 days. Those daily means will then be averaged over a year to give an annual mean value. I can understand the reasons behind the method. It irons out the large spikes in daily data that can occur when certain vehicle types associated with fuels containing high levels of benzene, such as unleaded fuels, are present. It also spreads out the effects of short-term local congestion and of environmental factors such as climatic conditions that do not readily disperse benzene.

The amending regulations propose to lower the target for carbon monoxide from 11.6 milligrams per cubic metre to 10 milligrams per cubic metre or less when expressed as a running eight-hour mean. There is a complicated way of assessing the eight-hour mean, which has been changed. I will not be mean and explain what those means mean, or by what means the means are meant to be calculated—unless the Committee wishes me to do so. However, there is a change in emphasis. The present target means that no eight-hour mean should rise above 11.6 milligrams per cubic metre; whereas, with the new target, individual eight-hour means could rise above that level as long as the daily mean was not brought above 10 milligrams per cubic metre.

That is my reading of these regulations and I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that I have got it right. I am unsure about the way in which, statistically, spikes will always be ironed out, and I am especially concerned about whether the regulations represent a dilution of standards or simply a practical adjustment.

The air quality strategy for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was published in January 2001. It sets standards and objectives, to be achieved between 2003 and 2008, for eight key air pollutants including benzene. In addition to reviewing and assessing ambient air quality in their areas, local authorities are charged with achieving the new objectives cost effectively. However, what is perplexing is that local authorities, as part of their local air quality management duties under part IV of the Environment Act 1995, are not legally required to meet the new objectives, only to work towards them.

According to the answer given by the Minister to the written question I asked on November 15, there are no plans to make air quality management mandatory for all authorities, as that would be ''disproportionately expensive''. However, there is a national legal requirement to meet European objectives. It seems a little quixotic to set target aspirations for local areas when our national responsibilities to Europe are in the form of legal obligations. Will the Minister explain what is proportionate in this context? What will be the cost of implementing mandatory targets? Has the concern for proportionality taken into account the cost of

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European Union penalties if we fail to meet our European obligations?

It is a reflection of the weakness of the Government's review last year—which considered the measures required to achieve the objectives rather than the objectives themselves—that the regulations fail to address the powers that local authorities will require in order to meet the objectives. Will the Government offer policy guidance on best practice—for example, recommending types of equipment for cost-effective remote monitoring, or recommending where to place monitoring equipment? I have heard several complaints that much of the monitoring equipment is placed in areas that are out of reach not only of vandals, but of the pollutants the equipment is to measure. We should have vandal-proof monitoring equipment that can be placed close to where pollution is likely to occur. The regulations are sensible but, because they are not mandatory, local authorities might not take sufficient action in sufficient time to achieve the desired result. I am concerned about that.

On 3 November 1955, the Conservative Minister Duncan Sandys wound up the Second Reading debate on the Bill that was to become the Clean Air Act 1956. He said:

    ''There is general agreement on both sides of the House upon the objective of clean air''—[Official Report, 3 November 1955; Vol. 545, c. 1325.]

He said that in the aftermath of the smogs of 1952, which I remember very well. I was four years of age at the time, and I recall walking with my father from my grandparents' home in Canfield gardens to our home on Hampstead lane. The walk usually took half an hour, but on that occasion it took six and a half hours, and we somehow ended up in Camden town—to this day, I have no idea what happened. However, I do know that, when I was sitting on my father's shoulders, I sometimes could not even see the top of his head. He was bald—or partially bald—so it must have been a very thick smog.

Everyone agrees that we want cleaner air to breathe and a reduction in polluting emissions. The draft regulations deal with the easy bit—what has to be done. That is the product of technical measurement and modelling. The more difficult task will be to make it happen. The Government are urging local authorities to work towards achieving the target, but they are not required—or funded, or, as yet, advised or given guidance—to do so. Although the air quality strategy must be based on sound science, there comes a point when the pursuit of ever finer degrees of accuracy becomes a substitute for real action.

The draft regulations make clear what needs to be measured. The Government must now confirm not only that that will happen, but that the information that it provides will be used to reduce airborne pollution.

10.17 am

 
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Prepared 5 December 2002