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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18th July 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St. Albans.

Pollution Levels

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are aware of the high pollution readings in Manchester and elsewhere, and what steps they intend to take to reduce these figures.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, improving air quality across the whole country is one of the Government's environmental priorities. Proposals for a national programme are contained in the Environment Bill. These implement the proposals the Government published earlier this year in Air Quality: Meeting the Challenge. Although some short-term peaks in pollution levels have been observed in Manchester, air quality there is comparable to other major cities in the United Kingdom.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that detailed Answer, and naturally welcome the new legislation. However, may I ask whether the Minister is aware that under Sir Robert Thomas, who led the council in the 1960s, Manchester became the first smoke free city of the major cities in this country, but it is now threatened by far more menacing pollution created by the monster called the motor car? Can the Minister give us an undertaking that if the working party that has been set up in Manchester to deal with this problem produces recommendations that cost money the Government will look at this matter sympathetically, as they have done in the case of the City of Westminster, bearing in mind that that will save money in terms of health resources? Manchester and other major cities are being seriously threatened by this pollution and time is not on their side. The Government must assist these cities and enable them to deal with this problem.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, of course we will look at any such proposals sympathetically. Manchester is a great city and deserves to have better air quality than it has. However, the noble Lord will understand that I cannot make promises about expenditure any more than his own Front Bench can.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I turn from the City of Manchester to the City of Westminster. Is the noble Lord aware that Westminster City Council notifies interested parties weekly of pollution levels, but what it fails to state is what is being done about them? In addition to information about where pollution levels might lie at any time of day, could we not also be told in such communications, which may or may not lie within the control of government, what action is being taken when pollution levels are too high?

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Lord Lucas: My Lords, pollution problems of this sort are essentially local in nature and usually depend on the weather. It is therefore best, I believe, for local councils to be in charge of making sure that local people have the information they need. When we have episodes of severe pollution we help councils with advice on what they should advise people to do, in terms mostly of using motor vehicles less because, as the noble Lord, Lord Dean, said, they are the primary cause of the great peaks in pollution which occur at times of calm weather in the winter. So far as information is concerned, the noble Lord will be pleased to know that there is a nationwide hotline available on pollution which is widely used. There is even now a page on the world wide web.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that as with traffic congestion, it is always someone else's car or truck that is causing the pollution and never one's own? However, the more serious point is that our economy is now so transport dependent because it is a sophisticated and developed economy that, while there are dangers in atmospheric pollution, we might create even greater dangers if we rushed, without proper consideration, to stop it. Does my noble friend agree with that point?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the Government believe that a sustained programme of improvement towards the achievement of long-term goals is the right way to control atmospheric air pollution. We are doing a great deal in this country and across Europe to reduce the pollution from motor vehicles over the long term, and the denationalisation of the railways should also play its part.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, I was glad to hear the comment about the denationalisation of railways. Is the noble Lord aware that services have been seriously disrupted by the uncertainties arising from this ridiculous piece of legislation? Is he aware that trains getting into King's Cross from the North yesterday were on average three hours late, and that on the eve of a national strike? Does he agree therefore that to get more traffic onto the railways should be a top priority in order to relieve the pollution arising from the use of the motor car? Can he look again at the privatisation proposals and their effect on that public transport system?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord in almost everything he said. It is important that we use railways more. The way to achieve that is to make railways such that they provide what people want. As we have demonstrated many times in other industries, the best way to do that is through privatisation.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we agree with the Government's view that the main problem in pollution in Manchester and other cities is the motor car? Is the noble Lord further aware that encouragement of the car economy has been a matter of government policy for the past 16 years, and indeed was proclaimed by the previous Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher as she then was, as being the liberation

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of the individual? Will he therefore tell us whether government policy is now reversed on this matter and in what sense?

Lord Lucas: No my Lords, it is not reversed at all. Of course we are concerned to provide people with the transport that they want. Most people want to travel by car. Most human activities have consequences and side effects which are undesirable. We intend to minimise them.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, can the Minister tell me how the air quality measures that the Government are passing, which are shortly to receive Royal Assent, will deal with the alleged continuation of that policy for the car economy? There is a clear difference.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, so far as concerns transport, the policies are clearly directed towards making individual vehicles cleaner and more efficient than they are now so that they pollute less, and to providing alternative forms of transport and social urban structures such that people need to use cars less than they do at the moment. The choice whether to use cars in particular circumstances is and will remain an individual choice unrestricted by government.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is not the need to encourage use of the railways and diminish that of motor cars a strong argument in favour of restoring the motorail services?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, we are drifting a little way from Manchester.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, if Members of your Lordships' House and Members of another place complain so vehemently about use of the motor car, can the Minister say whether the Government are considering ending the mileage allowance for Members of another place and of your Lordships' House.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I would not dare say any such thing.

Avebury World Heritage Site

2.46 p.m.

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they will take to remove the metalled surface which has been laid on the Ridgeway within the Avebury World Heritage Site, and to ensure that all motor vehicles except agricultural ones are banned from the Ridgeway west of the Thames.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the Government may only intervene on these matters at the request of the Countryside Commission. The Ridgeway is a local highway and direct responsibility lies with the relevant local highway and traffic authorities. We would nevertheless expect them to take due account of the designation of Avebury as a world heritage site in exercising their responsibilities.

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Lord Kennet: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Ridgeway is the most spectacular of the neolithic roads left in England and that for 5,000 years people have been walking along it? Is he aware that it is now being churned up by vehicles designed specifically to be able to be driven off the roads? Does he share the opinion of his opposite number in the other place who said yesterday that the Government were aware of the groundswell of opinion that legislation in this matter was inadequate and that we need to put it right?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not think that he went quite that far. He said that we are aware that public opinion is in the process of changing on this matter and that we are very conscious of the need to keep in touch with the way people feel about it. This is very much a matter of dispute between one type of user of these highways and other types of user. These are matters which to our mind are best dealt with locally by local consultation and local decision except where damage is occurring. In that event, local authorities have the powers to deal with the matter and to prohibit vehicular traffic if that is appropriate.

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