Road Traffic Reduction

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:36 pm on 25th April 1995.

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Photo of Mr Cynog Dafis Mr Cynog Dafis , Ceredigion and Pembroke North 3:36 pm, 25th April 1995

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish targets for a reduction in road traffic levels in the United Kingdom; to require local authorities to draw up local road traffic reduction plans; to require the Secretary of State to draw up a national road traffic reduction plan to ensure that the targets are met; and for related purposes. Some two years ago, I introduced under the ten-minute rule an Energy Conservation Bill. At that time, energy conservation was not a subject of passionate debate in the House but, for a number of reasons, it became so. Following a vigorous campaign and through a tortuous process, and thanks to the fact that it was adopted by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock), a Home Energy Conservation Bill based on it has completed its passage through the House and should be on the statute book before long.

The Road Traffic Reduction Bill that I am introducing today is, in many ways, similar. Its starting point is the imperative of moving towards environmental sustainability, but it has important social, economic and health implications. It gives local government a central role, modelled on that in the Energy Conservation Bill. A major difference is the fact that its subject is already a matter of passionate debate.

It is particularly timely that I should be introducing this Bill a few days after the publication of the Environment Select Committee's report on volatile organic compounds, just one of the pollutants produced from road traffic exhausts. That report follows the royal commission report on transport and the environment; the report of the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment referring to the traffic-generating effect of road building; and the Transport Select Committee's report on road traffic emission.

The health effects of traffic emissions, particularly affecting children, have concentrated our minds on the issue. A cocktail of pollutants—nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, particulates and volatile organic compounds—are, in all probability, linked to the doubling of asthma among children over the past 10 years and the estimate in a report by Lancaster university that 15 million people in the UK suffer health problems as a result of road traffic near their homes. But that is not all. Increasing road traffic swallows up land, reduces biodiversity and consumes natural resources at a huge rate, causing further environmental and other damage in their extraction and processing. It is a major negative factor in reducing the quality of people's lives and almost certainly in fragmenting communities and informal social networks, leading to alienation and an increasing crime rate.

Nearly 4,000 people die on the roads each year and the lives of thousands more are blighted through injury—children and the elderly are the most affected. Road accidents are the main cause of death in the 10 to 14–year-old age group. Small wonder that only 20 per cent. of schoolchildren walk to school today compared with 80 per cent. 20 years ago. That has exacerbated the problem of road traffic.

The recent conference at Berlin confirmed that climate change as a result of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions is, in all probability, a grave reality. The increase in road transport is a major, growing factor influencing climate change. In the United Kingdom, 24 per cent. of CO2 emissions come from surface transport and of them 80 per cent. come from road transport. Between 1970 and 1990, CO2 emissions from road transport almost doubled. If the Government's prediction of a doubling in the number of vehicles on the road by 2025 is fulfilled, it will more than negate the reductions in CO2 emissions achieved through greater efficiency in other sectors.

The planned increase in private car use in so-called "developing" countries such as China, Indonesia and Malaysia constitutes a global problem of staggering proportions. It serves to emphasise the need for developed countries such as the United Kingdom, with direct experience of the negative effects of what was seen at one time as an unmixed blessing, to seek to influence by setting an example. How do we turn the tide?

Many people would place their faith in technological improvements, new fuels and so on. They are important developments, but they merely address the issue of health-damaging pollutants. I can do no better than offer a quotation from the report published last week by the Environment Select Committee, to illustrate the complexity of the issue. It stated: Road traffic is a major source of many significant pollutants…and any strategy to reduce emissions must take all of these into account. The 'diesel versus petrol' debate illustrates the danger of looking solely at VOCs: the VOC emissions from diesel engines are far lower than those from petrol, but diesel engines emit higher levels of particulates which are now thought to present a greater risk to health than the typical levels of VOCs from a petrol engine. Looking at the problem from a different angle, VOC emissions could be cut dramatically if all non-catalyst cars were immediately scrapped and replaced with new vehicles. However, the manufacture of new cars uses energy and produces carbon dioxide, which may have a consequence for global warming. It is worth noting the next sentence in the report: It is now widely recognised that the only sustainable long term solution to traffic pollution is a reduction in traffic growth. I would go further, because I believe that we should talk about a reduction in traffic. How will that be brought about?

The Government are committed to the use of economic instruments to achieve environmental targets, the annual 5 per cent. real terms increase in petrol duty figures prominent among them. I would not deny the validity of such instruments, which need to considered in the context of the vital debate on environmental taxation as against taxation on people and employment. To depend purely and simply on economic instruments would be ineffective, inequitable and damaging to rural areas such as my constituency, where there is currently little alternative to the motor car and where distribution costs are significant.

The Bill, which has been prepared by Friends of the Earth and the Green party, approaches the problem from the other direction. It requires the relevant Secretary of State to draw up a United Kingdom-wide road traffic reduction plan with targets of stabilisation by the year 2000; a 5 per cent. reduction in traffic by 2005; and a 10 per cent. reduction by 2010. Local authorities are required to draw up plans for reducing traffic through measures related to public transport and rail transport, appropriate planning policies, traffic calming, pedestrianisation and public education. The royal commission supports the principle of targets as does the Confederation of British Industry.

The report of the Environment Select Committee also stressed the role of local authorities, which is in keeping with Agenda 21's emphasis on local action through local Agenda 21s, in which traffic reduction should be a crucial component. Local authorities have the expertise and detailed knowledge of their areas to devise measures appropriate to them. They alone could facilitate the widespread public consultation and consciousness building that are the essential preconditions for success. Their task would be enormously challenging and exciting, and they would co-operate with each other, sharing ideas and examples of best practice and drawing on the store of ideas that already exist both here and abroad.

I draw the attention of the House to the excellent document from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, "Wales Needs Transport, Not Traffic", and to the ideas of the Countryside Council for Wales for promoting green holidays, linking public transport with cycling and walking routes.

In continental Europe, there are numerous examples of cities whose achievements in actually reducing traffic levels have been positively received both by the general public and by the commercial sector. The Bill would provide a useful framework for a progressive traffic reduction policy. I invite hon. Members to support it and I look forward to its further progress.