National Air Quality Strategy

Clause 79 – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 28th June 1995.

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Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment) 9:15 pm, 28th June 1995

I beg to move amendment No. 116, in page 100, line 18, at end insert— '(d) measures of a temporary nature which are to be taken by local authorities and other persons in the event that air quality standards appear likely to be exceeded.'.

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following Government amendments: Nos. 196, 48 and 54 to 57, 197 to 200, 74, 87 and 90.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment)

Amendment No. 116 seeks to ensure that the national air quality strategy includes temporary measures that can be taken by local authorities if air quality standards seem likely to be breached to help reduce serious air pollution episodes and the duration of those that occur. I hope that the Minister can accept this amendment, not least because it is likely shortly to be a requirement on Governments in any case.

Part IV of the Bill aims, among other things, to implement in advance the provisions of the proposed European directive on ambient air quality assessment and management. One of the objectives of that directive is that the common strategy on air quality should include the actions and measures required when and where the ambient air quality objectives are exceeded. The proposed directive goes on to say: Member states shall make short-term plans for actions to be taken in cases where exceedance is forecast in order to reduce the likelihood of exceedance and to limit its duration. The amendment aims to ensure that that aspect of what will almost certainly become European law is taken into account in UK legislation at the earliest opportunity. The UK regularly breaches World Health Organisation guidelines. Although European air quality standards have yet to be set, they will almost certainly be set at levels that require action by the UK Government if such breaches are not to occur. In the first week of May, 29 of the Government's 32 ozone monitoring sites monitored such a breach of WHO guidelines, so it is happening all too regularly.

Although the introduction of catalytic converters and measures to reduce traffic growth would cut emissions in the long term, it is highly likely that air quality will continue to exceed proposed standards over the next few years. We therefore urgently need to find ways to deal with or ameliorate this problem when it occurs.

Given predictions of weather conditions in which air pollution soars, once standards have been set it will be possible to forecast likely breaches over a three or four-day timescale. Working with local authorities, the Government could take steps to ensure that air quality standards are not breached, or that, if pollution exceeds acceptable levels, it does so for as short a period as possible. For example, they could introduce speed limits on motorways, and, if necessary, close off certain streets in city centres using powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984.

I do not say that roads should be closed whenever it seems likely that standards will be exceeded. I simply argue that the Secretary of State, together with local authorities and the police, should draw up plans for progressive action that could be tailored to suit the severity of the expected problem.

For example, if ozone levels peak at just above the standard and rainy weather is forecast, clearly no action would be needed. But if a long settled period of high pressure with little wind is forecast in summer, lower speed limits and restrictions on town centre parking may be appropriate. If an "inversion" like that which caused the December 1991 smog in London is forecast, tougher measures, such as road closures, may be required.

We must remember that it is not merely a matter of the Government responding to European requirements. The problem leads directly to the death of individuals, as well as unpleasant attacks of breathing difficulties. The Minister for Transport in London recently admitted that traffic reduction may reduce nitrogen dioxide concentrations during smog episodes, but said that it would not do so sufficiently to prevent such pollution episodes.

Given the Government's likely obligations, and the fact that the amendment simply allows the Secretary of State to work with local authorities and the police to act when required proportionate to that requirement, I hope that the Minister can accept the amendment. After all, it is likely to prevent the need for the Government to come back to the House with such proposals at a later date.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

On amendment No. 116, to which the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) has just spoken, our main focus—in weather such as we are experiencing in London and elsewhere, these matters become of singular importance—must be on achieving the goal of good air quality and reducing the risk of episodes of relatively high pollution. The risk of such episodes, particularly in the weather that we are now experiencing, which I hope we will continue to enjoy, will nevertheless remain. The framework for managing air quality must deal with appropriate action in such episodes.

The amendment attempts to address the problem. I am sure that the hon. Member for Truro will be delighted to know, however, that clause 79(5)(c), which deals with the national air quality strategy, and clause 86(2)(j), concerning regulation-making powers, provide sufficient powers to deal with pollution episodes. I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that amendment No. 116 is unnecessary.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment)

I am not altogether familiar with the paragraphs to which the Minister has referred. Can the Minister tell us exactly what are those powers?

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford 9:45 pm, 28th June 1995

I must come to the aid of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and not allow the Minister to make such a response.

As the Minister rightly says, clause 86 provides for many opportunities for regulations to be made and for local authorities to take all sorts of action to deal with the problem of deteriorating air quality.

If the Government had done what they promised to do in another place, and tabled amendments on air quality and its management in good time, the hon. Member for Truro and all hon. Members would have known what was being proposed, because there would have been an opportunity for them to discover that. The Minister might even have understood his own Bill and his own proposals.

This issue is another example of where promises were made, but many weeks passed in Committee without any action from the Government. The official Opposition tabled an amendment on air quality management because we were afraid that the Government would never produce what they had promised. They finally produced clause 86 just two days before the Bill's final day of consideration in Committee. It is a most important clause, and the House must know tonight what kind of measures local government will be able to take.

The hon. Member for Truro mentioned a number of them—for example, the closure of roads. We want to know whether the Minister thinks that such measures will be appropriate, or whether he considers that other traffic management schemes should be introduced to deal with the problem.

For example, the Secretary of State for Transport has advocated that people should walk instead of using the car, because of the problem of air quality. Does the Minister have some idea about how such advice will be offered to the nation? I wonder how often in the past three weeks ministerial cars have been left behind and Ministers responsible for the environment have walked to the House. The Minister for the Environment and Countryside frowns, while the Under-Secretary—

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I have walked from my office to the House three times today.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford

I am pleased to hear that.

The amendment relates to an important part of the Bill. I do not believe that people will have another issue more clearly in their sights than the important matter of air quality when they consider how to improve the environment. It is matter of huge public concern, and the Minister must be invited to get back on his feet to give us more information about that section of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

The hon. Lady represents an inner-London constituency, and I know that her colleagues, and hon. Friends representing similar constituencies in London and other cities, share her concern about the state of air quality and the public's perception of it. I must also tell her, however, that the Conservative party and this Government have done most, historically, to improve air quality. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady protests, but I need only remind her of the Clean Air Act 1956, which did much to get rid of smog and other problems associated with it.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

Let me finish the argument. The hon. Lady has had her say; I am entitled to mine in response.

Consequently, we do not take kindly to Opposition Members suggesting to us that we are not doing what is necessary on air quality.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

In a minute. A collection of hon. Members wish me to sit down, and I shall do so in due course.

However, the argument that the hon. Lady makes, about which we agree, is the urgency of tackling the public anxiety, whether by proclamation from the Dispatch Box or by speech by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or—more important in the context of the Bill—by way of the regulations that we have announced.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment)

Notwithstanding the actions that the Government may or may not have taken in the past, that is a serious issue, and, as the Minister knows, the previous smog episodes not only caused much distress but took lives. I believe that the Minister—I hope that he has now had a chance to look at his notes—needs to explain more fully why the amendment, the aims of which he broadly supported, is unnecessary.

I cannot see any proposals at the moment to allow a Secretary of State or local authorities or the police to take action to prevent or ameliorate such episodes. Other countries have moved in that direction; we may need to. It appears to me appropriate to allow that to happen when required proportionately.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

The hon. Gentleman provokes me to refer to the book, and I shall read him what it was that, in order not to delay the House, I was seeking to avoid having to say.

Under the provisions of Part IV, local authorities will have a duty to act, dependent on the state of air quality. We wish to make clear the circumstances in which they should act. Specifically, we wish to ensure that designation of air quality management areas and production of action plans can be prompted if it is evident that air quality standards and objectives are, first, not likely to be achieved or, secondly, likely not to be achieved within the relevant period.

Amendment No. 48, tabled in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, is intended to ensure that both circumstances will apply to instigate the appropriate actions. That is why, without going into all the technical detail of clause 79(5)(c) and clause 86(2)(j), the amendments in my name cover the matters that the hon. Gentleman is worried about.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment)

They may do so, provided that the type of actions that I suggested would be allowed in that—not long-term planning or designation of areas, but immediate action, for example, to slow traffic on motorways or impose parking restrictions in town centres or whatever might be appropriate. If that is the case, I would certainly seek to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

My memory is slightly rusty, from my days as Roads Minister, about exactly what the powers of the Department of Transport are, and those are matters to which I would have to refer, but as far as I understand it—I would not want to be held absolutely to this—powers do exist at the moment to do something along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggests, to a greater or lesser degree. If he wishes me to spell those powers out, I shall encourage my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to write to him to do just that. I hope that that assurance will help him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson , Hampstead and Highgate

The Minister mentioned the element of weather exacerbating the breathability of air, and he mentioned today's weather. It would be highly unlikely, with as brisk a breeze as we have experienced today, that pollution levels would build up in the air here in the centre of London in the way that they have in the past.

If the Minister might be provoked to refer to the book again, could he give us more detail of what is in those two mysterious clauses?

The Government have a lamentable record in issuing warnings of, for example, excessive ozone in the air of London, and there is little or no point in having the type of regulations to which the Minister has fleetingly referred if local authorities, for example, are not to be helped, either by laws or by financial considerations, to implement the necessary requirements—so that, for example, my constituents will be able to breathe the air without provoking, as is increasingly the case in certain parts of my constituency, a serious asthma attack in themselves or their small children.

Photo of Mrs Helen Jackson Mrs Helen Jackson , Sheffield, Hillsborough

I should be grateful if the Minister would make it clear what resources will be made available in order to implement the measures in this group of amendments. It was quite clear yesterday that the Minister was not interested in the fact that the Coal Authority did not believe that it had the resources to deal with abandoned mines, and that the National Rivers Authority did not believe that it could fund all its activities from its normal budget.

I welcome the clauses about air quality, and I believe that they may be some of the most important and valuable elements in the Bill. Local authorities must now do four things with regard to air pollution: assess the air quality in their area; prepare a report of that assessment within 12 months; prepare an action plan; and include a statement in that plan about how they will implement the proposals. Local authorities have to perform those tasks in co-operation with another public authority, the Vehicle Licensing Authority, whose resources are also under pressure.

There was consensus in Committee that the problems of smog and air pollution, which are of increasing concern to people up and down the country, but particularly those in urban areas, will not be solved by the activities of public authorities; they must be solved by the industries involved. The Minister failed to say in Committee how public and the private industry resources would be raised in order to deal with the problem of air pollution which concerns our constituents and which is the subject of inquiries by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and the Select Committee on the Environment. The Government must respond to that increasing concern.

Before we move from that part of the Bill, I hope that the Government will give a much clearer indication of how they intend to meet the excellent requirements in the legislation.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell , Cambridge

I represent a constituency that encompasses one of the most congested and polluted cities in Europe, according to the air pollution monitoring carried out by Cambridge city council. It has been revealed that Parker street in the centre of Cambridge has higher levels of pollution than almost any other place where monitoring has taken place. That may be because there is very little pollution monitoring at the moment, and therefore Cambridge is not one of the most polluted cities but simply one of the most heavily monitored.

That monitoring is taking place in response to local residents' concern about the very high levels of asthma and bronchial diseases in the city. That is perhaps surprising in a city where 23 per cent. of the population cycle to work—an unusually high percentage, which is well above the national average. I think that that shows that it is not sufficient to combat air pollution simply by promoting cycling or walking; there must also be action to reduce traffic in other ways.

I am fortunate to live close to the railway station in Cambridge—in fact, I live halfway between the railway station and the bus station. My household has managed without a car completely for the past eight years. We use our feet, bicycles, trains and buses. However, that option is not open to many of my constituents. It is not an option for many of those who live in the rural areas of Cambridgeshire and who find it extremely difficult to travel to work or to the city of Cambridge without using their cars.

I am concerned about short-term measures. I do not think that they are the answer.

The long-term answer must be a regulated bus system and other good public transport, strategies for safe walking and cycling, and promotion of the benefits of cycling and walking to individual health and in reducing pollution. If councils are forced to stop traffic entering a city on days when pollution is high, that will cause widespread chaos. That may benefit many asthma sufferers, but it is not a long-term solution.

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business),That, at this day's sitting, the Environment Bill [Lords] may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Wood.]Question agreed to.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell , Cambridge

The promotion of cycling and walking together with proper public transport provision is a sensible long-term solution, and would preclude short-term solutions.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford

The Minister did not seem to speak to amendment No. 196. He does not appear to know, but he is looking to see if there is something in his book.

In Committee, it appeared from the Minister's remarks that the regulation-making powers in clause 86 could not be used to give local authorities a stopping power. The tabling of Government amendment No. 196 appears to contradict that assertion. It seems to have been tabled to make it clear that local authorities do not have a stopping power. The Minister is nodding, so perhaps we may have that on the record.

For reasons of identification and the security of drivers, we would prefer that any person having the right to stop a vehicle for inspection, to ascertain whether it was polluting, should be recognisable. A uniformed police officer is an obvious example. In Committee, we expressed concern, given that police resources are so stretched, that such a power would only be operable by a uniformed constable in minimal ways. The Minister nods, or perhaps he is nodding off. If the right hon. Gentleman is agreeing, it is a matter for concern that police resources are so limited that little progress can be made.

If the amendment is accepted, would the Bill preclude traffic wardens and special constables having the power to stop a vehicle? That is a key concern to those of us who want much greater enforcement of vehicle emission regulations. It would be helpful if another category of uniformed or vetted people were able to stop vehicles.

Although we sympathise with amendment No. 116, clearly there is a need for temporary measures. We would like to hear more about what such measures might be. Does the Minister agree that temporary measures are, in such circumstances, an admission of failure? They are needed only because air quality has become so bad. The Bill does not sufficiently establish a comprehensive and sustainable strategy to reduce emissions and private car use, while increasing public transport use and improving air quality.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

At this late hour, we have inevitably had a fairly brief debate on the important matter of public perception, on which there is considerable agreement. I said in Committee that resources, whether for local authorities or the police, were a matter for the respective Ministers. I undertook in Committee, and I undertake again, to ensure that—for example, in relation to local authorities—my hon. Friend with responsibility for local government will consider that matter. Negotiations are already under way on a variety of matters relating to the local government settlement, and this will form a part of that.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) will recall that I have said on occasion that environmental health officers received our strategy on air quality very well. That is heartening in many respects. Police resources are clearly a matter for the Home Office, and I shall undertake to draw the hon. Lady's comments to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

The hon. Lady spoke about the power to stop vehicles. I am not a lawyer, and I do not pretend to be an expert on the legal powers of the police, but a constable can certainly stop vehicles, and I imagine that a special constable would have the same power. I am not sure about traffic wardens, and I shall try to find out precisely. [Interruption.] I shall find out in due course, and in my own way. The hon. Lady made a perfectly fair point.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would allow me to finish the point that I am on. [Interruption.] I do not need that sort of nonsense. The hon. Member for Deptford asked a perfectly legitimate question that needs examination.

Generally, as the hon. Lady rightly acknowledged, there is concern among some groups of people about the power to stop vehicles being spread too wide, for example, to local health environment officers, whom I do not in any sense decry. Plainly, a non-uniformed person stopping elderly single ladies in cars late at night on Hampstead heath or in places like that would cause concern, and we need to address that.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Denton and Reddish

Will the Minister take the trouble to read his piece of paper, and tell the House what it says? It is all right for the Minister to write to us afterwards, but there is a big advantage in telling us at the Dispatch Box, because that is the way in which the general public, who are concerned about this matter, can tell what happens. If he needs a pair of glasses, I will lend him a pair.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

We want to make progress, and I do not want to delay the House unduly. However, as the hon. Gentleman presses me, I shall read to him what I have been told. Traffic wardens can, under other legislation and in strictly limited circumstances, and usually in support of the police, help police with certain of their functions. There you have it.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford

We know that already, and it does not answer my question. It was whether clause 86, as amended by amendment No. 196, if it were passed, would make it possible for uniformed traffic wardens to stop cars to see whether they had polluting exhausts.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

We have had a spot of fun, and I have read out what I was given, but the answer is that I simply do not know, and I make no bones about it. The hon. Lady asks a perfectly sensible question that requires a sensible answer. I shall ascertain exactly, precisely and unequivocally the powers of a traffic warden in this respect, and let her know. If she would like to copy it for the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) so that he is satisfied as well, then we could all be satisfied.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment)

As ever, the Minister has been quite amusing in his responses, mostly deliberately, but I am not sure that he has entirely satisfied the concerns that have been expressed. Fundamentally, the Minister has tried to argue that the powers are all there, although I noticed that, in his earlier response to me, he crossed rather neatly from referring to the obligation that is placed on local authorities to powers resting with the Secretary of State and the Department in taking action. That goes to the heart of the confusion that I am concerned about.

Nevertheless, the Minister has told us that he believes that the powers exist, and he has promised to write, or to get his colleagues to write, to confirm that. I hope that, given time, he will be able to come up with a better answer, and that it will not take too long to do so, so that the Bill will not be finally finished at all ends of this place before we get an answer. I do not want, however, to hold up the House any more than this surprisingly lengthy but important debate has already done, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.