Air Pollution: A10 and Broxbourne

Part of Petition - Closure of Ward 6, Bishop Auckland General Hospital – in the House of Commons at 7:12 pm on 31st October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:12 pm, 31st October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Walker on securing this important debate, as well as on bringing to the attention of the House the specific challenges we face on the stretch of the A10 in the Broxbourne constituency, the wider importance of tackling poor air quality and, indeed, the impact of the potential incinerator.

I understand that my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about the impact of the proposed plant, and about the possible increase in the number of HGV movements further worsening the air quality. He will be aware that the application has been called in by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for his own determination. It would not be appropriate for me to make direct comment on the application, as the final decision now lies with the Secretary of State. I am absolutely convinced that he will take into consideration all the relevant information regarding the application.

It is fair to say that the Environment Agency is an independent regulator, so I do not have any control over how it considers approving permits. I share my hon. Friend’s frustration about the legalese that is often in such documents, but we have to recognise that this is a quasi-judicial process. My general expectation is that the Environment Agency would consider the impact of the proposed development itself, rather than its location. However, the formal planning process should consider the location, including the travel routes and the impact it may have on the environment, including the air quality, in determining whether the development should go ahead.

However, as I said, this is now in the hands of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

My hon. Friend mentioned the point raised by the Royal College of Physicians; I am glad that it has shown an interest in this debate. It is important that I should start by providing some context. Overall, air quality has been improving in this country, but we are still falling short on a specific element of air pollution: roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide.

We are not alone in that across the European Union. Current air quality problems, particularly on NO2, are in large part caused by the EU’s failed regime for vehicle emissions testing: cars were deemed to have passed the test of operation within NO2 limits, when, for several manufacturers, that was far from the truth. Eighteen other EU member states, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, are also breaching air pollution limits as a result of that failed testing regime.

A former UK Government took the decision to encourage diesel vehicles, to tackle the challenge of climate change and reduce carbon. Although we may have benefited in that regard, we are now absolutely suffering given the impact on air quality. The combined effect of those two factors means that we are having to go much further than was anticipated on tackling the NO2 air quality challenge when the UK signed up to the targets, prior to 2010.

Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010—emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen by almost 27% and are at their lowest level since records began. But there is clearly more to do. That is why the Government have committed £3.5 billion to transport and improved air quality, including £1.5 billion support for electric vehicles, £1.2 billion for cycling and walking, and £475 million specifically in support of the activity resulting from the UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide emissions. I should remind myself that, after the votes tomorrow, a further £20 million in funding will be allocated by the Budget to support more local authorities to meet their air quality obligations.

In Broxbourne specifically, the Government have already provided a quarter of a million pounds to retrofit buses with pollution-reducing technology. The Government are also taking regulatory action. We have already made clear our intention to end the sale of new conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040, and have implemented a vehicle excise duty surcharge on new diesel vehicles until the cleanest models come on the market. We will also be publishing a clean air strategy before the end of the year, which will set goals working towards World Health Organisation recommendations on particulate matter emissions. That goes further than what the EU requires, and we have also committed to new legislation on air quality.

I should point out that councils already have many powers to tackle air quality and a legal duty to do so; awaiting any new legislation that may arise should not be an excuse to avoid action now. All councils have existing legal obligations on monitoring air quality, establishing air quality management areas and devising action plans to address the issue. Some time ago, I wrote to several councils with long-standing issues to challenge them on what action they were taking locally to tackle the problem.

Tonight, my hon. Friend has raised the A10 in his constituency of Broxbourne—specifically, the stretch of the A10 between the B198 and the slip road to the A1170, near the retail park in Cheshunt. The A10 road link was initially identified as moderately exceeding nitrogen dioxide limits, according to the central national model used by the Government for reporting compliance to the European Commission, in line with the ambient air quality directive requirements. I contacted Broxbourne Borough Council about this matter and I am pleased to say that an air quality management area for part of the A10 has already been established.

As the House will be aware, the High Court required the Government to take a more direct legal approach with those local authorities responsible for roads such as this, which our projections indicated would become compliant with legal limits within the next few years. To that effect, I issued ministerial directions and offered support to 33 local authorities to take more detailed study and action. As part of that work, Broxbourne has carried out a detailed study of the A10 road link in question, using local modelling data, which gives a much more granular, representative picture of air quality on that road. The study was submitted to the Government on 31 July this year, as required by the ministerial direction.

Some variance between the national model and the output of a local study is to be expected. That reflects the level of detail that can be modelled at a national level. It is also important to add that the latest 2017 reporting data suggests that our previous projections were overall more pessimistic than other projections, and that nitrogen dioxide levels at a national level have fallen faster than expected.

However, the Broxbourne study clearly identified a much more significant problem than the national model, projecting that this stretch of road will see emissions that exceed the legal limit until 2028 if no further action is taken. That is clearly unacceptable. Now that both the council and the Government have a greater understanding of the problem, our priority is to work with Broxbourne Borough Council to find a means of addressing this as quickly as possible.

I recognise that this is a stretch of road that presents a number of challenges due to the sheer amount of traffic using the route into and out of London and on to the M25, as well as the numerous junctions in the area and the importance of the route in relation to key international transport hubs.

Earlier this month, I issued Broxbourne Borough Council with a further ministerial direction requiring it to carry out a more detailed study to identify the most suitable measures to address the exceedance in the shortest time possible. The deadlines for that work include an initial plan by 31 January 2019 and a final plan by 31 October 2019, and sooner where possible. That is a challenging deadline, in particular as the work includes more detailed local transport and air quality modelling to really understand what is happening in the local area and understand what solutions can be found to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels on this specific stretch of road. We can then provide Broxbourne with the funding to implement the solutions.

There is joint working: I am pleased to say that the Department for Transport and my Department have established a joint air quality unit, with officials from the two Departments working together. They have already provided detailed guidance and will be supporting local councils as they develop this work. The unit is already working closely with Broxbourne, having held a workshop last week to explain the process over the next 12 months and the support we will be offering. We will shortly be providing a further £100,000 of funding to get this process under way. The council is now actively considering what measures could bring forward compliance with legal limits as soon as possible, which could include a charging clean air zone.

We will also continue to work closely with other parties responsible for roads that interact with the A10 and which may also be able to take action that could have an impact on this link. As I have said, the M25 is a major source of traffic on and off the A10, so we will ensure that Highways England is engaging with Broxbourne to understand these actions and to identify what complementary actions can be taken to drive improvements.

I will also continue to press the Mayor of London on the need to take robust action to address very high emissions in the capital. Specifically, we will need to understand what the impacts will be on the traffic coming into and out of London on the A10 as a result of the tightening of the standards for the London-wide low emission zone for HGVs.