Air Quality (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

– in the House of Lords at 4:28 pm on 5th December 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip 4:28 pm, 5th December 2002

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14th November be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, I beg to move the Second Motion standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Whitty.

This statutory instrument relates to Part 4 of the Environment Act 1995. The Act provides for the publication by the Secretary of State of a national air quality strategy which must, among other things, contain standards relating to air quality, objectives for the restriction of the levels at which particular substances are present in the air, and measures to be taken by local authorities and others for the purpose of achieving the objectives.

The regulations amend the Air Quality (England) Regulations 2000 and prescribe new air quality objectives for benzene and carbon monoxide for the system of local air quality management. They create a second air quality objective for benzene of five micrograms per cubic metre or less expressed as an annual mean to be met by 31st December 2010. That is three times tighter than the current objective. They also replace the current objective for carbon monoxide with one of 10 milligrams per cubic metre or less when expressed as a maximum daily eight-hour running mean and to be met by 31st December 2003. That level is about 10 per cent tighter than the current objective. We set that objective to be met two years earlier than the corresponding European limit value.

The remaining provisions of the regulations concern changes to the interpretation note in the schedule to the 2000 regulations. They relate to the statistical methods to be applied in the case of the new air quality objectives. Regulation 2(3)(a) explains the meaning of the expression "maximum daily running 8 hour mean". The air quality objective for carbon monoxide is now set in terms of this expression. Sub-paragraphs (b) and (c) of regulation 2(3) are needed to make clear what is meant by the expression "annual mean" when it is used in the new air quality objective for benzene.

Local authorities must review and assess air quality in their areas against the prescribed objectives. When objectives are unlikely to be met, authorities must declare air quality management areas and prepare remedial action plans. Authorities do not have to meet the objectives but work towards them, because action to regulate sources of emissions often rests with other bodies, such as the Environment Agency or the Government. Modelling indicates that the new objectives should be met largely by present policies. Local authorities' duties are supported through the revenue support grant settlement and the supplementary credit approval programme.

Air quality has improved considerably since the London smogs of the 1950s. The number of poor air quality days has fallen from 59 in 1993 to 21 in 2001. However, the problem is still serious. Experts estimate that up to 24,000 people die prematurely every year in the UK because of its effects, and long-term effects are significantly greater. Government measures have tightened controls on industrial and vehicle emissions. Our 10-year transport plan includes an investment programme of £180 billion to improve public transport, cut congestion and reduce pollution. That may be outweighed by increasing levels of traffic, however. Local air quality management will identify hotspots and enable action to be taken to tackle them. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14th November be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing the regulations before us.

In August, the Minister announced that air quality is getting better and that levels of most pollutants have fallen considerably over the past few years through measures to cut emissions from industry and traffic. I ask the Minister: is that optimism overshadowed by recent revelations that carbon dioxide levels have risen since 1997? If so, how can she be confident that the Government will reach their new targets?

I also understand that by 2010 the 24-hour objective of 50 micrograms per cubic metre will be exceeded no more than seven days a year in Scotland and most of the United Kingdom and no more than 10 days per year in London. When the Conservatives were in government, our target was not seven or 10 days, but four days a year by 2005. Will the Minister explain why lower targets have been set than were originally set by the Conservative government?

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

In the current regulations, the running annual mean is the average of hourly levels of benzene recorded by monitoring equipment over 8,760 hours—the number of hours in the year. The new method will be based on readings taken over a 14-day period, which the Minister has explained. The daily means will be averaged over the year to give an average annual mean. I must admit that I found these regulations challenging.

We understand the reasoning behind the changes in methodology. It evens out the highs and lows of daily data that can be collected when certain vehicle types associated with fuels emitting higher levels of benzene, such as unleaded fuels, are present. It spreads the effect of the short-term local congestion, or when the benzene does not readily disperse because other environmental factors clock in, such as climatic conditions.

The air quality strategy for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was published in January 2001, and has set standards and objectives to be achieved for eight key air pollutants between 2003–08, including benzene. In addition to reviewing and assessing the ambient air quality in their areas, local authorities are charged with the task of achieving new objectives in a cost-effective way. Has any data research been established following the introduction of traffic-calming measures, especially with regard to the vast increase in the number of sleeping policemen in our cities and villages? I am sure that they have made a difference, because cars are forced to slow down and then regain the impetus to go over them.

It is perplexing that local authorities are not legally required to meet the new objectives, but only have to work towards them as part of their local air quality management duties under Part 4 of the Act.

Is air pollution from air travel included in the equation? Is the Minister not concerned about the rapidly expanding use of air travel? Indeed, research is being carried out into new build in respect of airports, which takes into account the forecast of a rapid rise in air travel in the next 20 years.

There is a national legal requirement to meet European objectives. It seems strange to set targets only of aspiration for local areas when we have national responsibilities to Europe in the form of a legal obligation. Whatever the regulations do, however, we hope that they succeed. It is in all our interests that air quality is of a better standard. I understand that, although the Government are urging local authorities to work towards the targets, they are not required or funded to do so. Will the Minister clarify that?

Air quality strategy must be based on sound science, but there comes a point at which the pursuit of ever-finer degrees of accuracy becomes a substitute for real action. We all want there to be better and cleaner air; it is a top priority for the public. We know that poor quality air has a direct effect on the good health of our citizens. For some, it affects the quality of their working life, but for others it affects their ability to enjoy everyday living.

I thank the Minister for bringing this important statutory instrument before us. I am sorry that I have asked her so many questions, but I look forward to her response.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, I believe that it is reasonable that we widen the discussion slightly from the rather modest regulations that are before us.

The regulations are modest. The Explanatory Memorandum states that the objectives are,

"unlikely to result in any additional burden for local authorities".

It also states that the regulations are,

"not expected to have any financial implications, either to the public, to industry, to local authorities or to central Government".

I believe that the Minister quoted the exact wording, which suggested that,

"virtually the whole of England will achieve the new objectives on the basis of existing policies".

Therefore, in a sense, these new regulations, and the targets within them, follow existing trends rather than set new ones. On that basis, I consider them to be modest.

However, we meet today in your Lordships' House on the 50th anniversary of the infamous great smog of London in which it is estimated that between 4,000 and 12,000 people died. I am pleased to say that I did not live in London in those days, but I did live in the Yorkshire coalfield, where smog was as prevalent as it was in London—perhaps for different, or partly the same, reasons. Those of us who remember the smogs of those days find it difficult to explain to people who are too young to remember them just how awful they were. They were dreadful, and it is one of the great triumphs of legislation, through the Clean Air Acts and so on, that we no longer have to suffer them.

However, it has now emerged that when, in 1952, the government of the day—a Conservative government but that does not matter; any government would have done the same—had to deal with the problem, they pretended that the cause of the large number of deaths and of the large number of people suffering serious illness without dying was an influenza epidemic. In today's Evening Standard, Professor Devra Davis, a visiting professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claims that it was a cover-up. She said:

"By the end of February"— that is, in 1952—

"around 12,000 people had died unexpectedly, yet there was no evidence that one-third of people in London at that time had influenza".

I suppose that that is the way that governments behave. But, fairly soon after that outbreak, it was realised that the whole country—the government and society—had been in denial about what was happening to people's health as a result of what, at the time, was blamed on the weather but what was, in fact, atmospheric pollution.

In a report called The Clean Air Revolution: 1952–2052, which is being published today and is available in this building, the National Society for Clean Air suggests that this country is in denial yet again. It suggests that deaths from lung cancer, for example, caused by air pollution number approximately 4,000 a year. That is more than the average number of 3,500 deaths which occur through road accidents. Official estimates suggest that 24,000 people a year die due to peak air pollution episodes.

According to that report, there is new evidence that long-term exposure to everyday levels of pollution may increase heart disease. Those of us with family members who suffer from asthma, as does my daughter, know how difficult that condition is. Again, the increase in the prevalence of asthma is being widely related to increased atmospheric pollution, particularly from road transport.

I mention those matters because, although the provision before us today is modest, increasingly it appears to be the case that the Environment Act 1995 and the air pollution strategy which the Government published two years ago are proving, and will prove, to be inadequate. We shall have to face such issues in a far more fundamental way than has been the case so far. Having said that, we on these Benches are content with the modest measure which the noble Baroness has put before the House.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, I thank both the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I shall begin with the final points raised by the noble Lord. Estimating the number of deaths caused by air pollution is a very complex and difficult task. However, we understand the problem better today than we did 50 years ago. We agree that further work is needed to quantify the precise number of deaths caused by air pollution and the key factors which contribute to it.

In this response to both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, we recognise that targets reflect what we know can be achieved. The point that is being made is that they are not sufficiently ambitious. However, we have to strike a balance between environmental, economic and social objectives. Tightening the regulations will help but the targets must also be achievable.

The noble Baroness also raised the issue of research into the effects of traffic-calming measures. The Department for Transport has a major research programme, known as TRAMAQ, which concerns traffic management and air quality. It is examining the effects on air quality of all traffic-calming measures. I am sure that the noble Baroness will be pleased to hear that. We are adopting the new measuring method because benzene has long-term health effects and it is sensible to measure its levels over a complete year. That is directly in line with the European directive. I shall return to that point in a moment.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raised the question of the impact on local authorities. We support running costs in the calculation for RSG, and additional borrowing powers towards capital costs are available through the supplementary credit approval programme. Since 1997, £21 million has been awarded.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, explained that under the Conservatives the targets were tighter. We examined that issue and the targets that had been set. Our modelling shows that it would be impossible to meet the original target set by the Conservative government in relation to particles even if all the cars in London were switched off and not running. Therefore, we have had to balance the knowledge available. That is not a criticism of the noble Baroness's government. The benefit of the new modelling and targeting proposals is that they show that it is difficult to set targets unless one considers whether it is possible to achieve them.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made the allegation that air pollution is worsening. In fact, it is improving. We accept that there has been a substantial fall in the level of bad air quality. We want to continue to tackle that issue. For example, ozone levels are strongly affected by pollutants blown over from mainland Europe, and we are working at a European level to tackle that problem.

The new objectives do not include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In answer to the noble Baroness, monitoring data are strictly limited. We have added a further 15 monitoring sites to the national network. We now have 25 and hope to develop more. We need to make separate regulations to transpose the EU directive. That will require the Secretary of State to meet the limit values. The Air Quality Limit Values Amendment Regulations are expected to be laid for negative resolution later this month. We cannot use the draft regulations before us today to transpose EU limit values. Local authorities do not possess all the powers that are needed to meet that. We believe that our targets are challenging. Aviation is included. Central government and local authorities both consider emissions from airports and aircraft, and many airports are developing air control strategies.

I hope that I have covered all the points raised by noble Lords. If I have missed any, I shall write to them.

In conclusion, I am conscious that today is Plain English Campaign Day, but I defy even that organisation to deal with this subject without straying from what most people view as plain English. I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord.

On Question, Motion agreed to.