My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful and constructive introduction to these regulations. As has been said, they bring into line medium combustion generators with larger ones. However, in applying these regulations to 1 to 50 megawatt generators, it has to be said that 50 megawatts would be capable of powering up to 8,000 homes. That is not a small undertaking and is therefore, quite rightly, worthy of regulation. This size is typical of the generators used, as the noble Lord has said, for a range of purposes including electricity generation, domestic and residential heating and cooling, providing heat and steam for industrial processes and so on. Generators of this capacity are inherently diesel or gas powered, and these regulations bring diesel down to the level of gas-powered generators.
The Government are rightly attempting to reduce the level of emissions in this country. Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. However, they are presently 10 years late in meeting air quality standards. Public health is at risk and there is no time to lose if the NHS is not to be overburdened with patients with respiratory problems. Government estimates show that in 2008, the number of deaths attributable to fine particulate matter—that is, poor air quality—was 29,000. In 2016, the Royal College of Physicians estimated that the cost of the health impacts of air pollution to the UK was £20 billion.
There are approximately 143,000 medium combustion plants in the European Union, with an estimated 30,000 in the UK. The increase in the use of such generators has been identified as a source of avoidable increases in national emissions. Many generator farms have been set up solely to sell electricity back to the national grid. While this is very enterprising, it is having an effect on the nation’s health. The National Audit Office identified in 2017 that the Government will not achieve compliance with EU limits on nitrogen dioxide until 2021, some 11 years later than the deadline of 2010. In 2016, more than 85% of air quality zones in the UK, 37 out of 43, did not meet EU nitrogen dioxide limits and government estimates show that all 43 air quality zones will not be compliant with the limits until 2026. The measures being taken today are a step in the right direction, but there is still much more to do, and faster.
While I am happy with agreeing to the regulations, I would like to raise a point about flooding. In paragraphs 7.9 and 7.10 of the Explanatory Memorandum, the regulations indicate that the Environment Agency can use enforcement undertakings for a number of activities. In those areas of the country prone to continual flooding, such as the Somerset Levels, householders and businesses are often flooded to varying degrees of depth. Many have standby generators to pump water out of their premises when levels do not subside in an acceptable timescale, and often much larger generators have to be brought in to ease widespread flooding. Will the Minister give a reassurance that in such cases, enforcement action would not be taken if the generator in use did not comply with the regulations we are approving today?
I fully support the move to improve air quality as indicated in the air quality strategy and agree that tackling the most polluting generators must come into line first. However, an FOI request in October 2017 revealed that the Government had spent £370,000 in unsuccessfully challenging two court claims that their plans to tackle air pollution were “illegally poor”. Was this a wise use of money and could it not have been better spent on tackling air pollution itself? It is important to ensure that enforcement powers not only continue to remain available to tackle pollutants, but that the culture shift we are beginning to see in government from defending flawed environmental policy to enabling and adequately funding the means to safeguard air quality moves ahead at a much faster pace. These regulations are a welcome step in the right direction and I support them.