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National Air Quality Targets

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 15 May 2003

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What progress has been made on meeting the national air quality strategy targets. [113300]

We have met, or are on course to meet, air quality objectives for five of the nine pollutants in England—namely benzene, 1,3-butadiene, carbon monoxide, lead and sulphur dioxide. Significant progress has been made towards meeting air quality objectives for nitrogen dioxide, particles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and ozone. That is a result of the measures that have been implemented to reduce emissions of these pollutants, and their precursors, particularly from road transport and industry.

I thank the Minister for his answer and I commend the Government for the work that they have done. However, conditions such as asthma are greatly exacerbated by pollution. Pollution may not cause it, but, as I know from my experience, it certainly makes it worse. The number of asthma sufferers now totals 5 million. Has the Minister examined the research on the effects of long-term air pollution carried out by the air pollution unit of the Department of Health? When will the measures that he has announced have a significant effect on air pollution, so that conditions such as asthma can be significantly ameliorated?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is now greater sensitivity towards pollutants and a greater understanding of their impact. We do not believe that the battle is yet won: pointing to indicators of progress does not mean that we are satisfied with the position that we have reached. Although the emissions of most pollutants are falling, concentration levels of some are not falling as fast as we would like. I can reassure my hon. Friend that we shall remain focused on the targets and work with our colleagues in the Department of Health to remain fully sensitive to the points that he makes.

Does the Minister accept that the good work done in tackling air pollution will be undermined if the airline industry is not brought under control? Is he aware that Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports alone emit more than 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 13,000 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide each year? The industry's CO2 emissions are set to double between 1990 and 2010. Will his Department support the impositicn of a European Union aviation fuel tax, and also tell the Department for Transport that it must resist the discredited predict-and-provide policy for more runways in the south-east?

The hon. Gentleman addresses transport policy and tax in his question, which confirms the important fact that many Departments make a contribution to these policy issues. We are conscious of the impact of air transport and the situation around airports, which is clear from our statement on the consultation documents on the future of air transport in the south-east.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that air pollution is not simply an urban problem? It has a worrying effect in rural areas, especially given the amount of ozone from motorways. Is it right to put special effort into monitoring that, and does he agree that that should be part of a properly constituted overall policy, instead of one that just concentrates on urban areas?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Ozone levels in rural areas are a problem, and we are not satisfied with the progress that has been made. It should be remembered that ozone is a highly trans-boundary pollutant and we are taking measures nationally to control ozone precursors, such as nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds. Internationally agreed measures are the most effective ways to tackle that pollutant, as ground-level ozone concentrations in southern England are influenced largely by trans-boundary pollution. The UK will play a key role in seeking agreements on those issues, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight them as an area for concern.

Surprisingly, many local air quality management areas exist in small market towns, and some of those are set to deteriorate further as a result of unsympathetic planning. What discussions has the Minister had with his local government colleagues to ensure that planning guidance is tightened up to prevent that from happening?

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that air pollution problems arise in areas such as market towns, where one would not expect them, and he has raised the issue in the House in the past. I can assure him that air quality issues are considered across government by this Department and our colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Transport.