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Air Quality (London)

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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3.45 pm

After all that excitement, I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the issue of air quality in London, which should be—I think that it is—a matter of great concern to each and every one of the millions of people who live or work within our capital city. The implications of not sorting out this major challenge are obvious in respect of the health of Londoners, but they also concern London's economic position.

Air pollution in London is, of course, nothing new and I am just old enough to remember my father wearing a face-mask on his way to work to try to combat the lethal smogs of the fifties. Happily, the Clean Air Act 1956 solved that problem, but today we are once again faced by a huge challenge. Poor air quality caused by pollution in the air impacts on human health, most typically by irritating the lungs and airways or by passing into the blood via our lungs. Children, older people and those who have pre-existing lung or heart conditions are most at risk. It has been estimated that the capital's air pollution causes around 1,600 premature deaths and a further 1,500 hospital admissions annually. The strain that that puts on London's health services is self-evidently tremendous.

The incidence of asthma has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. In the UK as a whole, there was a 50 per cent. increase in childhood asthma between 1975 and 1995 and, although I am told that air pollution itself is not thought to be a direct cause, it is recognised that it triggers attacks. There are, however, other significant causes.

Anecdotally, in the six years in which I have been coming to Westminster to work on behalf of my constituents, I have noticed that I suffer increasingly from congestion problems of the nasal variety, although I must say that it took me three hours to come the 18 miles from Uxbridge this morning. It is therefore wise to acknowledge that traffic congestion is a major cause of problems with air quality.

There are two concentrations of pollution on any map of air pollution in London. One is here in the centre of London; the other, on which I would like to concentrate, is in the Heathrow region. It is frightening to see exactly how poor the air is that many of us in the vicinity of the airport have to breathe.

The main pollutants that concern us in London are nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. I am no scientist and must rely heavily on the advice and expertise of others. Like many other people, however, I am convinced by the evidence that I come across on a daily basis that poor air quality is now a major problem for many Londoners. I would like to take the opportunity at this stage to acknowledge the help that the air quality officer at the London borough of Hillingdon, Val Beale, has given to me.

My main concern is the area around Heathrow airport, where it is acknowledged that the air in many households is already above the EU limit values for nitrogen dioxide. I am not convinced that the impact of the building of terminal 5 has been properly taken into account. Indeed, the inspector at the planning inquiry accepted that Heathrow has become a national air pollution hot spot. He stated that
"terminal 5 is likely to cause harm and to have an adverse impact on health as a result of Nitrogen Dioxide and Particulate Materials."
The concept of building a third runway at Heathrow would seem contrary to health considerations for local people.

Professor Duncan Laxen, in his report in October 2002 to the London borough of Hillingdon, stated that
"even with an aggressive set of assumptions about reductions in emissions from aircraft, there would still be thousands of people exposed above the EU limit value around Heathrow in 2015 and 2030."
He continued:
"The study carried out for the new runway identified more than a doubling of the number of people exposed to elevated pollutant concentrations."
Returning briefly to the question of terminal 5, it is interesting to note that the Secretary of State, in paragraph 77 of his decision letter, stated that
"he considers that the Inspector placed too little weight on the European Community law aspects of the air quality issues and he recognises the obligations that Community law imposes on the Government."
The Minister here today is not from the Department for Transport, so I will not repeat the many arguments about further expansion at Heathrow. However, I will pose some questions related to health and the environment.

I was not sure whether the Minister present would be from the Department of Health or from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am delighted to see the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality here, but I do not know whether he will be able to respond to my questions. If not, I shall have to take the route of parliamentary questions.

First, I should like to know whether the Department of Health has made any assessment of the health implications of terminal 5 for the Heathrow area and of the implications for the local health economy. I would also like to know whether it has done any work on what would be likely to happen if a third runway were to be built? The same questions apply, although in a slightly different way, to the Minister's Department.

When does the Minister expect air quality to fall within the limits set by the European Union and what would he recommended for people who live in areas where the nitrogen dioxide levels are higher than will be legal—under EU law—in a few years' time? Would the logical position be for the Department to expect people to leave their homes, or for the airport to close down, neither of which would be a satisfactory solution? Does the Department accept that the health of people in those areas has already been adversely affected by poor air quality and, if so, what have the two Departments done to alleviate that situation? Has any consideration been given to the financial implications for local primary care trusts as a result of the increased problems that they face?

I am concerned that those involved in the decisions that will be made shortly on increasing air traffic capacity in south-east England, and particularly on the possible provision of a third runway at Heathrow, have put the question of air quality to one side. I believe that they have taken the rather glib attitude that they will sort out the problem when they come to it. However, I was pleased to note that the Department for Transport said that it did not accept the recently revised figures put forward by BAA plc, which substantially reduced the projected amounts. One might say that BAA plc "would say that, wouldn't they?" I am delighted that the Department for Transport is taking a view on that.

I would also like to know whether the Minister's Department, and Ministers or officials in the Department of Health, have spoken to their colleagues in the Department for Transport and whether they have made any formal representations to that Department, such as a formal response to the consultation that will finish at the end of this week.

There are already severe health consequences in the vicinity of Heathrow in relation to air quality. Those problems, of course, exist in the rest of London, but hon. Members will understand that I am speaking from a constituency point of view, and therefore concentrating on the Heathrow area. I would like to think that the Departments that cover all aspects of the problem take the issue seriously, and that we really live in an era of joined-up government, so that the Departments involved talk to each other about it. Does the Minister agree with me, many other hon. Members on both sides of the House, many people who live in the poisoned shadow of Heathrow, and those eminent academics when we say that, for air quality reasons alone, there should be no third runway at Heathrow?

3.55 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for raising this important issue and for the manner in which he covered it. First, let me reassure him on joined-up government. As he acknowledged, I would not want to respond on matters that fall within the brief of other Departments, but we have regular meetings at which Ministers engage with colleagues. A few weeks ago, my noble Friend Lord Whitty and I had meetings with Transport Ministers about some of the matters that concern us. In view of the opportunity to redefine portfolios a week ago, we decided to incorporate DEFRA's transport interests and air quality interests into one portfolio for which Lord Whitty is now responsible. Air quality issues were part of my portfolio until last week, but I am sure that that focus, on which both of us were keen, will benefit joined-up government.

I am happy to draw the attention of colleagues at the Department of Health to relevant queries that the hon. Gentleman raised. He started with the improvement in air quality since the killer smogs of the 1950s and referred to his father's experience of wearing a face mask. Having visited London in the 1950s, I know how dramatically different the air quality is now compared with that in those days.

That long-term trend has continued over the last decade. The latest results from the air quality headline indicator show that in 2002 there were on average just 24 days when air pollution levels in London were recorded as moderate or higher, compared with 43 days in 1996. Those improvements have been achieved through progressively tighter vehicle emission and fuel standards and the introduction of comprehensive controls over pollution from industrial and domestic sources.

The problem has not gone away, however. In certain areas of the country, including parts of London, pollution levels are unacceptably high. We must address that, not least because of the health impacts of exposure to air pollution, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Examples are the links to asthma and reduced life expectancy.

The hon. Gentleman focused on airports and the impact of Heathrow, so it is only fair to respond to those points. Aviation, too, has a role to play, and we will take air quality fully into account in the air transport White Paper, which is due to be published by the end of the year. Air quality was a key consideration in the terminal 5 decision. We made it clear that another runway at Heathrow could not be considered unless the Government could be confident that levels of all relevant pollutants could be consistently maintained within EU limits. We also said that in our consultation paper on the future development of air transport in the UK, I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that air quality issues have not simply been brushed to one side.

BAA plc is required to produce and keep under review an action plan showing how it intends to minimise emissions from, and attributable to, Heathrow. We have issued a clear challenge to the aviation industry: it must dramatically reduce the emissions of nitrogen dioxide from aircraft using Heathrow if there is to be any question of considering a third runway.

Most London boroughs have found some areas where the strategy's air quality targets for nitrogen dioxide and particles are unlikely to be met without further measures. In most cases, that is primarily because of road traffic emissions. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that in Hillingdon and Hounslow emissions from Heathrow airport were identified as another source. The two local authorities concerned are now drawing up action plans to tackle the problems identified. Where action is outside their remit—for example, with regard to Heathrow airport, motorways or trunk roads—they will work with the airport authorities and the Highways Agency.

The UK aviation industry has recently committed itself to tough targets for emissions improvements. The Department of Trade and Industry aerospace innovation and growth team report that was launched on 11 June is based on European targets of a further 50 per cent. reduction in CO2 per passenger kilometre by 2020. It also contains an ambitious target to reduce NOx emissions by 80 per cent.

It is worth pointing out that new cars are much cleaner than they used to be 10 years ago. A new car bought in a showroom today will emit about one tenth of the pollution of one bought a decade or so ago, and additional improvements continue to contribute to long-term air quality.

On the general air quality issue, action is under way locally and nationally, and internationally, because air pollution does not respect national boundaries. Emissions of pollutants arising in mainland Europe can contribute significantly to concentrations in the UK, particularly in London and the south-east. We are working closely with our partners in Europe to tackle trans-boundary pollution. Reductions agreed under the national emissions ceiling directive in the UK and in other member states will play an important part in helping to cut emissions at source.

The Government's air quality strategy, to which I referred a few moments ago, sets out our policies for tackling air pollution. It includes health-based standards for the main pollutants of concern and objective dates for their achievement across the UK. The fact that those objectives are, in some cases, tighter than the corresponding legally binding European air quality directive limit values—the limit on nitrogen dioxide has been introduced five years early—demonstrates our commitment to delivering cleaner air as soon as possible.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I have been listening with great interest. Will he acknowledge that there are households in areas where air pollution is above that level?

Some areas have specific problems, which is one of the reasons for putting together the areas where specific action is required. Hillingdon carried out a review and assessment of air quality within its boundaries, which is why an air quality management area covering approximately two thirds of the borough has been declared from the A40 corridor to the southern borough boundary. Hillingdon must now develop an air quality action plan in order to reduce emissions and to improve air quality. That is one way to focus on areas where there are particular problems. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that there are some places where air quality is unsatisfactory. In order to tackle that, action must be taken at the international, national and local levels, which is allowed for in the legislation and in the practical arrangements. I hope that my reply has fully acknowledged his point.

Measures have been implemented or are being introduced to meet the objectives in the strategy. Those include further vehicle emission and fuel standards, fuel duty differentials and our power shift and clean-up grant schemes to promote the wider use of greener fuels and vehicles. Our 10-year transport plan sets out an investment programme of £180 billion to improve public transport, to cut congestion and to reduce air pollution. We have introduced the system of local air quality management, to which I have just referred, that allows local authorities to identify pollution hot spots and to implement local measures to deal with them.

We also have a system of local transport plans under which local authorities can bid for new capital funding for local transport measures. We have given local authorities new powers and new funding to carry out roadside emission testing where levels of pollution are high, and some 26 London boroughs have been designated so far.

We are on course to meet, or have already met, the objectives for most of the pollutants, but indications are that additional measures are likely to be needed if we are fully to meet the nitrogen dioxide and particles objectives in certain parts of England, including parts of London. Targets are being challenged, as the hon. Gentleman said.

Under the Greater London Authority Act 1999, the Mayor of London has devolved responsibility for air pollution in London. His air quality strategy, which was published last year, sets out how he intends to implement the air quality objectives in the Government's air quality strategy. The measures include implementing the cleanest bus fleet in the United Kingdom, the first emission standards for taxis and the possible introduction of low emission zones to ban high-polluting vehicles.

I understand that the Mayor will publish a feasibility study on low emission zones shortly, and is also assessing the impact of his congestion charging scheme, including the impact on air quality. The Mayor's air quality and transport strategies will have a key role to play, as will the air quality action plans that individual boroughs are working on under their local air quality management duties. All that is crucial if we are to meet our objectives and the corresponding European limit values.

We are considering what additional measures might be needed as part of our review of the air quality strategy, the review of the 10-year plan for transport and the delivery of the Department's joint public service agreement with the Department for Transport to meet air quality targets. It is worth saying that all these measures sound rather formal, but they are intended to drive up the quality of air that our citizens breathe and to drive down the levels of pollution in a way that improves the general quality of life.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the Minister or the Government in trying to reduce the level of pollution, but will the Minister, with his vast experience, tell me what will happen if the level of pollution in these areas is still above European levels by 2010? Those levels will be a legal requirement by then, so what will happen if they are not met? Will it be a slap on the wrist, and which Department will be in trouble? Will the Government be in trouble, or the Mayor? I want to know what the consequences might be.

We are all in trouble if we do not meet the objectives, not only because they are requirements, but because we are dealing with the health of our citizens. That returns me directly to the point made by the hon. Gentleman right at the beginning. The Mayor of London has the power of direction over the boroughs, and the Government have the power of direction over the Mayor. If necessary, there are powers to require actions to be taken to ensure that the measures are having the desired effect on the levels of pollution, which are regularly and carefully monitored. However, I am optimistic that everyone, including the local authority officers, about whom the hon. Gentleman was talking, the Mayor of London and Departments, recognises the importance of achieving the objectives and will work co-operatively at all levels of government. That is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question "What if?" There are powers of direction, should it be necessary to use them. I sincerely hope that we all agree that the achievement of local, national and international objectives, and careful monitoring to ensure that progress is being made and at the required speed, is the right way to approach the issue.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take air quality very seriously. We recognise that London and other parts of the UK will have the real challenge of meeting air quality targets, and the transport sector will have an important part to play in that. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, that includes airport operators and aviation. Local measures will have a key role to play in addressing the problems, especially at the sort of level that he highlighted. The Government will continue to work towards meeting their targets to provide cleaner air for everyone and to meet the UK's obligations under the European air quality legislation to which he referred.

4.9 pm

Sitting suspended.