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Air Quality

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 15 January 2009

4. What recent discussions his Department has had with the Environment Agency on the protection of air quality. (247631)

What comfort can my right hon. Friend give my constituents in Eastham, who are faced with the possible construction of a Biossence gasification plant and an Agri Energy tallow plant, that if those projects go ahead they will continue to enjoy clean and safe air, and that any installations will be appropriately monitored?

I understand that Biossence Ltd held pre-application discussions with the Environment Agency last March. It expressed the intention to apply for a permit under the environmental permitting regulations. If it does, there must be statutory consultation, and in the end the Environment Agency decides on applications, either granting the permit with conditions or refusing it. In making any application, an operator needs to cover various matters, including satisfactory environmental management of the installation, adequate monitoring and compliance with EU directives and other requirements. I hope that that offers him and his constituents some reassurance.

How much harder will it be to achieve air quality objectives if the 222,000 extra flights a year which will result from the third runway at Heathrow go ahead? Will the Secretary of State outline the extent to which he wholeheartedly gives his passionate commitment and support to the third runway at Heathrow?

The hon. Gentleman must be a little more patient because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will make a statement later today. To answer the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the Government have always made it clear that our air quality and noise targets must be met before any expansion can go ahead.

In his discussions with the Environment Agency, will my right hon. Friend emphasise that the public need to know that all our decisions on air quality are based on good science? In the past, the Environment Agency has listened too much to Greenpeace and other campaigners about, for example, energy for waste. The air quality is perfectly good, EU regulations are fine and the debate requires science, not passion.

I am a great believer—I am sure all hon. Members are—in science, facts, information and effective monitoring so that we can make the right decisions. Science of course informs the limits that domestic and European legislation have put in place. We must recognise that there has been real progress in the past 30 years in improving air quality in the country. However, there is some way to go on some forms of pollution. It is a genuine problem because the pollution we still have reduces average life expectancy by about seven to eight months. That is why we must keep up the progress.

The Secretary of State has a reputation for being quietly effective, but he lives in west London so he understands the impact that a 46 per cent. increase in Heathrow capacity will have on the environment of my constituents and others across that area. On Heathrow expansion, has he been defending Londoners at the Cabinet table, or has his reputation for quietness extended to silence on this occasion?

I am not known for my silence, and I have made it clear that my responsibility as Environment Secretary is to ensure that the Government’s air quality and noise targets are met. When the hon. Gentleman has a chance to hear the announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport later, he will find the answer to his question.

May I ask my right hon. Friend once again whether Government approval for the third runway at Heathrow would make it easier or harder to meet the air quality standards? The House will be interested in his views.

As I have already said in answer to the first question on the subject, the Government have made it clear that any decision on expansion must be subject to our meeting our targets for air quality and noise. That is essential. As I have said to other hon. Members, if my hon. Friend waits a little longer, he will learn from the announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport how that will be given effect.

The Department has made something of a habit of wasting taxpayers’ money through paying expensive fines for failing to deliver its targets and for serial incompetence. The impending threat of further punishment from the EU for failing to meet air quality standards is only the latest example. The Olympic Delivery Authority in east London stands accused of doing little or nothing to fulfil its promises to cut air pollution from construction. What is the Secretary of State doing about that?

I know that those who are working on the construction of the Olympics are conscious of the need to try to ensure that it is done in the most environmentally friendly way. On the substance of the question, we are currently not meeting the targets for the two pollutants PM10 and nitrogen dioxide. However, we are not unique in that. If the hon. Gentleman considers the rest of the EU, he will find many other countries that do not meet the requirements. That is why provision was made in last year’s revision to the directive for member states to apply for more time to do so. As I have already said, it is likely that we will need to apply for more time to meet the requirements on PM10 and nitrogen dioxide.

The answer, then, is not a lot. Let me join those over in west London who have already done this and ask the Secretary of State exactly how a third runway at Heathrow will help to cut air pollution. Will he confirm that, as a result of the statement that we will hear later today, the Government’s decision will cause millions of people to face blight, pollution, deteriorating air quality and noise, will massively affect the natural environment and affect people’s well-being? He is the Environment Secretary and we want to hear his view. It is no good hiding behind the latest statement. He has, to his credit, been notably silent in his enthusiasm for expanding Heathrow, but clearly he has little clout. Has he perhaps considered as a last resort joining Airplot, the organisation that is safeguarding land at the airport? That might be his only way of getting a share of the action.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s comment, and in response I simply say that I have said throughout that my responsibility is to ensure that if there is to be any expansion—he, like other hon. and right hon. Members, will have to be a bit more patient—it will be subject to the Government’s being able to demonstrate that we will meet the air quality and noise targets that we have set. If he just waits a little longer, he will see how the Government intend to ensure that we fulfil those promises.