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House of Commons Hansard
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Horn Lane, Acton
25 June 2013
Volume 565

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I am delighted, Mr Davies, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I can scarcely believe that I am back in Westminster Hall with the same issue that I first raised with the Minister some two-and-a-half years ago—the outrageously high pollution levels on Horn lane in Acton. For years, they have blighted the lives of local residents who, while fortunate in many ways to live in this part of west London, suffer the severe misfortune of living next to perhaps the most unfriendly neighbour imaginable. That neighbour is a polluting industrial site, which is home not only to a waste transfer company but to a construction aggregates company, a cement company and a metal recycling plant, too.

The site sits slap bang in the middle of a residential community and is a throwback to a time when Horn lane was home to factories rather than the flats and houses that are there now. As forum posts on the local residents’ website frequently demonstrate, the community there cannot fathom how or why that industrial remnant is still allowed to be there. Residents have had enough of the disappointing performance of the local authority and the Environment Agency in getting anything significant done about the consistently excessive pollution that emanates from the site. They are able to provide numerous examples of the negative effects it is having on local people’s health.

Ask Vib Patel, a chemist on Horn lane, and he say that sales of inhalers for customers there are appreciably higher than those at his other shops in Tufnell Park and Victoria. That can be of no coincidence when we take into account the number of times so far this year that operators have again breached air quality objectives with their activity. Horn lane has been up there yet again as the most polluted area in the whole of London. A simple look at the readings broadcast on Ealing council’s own air quality webpage confirms that Horn lane is an outlier when compared with other sites, and all the while Ealing council is bidding to become an air quality exemplar borough, but more on that later.

As I know from previous attempts to get something done about this difficult site, responsibility for monitoring and taking enforcement action when necessary is conveniently shared between a public body, the Environment Agency, and the local authority, Ealing. I say conveniently because, as the Minister admitted in his response to me last time, this creates a complex and all together confusing picture, which I am afraid all too often leads to spectacular inaction. I do not think it is overly cynical to say that that suits almost everyone concerned apart from the residents who have to live with the effects of the site. I am back again to say that this time enough really must be enough. I am sick of the excuses. What we need now is meaningful action. Either we get some proper enforcement against those persistent polluters or we should completely rezone the area for business and residential use, a perfectly sensible and achievable ambition, especially with Crossrail set to arrive at Acton mainline station in the next few years.

As the Minister knows from my brief potted history of the saga last time, a group of determined and committed local residents decided that they needed to find a way of upping the ante and applying pressure on those with the power to take enforcement action against the operators at the site. They banded together to form an action group, SHLAP, or Stop Horn Lane Air Pollution, and I secured a series of meetings for them with the Environment Agency and an Ealing council officer here in Parliament. Together we tried to get to the bottom of various licensing agreement conditions and were presented with endless pages of monitoring statistics from the various monitors installed at the site as part of an attempt to control the operators.

It was a frustrating exercise in which we learned from the Environment Agency that because of potential legal action from any company that was threatened with losing its licence because of regular pollution breaches, it rarely, if ever, wanted to go down that particular route. As it said, it would have been necessary to be able to prove precisely which operator was to blame for any pollution infringement. As that would be nigh on impossible in such a complex area, it was never really going to be a starter.

We were left feeling that really the only lever available was monitoring and more monitoring, and many of us feel that monitoring without consequences can become rather pointless. This just is not good enough. How can the public continue to be told that there is unacceptable pollution at a site, but that nothing can be done about it or, at least, that no agency is prepared to do anything about it?

The issue has continued to simmer away, but things really came to a head in April when it came to the attention of local residents that Ealing council had put in for City Hall funding, from the Mayor of London, to the tune of nearly £500,000 to become an air quality exemplar borough. Imagine their surprise when, reading the report presented for a Cabinet discussion on the issue, they discovered there was not even a mention of Horn lane. Imagine their frustration. It really did beggar belief that Ealing would put itself forward as an air quality exemplar borough with absolutely no reference at all to the shocking pollution levels on Horn lane. Only when that was pointed out to the council did an addendum to the report magically appear, finally mentioning the site. It was a classic example of the prevailing attitude, showing a cavalier approach to the health of the local residents.

In fact the local authority’s casual attitude to the problems of this site and the concerns of local people is reflected in the way in which officers continue to reach for the convenient excuse that it is all to do with heavy traffic in the area. A large part of the problem is its failure to accept that the unusually high pollution levels in the area are caused by the Horn Lane industrial site, and I am sorry to say that that was a feature of the Minister’s response back in 2010 as well. The now familiar refrain, or a useful get-out clause is my view, is that there are numerous other potential sources of PM10— particulate matter of less than 10 microns in diameter—close to the monitoring station at the Horn Lane site. Examples cited are the nearby A40 and the Hanger Lane gyratory system and the heavy traffic in the neighbourhood.

In the Minister’s previous response he said:

“In the case of Horn lane, there are several potential sources of PM10 close to the monitoring station, including transport from Horn lane and the nearby A40, other transport sources such as buses and trains, and pollution from the industrial site, which has several units engaged in concrete production, aggregate supply, scrap metal and waste transfer, and also heavy vehicle movements. That combination of sources adds to the load of dust and pollution and requires that several agencies work together with operators to control it.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 295WH.]

In other words, this is a complicated picture. There are lots of sources of potential pollution and we cannot really be sure how bad or how responsible the Horn Lane site is for the actual breaches of air quality targets. However, if anyone spends five minutes on Ealing council’s air quality website, they will find all the evidence they could possibly want to show that that excuse simply does not stand up.

The website helpfully allows people to compare monitoring data on PM10 particulates on a graph that shows the monitoring stations at the three locations I have just mentioned: Horn lane; the Hanger Lane gyratory system; and the A40. The results speak for themselves. Horn lane always comes out as being at least two to three times more polluted than the other two locations. This month is as good an example as any. The latest readings show an average of between 100 and 200 micrograms per cubic metre for Horn lane, compared with less than 50 micrograms per cubic metre at the other two sites. I encourage the Minister and his team to have a look at the website.

How much longer do we have to go on hearing that traffic is the root cause of the problem at Horn lane when the facts clearly demonstrate that that is plainly not the case? Of course, much of the heavy traffic in the immediate Horn Lane area is actually generated by the industrial site itself. Moreover, there are many other major roads in other parts of London with similarly heavy traffic that do not generate the high readings that Horn lane does. It is also worth noting that Horn lane is a small connecting road, whereas the A40 is a main arterial road and Hanger lane a major gyratory system.

Obviously, general traffic in the Horn Lane area, plus the trains, ensures a degree of pollution that in itself might be problematic, but clearly it is the addition of the local industrial site that tips the levels around Horn lane over levels that would be acceptable. That is why attention must be focused on bearing down on that source of high pollution.

There is real frustration that no one seems prepared to get to grips with what is a serious problem. As I have already said, the Environment Agency has been busily monitoring the situation and it is only fair to say that it has succeeded in reducing the amount of tonnage going through the waste transfer facility. Despite this, however, on many occasions the spikes in air pollution remain as high as ever, so clearly the Environment Agency has not got to the bottom of the problem. Indeed, despite the engagement of the agency with the local SHLAP group, local residents are still being exposed to unacceptably high levels of pollution. The official monitoring statistics continue to register pollution levels that regularly breach requirements.

Similarly, Ealing council has consistently failed to do anything about a road that—under its watch—has fast become what is often the most polluted road in London. For example, it is quite extraordinary that Hansons, the cement plant, got away with expansion without planning permission, and it was only after local pressure was exerted that the council is now insisting on a retrospective planning application. That just goes to show how disinterested the local authority has been in what goes on at the site.

I know the council will say that since 2005 there has been an improvement. That is true—to an extent. However, that improvement seems to have tailed off since 2009. Equally, residents say that that assessment sounds like the council is resting on its laurels. The breaches continue to happen on a regular basis. Whenever they occur, and however often they occur, they are totally unacceptable and the council needs to be far more active than it has been.

As the Minister knows, I tabled a couple of questions recently that specifically asked about the role that local authorities should play in tackling persistently high levels of pollution, and what powers are available for them to do that. His answers could not have been clearer. He said that this is an area of local authority responsibility and there is a wide range of powers available to local authorities, including under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010; under the Clean Air Act; under the Environmental Protection Act 1990; and under the Noise Act 1996. These powers would seem to cover all bases, so why are they not being used to maximum effect?

Notwithstanding the inaction so far, I have pursued a further meeting with the Environment Agency and Ealing council, which we are holding at the Horn Lane site on 12 July as a last-ditch attempt to bang heads together. It is no use the council launching new and costly consultations about what new monitoring or green infrastructure measures might help to ease the problem. We have already had eight years of monitoring. At the very least, what is needed is action against the pollution perpetrators and, more importantly, greater thought to be given to a site that should be a regeneration priority for the borough, especially when we consider the fantastic opportunity that a new Crossrail station in the area presents.

However, there is a real fear that Ealing council will continue to make noises about small, remedial measures to ease the problem, which anyone who has followed this issue closely knows will do precisely nothing to ease the problem. Also attending the meeting on 12 July will be representatives from City Hall and I hope that Ealing council will be prepared to discuss with the Mayor’s team the wider planning considerations of a rezoning of the site for residential and business use, and to promote the obvious benefits that a rezoning might bring.

I understand that when a rezoning is being considered there are implications for the Mayor’s London plan, which make things more difficult. In particular, the site also operates as an important railhead for freight transport, which takes a degree of pressure off all the roads going into central London. Clearly, that element of the site might have to remain, but why should that preclude proper consideration being given to the rezoning of the rest of the site? After all, if we were planning from scratch, would we put this industrial site right in the heart of a residential community? I do not think we would. The benefits of a flagship new Crossrail station in the area—the last one before Paddington—are obvious. The council recognises and is planning for the Crossrail benefits in Ealing town centre. Why can it not see the potential for Acton too?

To sum up, surely there is something that we can do about this problem. We need a vision for the future of this part of Acton, and we need leadership to carry that vision through, which will require determination either to rezone or to crack down, to provide an enhancement of the quality of life for the local residents that they certainly deserve.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) for raising this issue. In one sense, I am dismayed that she has had to raise it. I recall our earlier debate; as she said, it was more than two years ago. It is clearly a matter of genuine concern that this site continues to be a problem for residents in the Horn Lane area. At the end of her speech, she talked about the need for “leadership”. Quite clearly, she is giving great leadership to her constituents, and she should feel reassured that that is something I recognise. Indeed, I recognise not only her determination to continue to push at the agencies and authorities that can have control of this matter but to look holistically at this problem, to see that we are not just talking about an issue relating to the problems of today but one that relates to the development of the area in the future. She has not only considered the benefits that could come from the Crossrail development but the wider need to take a proper strategic view about the long-term use of this site in relation to the local people who live around it.

To set this issue in context, the Government recognise the impact that poor air quality can have on public health and we have an ongoing commitment to work towards compliance with EU obligations on air quality. In a way, that is rather a low level of aspiration. We want to do something not because we want to fulfil an EU obligation but because we care about residents in communities such as the one that my hon. Friend so eloquently describes and stands up for.

We have seen considerable improvements in pollution over many years now. Measures to reduce pollution from transport sources, industrial sources and other sources have ensured that the UK now meets EU standards for annual limits of particulate matter pollution, or PM10, and daily limits. In particular, measures to reduce transport pollution, such as increasingly tight European standards, have been effective in controlling particulate matter pollution, and, in London, actions such as the Mayor’s low emission zone, fitting diesel particulate filters to London buses and other measures have all made important contributions.

However, we also know that particulate matter pollution especially has health impacts beyond EU standards, and local hot spots such as Horn lane provide a continued challenge. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the London borough of Ealing has overall responsibility for air quality in the area, and for developing management plans to improve air quality and to meet other environmental concerns. I remember from our previous debate on this issue that the council has maintained a monitoring site at Horn lane since 2005, and her frustration that this continual monitoring does not seem to be delivering benefits is understood.

The Horn Lane site is particularly plagued by high levels of particulate matter pollution, or PM10, which is composed of dust and other fine materials from transport sources and other sources. However, I absolutely concede my hon. Friend’s point that it is industrial processes, such as waste management, construction and demolition, that she is concerned about in this area. PM10 is not visible to the naked eye, but it can be monitored and it impacts on human health, particularly vulnerable groups with respiratory problems. She made a very good point about the number of inhalers that are being sold locally.

The UK has set national objectives for levels of particulate matter and these should not exceed an annual mean of 40 micrograms per cubic metre. The UK has also set a level of 50 micrograms per cubic metre for daily mean levels of particulate matter. It is recognised that on some days this daily level might not be achieved because of particular local circumstances or weather conditions, and we therefore allow up to 35 days’ exceedances at those sites to take account of these instances.

In 2005, the Horn Lane monitoring site recorded levels of dust in excess of the national daily objective on 205 days. These levels were unacceptable and it was clear that rapid and urgent action was needed. In 2012, thanks to action by the EA and site operators, no more than 53 days were recorded as being over the daily objective. This is a significant reduction on the 2005 figure, but it is still too high. So far this year, there have been 36 days recorded in excess of the daily objective.

I want to outline what action has been carried out by various agencies since 2010, when we last spoke, and what action is being taken now with the Mayor, who is the strategic lead for air quality in London, and my Department. The Horn Lane area and the industrial site comprises several industrial processes adjacent to residential properties and a number of arterial roads and railways. These present several potential sources of PM10 close to the monitoring site at Horn lane, including waste transfer, scrap metal, aggregate supply and a concrete batching process. In addition, there are various key transport pollution sources in the area, including traffic on Horn lane and on the western A40; buses along Horn lane; and trains on the adjacent railway. But I concede my hon. Friend’s point that, although those may be part of the problem, they are not the significant driver, because plenty of other areas in her constituency with the same transport issues do not have this problem. One does not have to be a scientist or to have any particular knowledge about PM10s to know where the problem is coming from. Major construction works in the form of Crossrail and, recently, roadworks in the vicinity of Horn lane may have contributed.

We must remember that all these activities are important for growth, ensuring waste is recycled and construction materials are produced. I know that my hon. Friend is mindful of this for the benefit of Londoners as a whole and for the wealth of her constituency, but it is about where we locate such activities and the practicalities of doing that. These activities provide valuable employment opportunities, both locally and across London, and return money to the local economy. However, this combination of factors has also contributed to a perfect storm of pollution potential, making this location among the most challenging for operators to control and for the Environment Agency and the London borough of Ealing to regulate. This control must be achieved and it is the responsibility of operators, with support from other agencies, to ensure that their activities are properly managed.

I am staggered that a major change has taken place without planning permission. In an area as contentious as this, that seems to be an extraordinary state of affairs and it is right that my hon. Friend raises it.

At Horn lane, the Environment Agency regulates part of the aggregates site run by Yeoman aggregates, the waste transfer station of Gowing and Pursey, and Horn Lane Metals scrap merchant. The London borough of Ealing should also regulate part of the Yeoman aggregates site and a concrete production site, with Transport for London having responsibility for reducing pollution from transport sources.

The Environment Agency produced an amenity action plan in 2010, which is regularly updated with details of the actions taken to reduce emissions from the sites it regulates. These measures have significantly contributed to the reduction in levels since 2005.

Enforcement action has been taken against sites that are not performing appropriately and further legal enforcement has been taken and further enforcement remains an option. Since 2010, the Environment Agency has issued several notices to ensure waste transfer operations at the site are properly controlled. We rely on my hon. Friend to continue to keep us informed, where she thinks that this is not happening fast enough and where her direct dealings with the Environment Agency do not yield the correct answers. I remain on hand, and my colleague in the House of Lords, who has direct responsibility for these issues, will certainly follow up matters, as and when she informs us.

The agency has worked with Gowing and Pursey to install monitoring equipment and alert systems, so that the operators can respond to instances when dust levels are approaching dangerous levels; it is important to be able to monitor it before it becomes a major problem, and that is what is sought. The agency has also worked with those responsible for other sources of particulate pollution on the site, to promote improvements.

In 2012, the EA worked with the Greater London Authority and Transport for London to introduce a programme of deep cleaning, including the use of calcium magnesium acetate dust suppressant, to control dust levels at the site. The work was successful and showed a 36% reduction in the level of particulates in the area. Following a brief period where the site appeared to be contributing to dust in the area, an enforcement notice was served to bring the site back into compliance with its permit within one working day. This has been effective and at the time of the last inspection on 22 May, the site was clean and all waste was contained within the shed. Although particulate matter has reduced, all the parties recognise that levels continue to be above national objectives and continued action is needed to ensure the gains made are sustained and further reductions achieved.

The GLA represents the Mayor’s interest in improving air quality. It does this working with national Government and with London boroughs and the Environment Agency, as well as other stakeholders, such as business. Last week, the Environment Agency and the GLA co-ordinated a meeting, which my hon. Friend mentioned, of the key regulators responsible for this site, together with Department officials. A number of key actions were identified from that meeting and these will be taken forward by the key players concerned. We really want to make sure that these work and that a quantum leap is made in trying to resolve this problem.

The Environment Agency and the London borough of Ealing, as the main regulatory bodies, agreed to intensify their inspection regime to ensure that permit conditions were being met. I understand that this will include joint inspections, to be held monthly, and further action by the London borough of Ealing, agreed to reduce emissions from the wet concrete batching facility and the private haul road. There is similar action by the Environment Agency at the local metal waste site, and manual and mechanical sweeping, and further use of CMA spray, on the site to control dust. These and other detailed measures will help ensure that pressure is imposed to reduce particulate pollution. This site continues to concern us and we will continue to monitor it and my Department will continue to take a close interest in ensuring progress is maintained.

As we can see, this site presents a complex challenge. It is necessary for the local authority, the Environment Agency, the GLA and operators to work together to identify and control pollution sources. The regulators must also ensure that the responsible operators on the site comply with the control measures and monitor levels of pollution. Outside the site, ongoing action is being taken by the GLA to reduce transport emissions.

The continued action from my hon. Friend and local residents has been helpful in ensuring this. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue again today. I would have to be obtuse not to get the frustration that she feels on behalf of her constituents who live in this area. It is a complex site—an industrial site—that, in an ideal world, would not be in a location surrounded by residential accommodation. I assure her that this issue is on our radar. We want to ensure that the leadership that she has shown is reflected by leadership from all the agencies, some of which we are responsible for, such as the Environment Agency. However, we are not responsible for others and we look to my hon. Friend to continue to hold their feet to the fire on this.

We want this matter to be resolved. We do not want my hon. Friend to have to bring this back to the House, but I commend her for doing it.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.