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Heathrow Expansion: Air Quality

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2016

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect on air quality of proposed Heathrow airport expansion.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As you and the Minister are aware, I have spent much time in Parliament on the issues of Heathrow and Heathrow expansion because many of my constituents in Twickenham are concerned. It is therefore a great disappointment to me that the Government recently decided to support Heathrow expansion, and I reiterate that I am still firmly and utterly opposed to that decision.

I congratulate the hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, on securing this debate. I alert the House that many MPs for constituencies in and around Heathrow airport have constituents who are worried about the implications of the proposed expansion and about air quality, which is increasingly important locally.

I thank the hon. Lady for making that important point, as this not only affects Twickenham. Four councils are currently taking the Government to court over air quality because of Heathrow. Air quality is an important concern for many people.

The people, like the hon. Lady, know that Heathrow is not deliverable on many levels, including cost, noise pollution and the upcoming legal challenges, but the insurmountable challenge, and the reason I secured this debate, is air quality. The Minister will know that air quality is a major and increasing concern, and he may recall that in January 2016 I asked the then Prime Minister about the shocking news that the annual legal limit for nitrogen dioxide had been breached in London by 8 January. A map of nitrogen dioxide levels across London and Heathrow shows high concentrations in central London and Heathrow. Nitrogen dioxide, of course, affects the lungs, particularly in people with asthma or bronchial conditions, and decreases lung function growth in children.

Perhaps of even more concern is particulate matter. I am sure the Minister is aware of the World Health Organisation’s comments on particulate matter, which affects more people than any other pollutant. Although I will be talking about the legal limits for PM2.5 and PM10, I remind him that the WHO has said that for PM2.5

“no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.”

There is no safe level but, just like for nitrogen dioxide, London breached the annual legal limit in the first few months of this year. Forty cities in the United Kingdom have already breached the annual legal limit for PM2.5, and London is in the top six. PM10 is also of serious concern. Only 11 cities in the United Kingdom breached the annual legal limit in the early part of this year, and London is in the top four.

Particulate matter contributes to fatalities from strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and acute and chronic respiratory diseases. The cost in human terms is that 9,000 deaths a year in Greater London are attributable to nitrogen dioxide or particulate matter, which are just some of the air pollutants. Four thousand deaths in 1952 gave rise to the Clean Air Act 1956. Now we have more than double that number every year, and the Government are not doing enough.

What concerns me is that, within just over a week of the Government’s being found guilty in the courts of not having an adequate plan to address air quality, they decided to approve Heathrow expansion. The expansion will involve perhaps 50% more planes. The Minister might say that it is not the aircraft but the cars that are adding to the air pollutants, but Heathrow lies near the M4 and the M25, two of the country’s most congested motorways. He will also know that, with nearly 250,000 more flights planned, there will be thousands more passengers and staff, and they will not be walking to and from Heathrow airport.

The number of cars will increase, and I do not agree or accept that electric cars will be the answer. There are 11 million diesel cars in the United Kingdom, and they will not be scrapped and replaced in time for the proposed Heathrow expansion. I do not want to hear that putting on facemasks will protect us from particulate matter, because the British Lung Foundation says that there is no evidence that that will help.

Heathrow implicitly acknowledges the risk to air quality. I am sure the Minister has a well-thumbed copy of the Airports Commission report, and page 225 states that £799 million will be spent on car parks at an expanded Heathrow. That will increase air pollutants, which are already breaching legal limits. Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd will argue about how much it wants to spend on surface access—that is one argument—but nobody who favours Heathrow expansion denies that surface access will increase, which means more road trips and more pollutants.

I will in a while, if I have time.

Heathrow airport prides itself on being a leading cargo airport. Again, cargo and freight are not coming to and from Heathrow in an electric car or on a horse and cart. My question to the Minister is simple: if the Government support Heathrow expansion, how will they get air quality within legal targets? I have asked two Prime Ministers, two Secretaries of State for Transport and a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how they can expand Heathrow airport without increasing air pollution. Thus far, I have been assured that it will happen, but I have not been told how. I hope that today, at the sixth time of asking, I will be told.

Howard Davies spent years and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on his commission’s report, and he said on page 307 of the Minister’s well-thumbed copy that

“an expanded Heathrow Airport must be contingent on acceptable performance on air quality.”

Howard Davies said that that was needed but, again, the report did not specify how it would be achieved. We need airport expansion, but it must be in a place where the legal limits for air pollution have not been breached.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate; she is making a compelling case. The overwhelming body of legal and expert opinion on environmental and transport matters is that it is not sustainable. Does she agree that it is a welcome sign that the Mayor of London has put the resources of TfL behind the campaign, and will support all of us who are campaigning to ensure that Heathrow does not expand, because of that particular risk?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that absolutely brilliant point. I would think that the Mayor of London supporting the campaign would focus the minds of the Minister and the Cabinet, because four councils—Richmond, Wandsworth, Hillingdon and Windsor and Maidenhead—are taking the Government to court for noise and air pollution as a result of the proposed Heathrow expansion. Ministers have a chance to change their minds and deliver runway capacity in an area where air pollution is not so critical. No other place in the United Kingdom is as vulnerable as the area around Heathrow, close to Greater London.

If the Government continue to support Heathrow expansion without a plan to reduce air pollution to within safe medical and legal limits—it must be done in a critical time frame, as ClientEarth told the Government in the Supreme Court and the High Court—I will ask the Government to admit that they are wilfully and knowingly increasing the number of deaths attributable to air pollution caused by an expanded Heathrow.

Before I invite the Minister to respond, I warn him that I am likely to interrupt his speech if a Division is called in the House.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) on securing this debate. She has been a regular, repeated and determined advocate for the case that she makes today.

The Government are straightforward about our plans, as my hon. Friend made clear in her speech. The Secretary of State has announced the steps that we are taking in respect of Heathrow, which she has drawn to the House’s attention, but in doing so, the Secretary of State was absolutely clear that it will now be subject to a consultation, that it will be gauged according to that consultation and that the Government are committed to the interests of local people, just as we are committed to the interests of people who wish to travel to and from Heathrow. Of course, she is right to suggest that squaring those two objectives is a significant challenge, but it is one that the Government are willing to meet.

Does the Minister agree that airport expansion can cause pollution not only from aircraft but from traffic going to the airport? We need many more electric cars, and we need to ensure that public transport runs not on diesel but on petrol or hybrid. What are the Government doing about that particular situation?

It is apposite that my hon. Friend, with his usual insight and judgment, should raise that matter. Just this morning, I gave evidence to the Lords Science and Technology Committee, which is producing a report on exactly that subject. The Committee asked telling questions about the pace of those developments, their character and what social and environmental effects they might have.

I will in a second, after I finish this point. I was able to orate at considerable but not excessive length on all those matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) will have a chance to see the report. In addition, because I always like to go that one step further than other Ministers, I will drop him a line summarising, given that I know his interest in these matters—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister; he can continue his remarks when we resume. A Division has been called in the House. If there is one Division, the sitting will be suspended until 4.30; if there are two, we will resume at 4.40, and the Minister can continue his remarks then.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Order. The sitting is resumed. Those Members who are here for the debate on the electrification of the great western line are 15 minutes early, because we are 15 minutes behind schedule because of the Division. You are most welcome to stay; you may learn something about air quality at Heathrow. The Division rudely interrupted the Minister, whom I invite to resume his remarks.

Those who were present earlier had the excitement of hearing the beginning of my speech; those who have joined us rather later are going to have the excitement of the peroration. It is almost like having two bites of the cherry for those who have been here throughout.

Before the sitting was suspended briefly, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton had asked me about electric vehicles. I do not want to go down that road, and I do not think you would permit me to do so, Mr Hollobone; it is sufficient for me to say that I will write to him, summarising the evidence I gave to the Lords Science and Technology Committee this morning to better inform further consideration of that important matter.

Although I absolutely applaud electric cars, there are 11 million diesel cars. The point is the timeframe. I do not believe that the Government will move to all cars being electric, with no air pollution, in the timeframe within which they want Heathrow expansion, which cannot take place with air quality levels as they are.

I would not claim for a moment, and have not done so, that we are going to have an entirely electric fleet of cars, privately owned or otherwise, in the near future. Nevertheless, the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton is reasonable, given that that is a factor that will affect the way we drive in future, with a consequent effect on emissions.

Does the Minister agree that because air pollution is at such a dire, illegal level, complete electrification is the only way we will be able to get safe levels in future?

My hon. Friend clearly has greater prophetic powers than I do. I would never want to have claimed to have second-guessed the whole of the future. Technological change is, by its nature, unpredictable, and the circumstances we currently face are highly dynamic. We know that electric vehicles are here and established. The numbers being driven are growing and the Government support that. I fully anticipate that number continuing to grow significantly. It will affect emissions accordingly, but there will be other technological changes in the near, medium and longer term, and they are likely to make cars more efficient. Frankly, I suspect that those changes are also likely to have a beneficial effect on emissions. As I say, though, far be it from me to be a prophet in those terms; I simply try to do my best to estimate what is happening now. It is difficult enough to do that, let alone to be more ambitious.

I turn, in the short time available, to my hon. Friend’s salient remarks—salient in the sense that they are relevant to the debate in a rather stricter way than the territory into which we were just straying. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced the decision on the north-west runway at Heathrow—as a preferred option, I hasten to add—in the following context. He said that, among other things, expanding Heathrow will better connect the UK to long-haul destinations in growing world markets, boosting trade and creating jobs. Passengers will benefit from more choice of airlines, destinations and flights, and expansion at Heathrow will be subject to a world-class package of compensation and supporting measures for local communities. My right hon. Friend also made it clear that the Government’s announcement was just the beginning of the consultative process I described earlier, which will allow my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham and others in the community and elsewhere to make their views known.

Let me be clear on the impact of the expansion. The Government’s commitment to dealing with emissions will be central to the discussion of the air-quality impact and to meeting the challenge of balancing the need to grow airports with the need to maintain the health and wellbeing of the people who live near them, and of all our people. We have made it clear that we must tackle air quality and noise and meet our obligations on carbon, both during and after construction of the expanded airport.

I greatly appreciate the Minister’s giving way again. Will he confirm whether I am correct in concluding that if the consultation shows that air pollution levels cannot be brought within legal limits, Heathrow expansion will not take place?

It would be entirely inappropriate of me to prejudge the consultation, still less its outcome, as my hon. Friend invites me to do. Nevertheless, given her absolute consistency and vehemence in defence of the cause she has identified today, I shall give her my 10-point summary of the issues. Ten points is the very least she deserves, given her consistency.

First, air quality is a significant national health issue, as my hon. Friend says, and the Government take it seriously. However, she knows that the prevailing issues of air quality associated with an urban environment—indeed, those associated with the kind of cars we drive and how that is changing—are the most significant feature of some of the public health arguments that she made earlier. We should not be preoccupied with assuming that airport expansion is the be all and end all in this, and I am sure she is not so preoccupied.

Secondly, the Government are already taking action to cut vehicle emissions. For example, the UK is delivering a programme, backed by £600 million of investment, to support the long-term transition to low-emission vehicles, to which I referred a moment ago.

Thirdly, the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury have already embarked on a joint project to identify further ways in which we can tackle this issue. Indeed, if the consultation goes that way, by the time a new runway opens in the next decade we intend to have made substantial progress in tackling air-quality challenges throughout the whole nation.

Fourthly, as announced in December 2015, we tested the Airports Commission’s analysis against the Government’s 2015 air quality plan. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is right that the evidence base in this policy area is ever shifting, and we do need to recognise that there is more work to do; I happily do so today. We have to keep our assessments up to date and to take account of changing technology and what that brings.

Fifthly, Heathrow airport will have to play its part. The new runway must be underpinned by further industry-leading measures to mitigate air quality impacts.

Sixthly—I am rattling through these points because I am conscious of the time, Mr Hollobone, and this Chamber deserves as much information as possible—the Government believe that, with a suitable package of policies and mitigation measures, the Heathrow north-west runway scheme can be delivered without impacting on the UK’s compliance with air quality limit values.

Seventhly, final development consent will be granted only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that, with mitigation, the Heathrow scheme is compliant with legal requirements on air quality. I do not think that is quite what my hon. Friend asked for—as I say, I do not want to prejudge the consultation—but she must be pleased with what I have said today; she would be churlish not to be.

The Minister is being very generous in taking interventions. Will he confirm that, after all these measures are taken, if air quality levels are illegal, the beginning of any construction for a third runway at Heathrow cannot and will not take place?

For the sake of clarity, I will repeat exactly what I said for the record. Final development consent will only be granted if the Secretary of State is satisfied that, with mitigation, the Heathrow scheme is compliant with legal requirements on air quality. Whether that is quite what my hon. Friend wants or not, I do not know, but I think that is quite a big commitment to make and it is certainly made in the spirit that I described earlier—that of a Government who are absolutely concerned to do the right thing by local residents and in terms of emissions generally.

I thank the Minister for giving way. Last week at Transport questions, I asked a question about an issue that concerns my local area, which is the proposed expansion of the M4, which, so far as I can see, would be needed if the third runway is given the go-ahead. Will the Minister comment on the impact on air quality of a tunnel coming up either in Brentford or Chiswick?

Yes. Among my many responsibilities, although I know that Members in this Chamber think that they are too few, are big roads, and the M4 is indeed a big road. However, it is important to point out that in any expansion that takes place at Heathrow, a range of transport connections would be considered. I know that Heathrow is considering how people would get to and from the airport. That will not just be by car. The hon. Lady will know that about 45% of people currently make their journey to and from Heathrow by private vehicle, but that number is not fixed in stone. One would hope that—indeed, I would expect it to be so as part of this package—all kinds of innovative solutions will be delivered as to how people can get to the airport efficiently.

Therefore, I do not want to prejudge that issue and I certainly would not want either to say anything that contradicted the answer that the hon. Lady received last week, because the question then was not posed to me; I think it was posed to the Secretary of State. I reassure the hon. Lady that we are broad-minded about the means by which people get to and from Heathrow and the effects that might have on local people.

Let me make my last three points, because I promised 10 points and so far I have delivered only seven. The Government have also made it clear that we must tackle noise and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham is also concerned about this. We will also meet our obligations on carbon. On noise, Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd has committed to a ban on scheduled night flights of six and a half hours, more predictable periods of respite for communities and new and binding noise targets.

Ninthly, the Government’s announcement was just the beginning, as I said, of the process, as the preferred scheme will now be subject for consultation through a draft airports national policy statement that will follow in the new year. Of course, that is something to look forward to after the excitement of Christmas.

Finally, it is important to point out—I know that my hon. Friend is very conscious of this and I thought she deserved an answer on it—that the Government accept the recent High Court judgment that more needs to be done to improve the nation’s air quality. That does not apply simply to airports; I am looking at a range of transport modes, as she will doubtless appreciate. I can tell her that the Government will produce a revised plan by 31 July 2017 and my team in the Department for Transport are beavering away and working with other relevant Departments to make sure that the plan meets all the necessary requirements.

I think I have only two minutes left, but what a delight it is to give way to my hon. Friend.

I thank the Minister for giving way. Many experts, commentators and indeed Members of this House feel that the air quality projections made to date have been somewhat fanciful, including a large dose of wishful thinking. Can he reassure us that there is anything in the next year’s worth of consultation that will be more robust, and that the Government will take note of what many experts are saying?

I can give an absolute assurance that while I am the Minister of State at the Department for Transport all that we do will be studious and robust, and that includes the considerations of the kind that my hon. Friend has identified. It is important that we do the work to produce an evidential argument and also articulate that argument in a way that sends the public a very clear message—this Government are serious about transport and about wellbeing. All that we do in the Department, while I have influence over it, will be gauged by wellbeing and the effect that it has on the national interest and the common good.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the effect on air quality of proposed Heathrow airport expansion.