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Diesel Fumes: Islwyn

Volume 624: debated on Wednesday 26 April 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Griffiths.)

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the urgent issue of the effect of diesel fumes in Islwyn. Last month, I questioned the Prime Minister about her plans to incentivise the use of less harmful alternatives to diesel. I welcomed her comments that the Government were preparing an air quality plan to tackle pollution across the UK. However, with the upcoming general election and the Dissolution of Parliament, the Secretary of State announced on Monday that the proposals are being put on further hold. I am afraid my constituents cannot wait that long.

The Royal College of Physicians estimates that pollution by diesel engines contributes to 40,000 premature deaths each year. Further, Public Health Wales has stated that air pollution causes 2,000 deaths per year in Wales. That is 6% of Wales’s annual deaths, and an average of five deaths per day. Nowhere in Wales is worse affected than my constituency.

The European Union dictates that hourly levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide must not exceed 200 micrograms per cubic metre of air, and it cannot exceed these levels more than 18 times a year. Hafodyrynys Road in my constituency alone had already surpassed this limit 60 times by the third month of this year—March. This gives Hafodyrynys Road the dubious honour of being the most polluted road in the UK outside of London. Over the next couple of weeks, many of us will be lauding our constituencies, but I am sure that that is a title that no one would wish to compete for. It is concerning that even with pressing evidence that the pollution situation in the UK is spiralling out of control, the Government do not recognise this situation for the public health emergency that it is.

Hafodyrynys Road is a key cross-valley route between Pontypool in the west and Caerphilly in the east. Every day the road is heavily congested with traffic, with diesel-reliant heavy goods vehicles frequently passing through. Diesel engines are no doubt very popular. When arguing for higher taxes on diesel cars, we have to be concerned that this may hit hard-working families who simply cannot afford to change their car. The Government’s diesel scrappage scheme may be popular, but it could be difficult and costly to set up, and it needs political will. This means that there needs to be further study of these ideas. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has now lodged an application at the High Court to postpone the publication of its plans.

I am well aware of the excellent work that my hon. Friend has been doing on this issue. Residents in my part of Caerphilly borough are also concerned about the issue of which he speaks. Does he agree that a great deal of work has been done on the scrappage scheme by Fair Fuel UK, which shares his concern about the impact that the toxin tax can have on hard-pressed drivers?

I totally agree. My hon. Friend, representing as he does the next-door constituency to me, will know of the effect that diesel fumes have on valleys roads, in particular. Like me, he regularly knocks on doors. If I speak to someone on one of these roads, the No. 1 issue is the diesel fumes coming from it and the effect that is having on their children. There needs to be real political will and a sense of urgency from the Government about this. It is no good using delaying tactics—this is happening now. It is a disgrace and a scandal now.

Does my hon. Friend agree that companies such as Volkswagen seem to be getting off scot free with their diesel emissions scandal? Does he further agree that all our constituents need is a Government who hold companies such as Volkswagen to account for their very bad behaviour?

I absolutely agree with my other parliamentary neighbour in the north when he says that Volkswagen seems to have got away with the diesel emissions scandal in terms of lowering the emissions from its engines. It is not just the residents who are affected—consumers who bought those engines were ripped off because they thought they were more fuel-efficient. Again, the Government are not taking on the people in society who are doing the wrong things. It sometimes seems that the Government will go after the small guy—the easy target—but when it comes to tackling the people who are causing problems for our health and hitting our pockets, they are found wanting.

Absolutely, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has referred to old cars that have a bit of age on them, but some of the stats that come out refer to new cars, which are also failing to filter out polluted air. It is said that some 10 million toxic particles are taken in with each breath by a person in a new car. If that is the case and it is down to poor ventilation, does he agree that this Government need to address not only the diesel scrappage scheme but new vehicles that are failing to meet standards?

Of all the Members I have served with during my seven years in this House, the hon. Gentleman is the only one who could shoehorn an intervention about Northern Ireland into a debate about Islwyn. I welcome that.

I was trying to be kind and charitable to the hon. Gentleman, as he has always been to me. He raises a pertinent point. The Government need to show political will, but the motor industry, including HGV and freight, also needs to make an effort.

As I have said, there is an average of five deaths a day in Wales due to air pollution. That means that between now and the general election on 8 June, 215 people in Wales will lose their lives due to this Government’s inaction. Those most at risk of contracting lung diseases from exposure to air pollution are the two most vulnerable groups in society: young children and the elderly.

On the Hafodyrynys Road in my constituency, one of the residents—a pensioner—suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He says that the fumes on the road make it even harder for him to breathe. Another resident, who moved to the road in 2014, has visited the hospital four times since moving there and has been diagnosed with a leaky heart valve. That is further aggravated by the exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Furthermore, a mother of two young children says that the fumes affect her son so badly that he has been prescribed an inhaler to help him breathe. That is just not right. People should be able to leave their homes without having to worry about their health, and to enjoy the outdoors. Instead, my constituents on that road are being made to feel like prisoners in their own homes.

The situation has become so desperate for my constituents on Hafodyrynys Road that half of the residents have called on the local council to purchase compulsorily and demolish their homes so that they can relocate. How can it be acceptable that people have got to the point that they feel that they have no other option than to see their homes demolished? Residents cannot afford to live elsewhere, as they know that their current properties will not sell due to the adverse publicity about pollution in the area.

This is a public health crisis and the Government are choosing to ignore it. In Wales, pollution is the second biggest killer after smoking. When it comes to breathing in toxic diesel fumes, many people do not have a choice. DEFRA has had plenty of chances to tackle the issue, but it has chosen to let my constituents down every time. Illegal levels of air pollution have become the norm in Britain, and residents in areas such as Hafodyrynys are helpless to do anything about it. It further worries me that there is a primary school just a mile from the road, putting young children at risk of the health complications caused by exposure to nitrogen dioxide.

I am not the only one incensed by the issue of air pollution. I pay tribute to local councillor Andrew Lewis, who has been at the forefront of the campaign for better air quality in Hafodyrynys. The Mayor of London and public health bodies have all called on the Government to do more. Just this week, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) asked the Environment Secretary an urgent question. The Secretary of State said that her Government are committed to leaving the environment in a better state than they found it. Those are empty words, because at every opportunity they have been given to take action they have proposed inadequate plans. The Government have had long enough. It is clear where their priorities lie and, based on the evidence, it is not with the environment or the health of the British public.

My constituents want illegal and toxic pollution levels to be vanquished, as I am sure do the other 40 million people living in areas of the UK with illegal levels of air pollution. That is entirely achievable, if the Government show political will.

That is just typical. I am talking about public health and the Minister is more interested in scoring political points.

Order. Let us see if we can help. We are nearly at the end. What we do not want is sideshow arguments. Please continue and I am sure that interventions will be possible when the Minister sums up the debate.

I have to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Conservative Government have been in power for seven years. Their default position is to blame Labour for everything and that just will not wash. They have had seven years.

Although encouraging people to walk or use public transport and increasing taxes on diesel-fuelled vehicles are necessary measures, they are not enough to reduce the fumes. The Government need to commit to making clean energy alternatives more accessible to the public, particularly for those using HGVs. An increase in clean air zones in cities across the country with illegal levels of air pollution is also necessary to protect the health of our citizens.

It is not just the public’s health that is at stake. Illegal levels of air pollution drive down house prices and can also lead to businesses deciding not to invest in the area. What is more, nitrogen dioxide has detrimental effects on the surrounding wildlife. My constituency has a booming agricultural industry, with farms and woodland such as those on Cwmcarn Forest Drive, located very close to the Hafodyrynys Road in Islwyn. It is not fair that the environment and these businesses should have to suffer due to the Department’s inaction.

It is not just Hafodyrynys Road that is at risk. As my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) have mentioned, they have the same problems in their valley constituencies. Last year, Hazrem Environmental applied for planning permission for a waste transfer plant in Cwmfelinfach in my constituency. It is just a few miles down the road from Hafodyrynys. It was down to the campaigning of the Lower Sirhowy Valley residents’ group, led by Alan Sharpe, Councillor Philippa Marsden and Councillor Jan Jones, that that did not go ahead. I mention that because it was discovered that the valleys have a microclimate. Basically, the fumes reach up into the air and are trapped between the hills. These are not safe places for diesel fumes to escape or for waste transfer plants. I say to any company that wants to put a waste transfer plant in any valley constituency—whether mine or those of my hon. Friends—that these are not places that lend themselves to such planning applications, and they have to stop right now.

I urge the Government to see the air pollution situation not just in Islwyn but the entire country for the public health emergency that it is. People are dying prematurely at an alarming rate. The greatest tragedy is that it could easily be prevented, but the Government chose not to stick to their original timetable to deliver a competent and much needed air quality strategy. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world and at the forefront of tackling global environmental issues, we have the resources to put into place an effective and successful air quality plan. I urge the Minister and the Department to delay these plans no longer, and to end the suffering of so many people in my constituency and other affected areas in the UK.

If I may seek your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, this will probably be the last time I speak in this Parliament, so I pay tribute to Mr Speaker and to you and the other Deputy Speakers for the way in which you have chaired Parliament over the past two years and for the years before that. I thank all the members of staff who look after us, especially the security staff, and the Doorkeepers, for all they do to keep this place ticking over. I also pay tribute to Members on both sides of the House. We often attack each other and score political points, but there is deep warmth, friendship and affection among us, as we saw a couple of weeks ago. I thank everybody and pay tribute to them for the experiences I have had in my seven years in this place. I hope that I will be back in June.

Let me begin by explaining that I have not taken on additional responsibilities in DEFRA. As hon. Members know, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), leads on these issues, but she has had a particularly busy day today including a debate in Westminster Hall on water catchments so was unable to be here for the beginning of this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate. I think it is the last end-of-day Adjournment debate that we will have in this Parliament. I associate myself with the comments the hon. Gentleman made in praise of you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and your great chairmanship in these debates.

The hon. Gentleman has described some of the problems that his constituents face and I welcome the chance to respond on those points. He is of course aware that this is a devolved matter and many of the issues and challenges that he raises are matters for the Welsh Assembly or the relevant local authorities, but since he has raised a number of UK-wide issues and commented on the UK Government’s position, I want initially to set this in the wider UK context. I reassure the hon. Gentleman and all Members that improving air quality is a priority for this Government and we are determined to cut emissions to improve the health of the people we all represent and to protect the environment.

We have already achieved significant improvements in air quality across a range of pollutants, and the UK meets the legal limits for almost all pollutants, but faces significant challenges in achieving limits on nitrogen dioxide. We are not alone; 16 other EU countries face similar challenges.

The pollutants generated by diesel fumes, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, are particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. Long-term exposure, over several years, to elevated concentrations of particulate matter at levels typically experienced in urban areas can reduce life expectancy by between several months and a few years. Air pollution is a contributory factor, along with many others, in mortality. It has a major effect on deaths from cardiovascular disease and a lesser effect on deaths from lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Nitrogen oxide emissions are considered to exacerbate pre-existing health conditions, as well as affecting more vulnerable groups. However, particulate matter, which consists of very small particles of soot and dust, can affect all of us. That is why we are focused on this pollutant, and that is why it is a key indicator for Public Health England outcomes.

As our recently published toolkit for public health directors points out, care is needed around how information is communicated. Air pollution has many of the characteristics that make a threat to health more worrying—so-called fright factors—and that creates a real risk of counterproductive reactions if communication is poorly handled. It is important that local communities have access to balanced and accurate information about the sources and consequences of air pollution in their local areas. Our assessment is that the main source of PM emissions is domestic wood burning, and we are working on plans to help households to reduce their exposure to it.

Diesel is often used in non-mobile machinery—equipment such as cranes, generators and chainsaws—but I recognise that the problem that the hon. Gentleman has described relates predominantly to vehicles. Transport is responsible for a substantial proportion of air pollution; specifically, it is responsible for 80% of nitrogen oxide emission at the roadside in areas where we need to take action to reduce levels. That is why transport has been the principal focus of our action on air quality, and it is why we have committed more than £2 billion to green transport initiatives. The autumn statement provided a further £290 million to support greener transport, including by supporting the early market for ultra low emission vehicles between 2015 and 2020. The Department for Transport is working actively with the freight and haulage industry to reduce vehicle emissions from light and heavy goods vehicles. That may directly help the problem with lorries along the A472 as companies replace their fleets.

The House will be aware that the reason for the difficulty in meeting our nitrogen dioxide limit values is the failure of Euro standards for diesel vehicles to deliver the expected reductions in nitrogen oxide emissions. The Euro standards should have resulted in major reductions in nitrogen oxide emissions. That has not been the case, particularly in real-world emissions for diesel vehicles, which have proven to be many times higher than those in lab tests. Previous commitments, to which former Governments signed up, were made in good faith and in the expectation that technological improvements would help us to achieve the Euro standards. However, it is clear that the standards have failed. That is why, since 2011, we have been at the forefront of action in the EU to secure more accurate real-world emissions testing for diesel cars.

The national air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide, which was published in December 2015, set out an approach designed to improve air quality and achieve compliance. The five cities identified in the plan are working to implement clean air zones, with Government support, to target the oldest and most polluting vehicles. That is on top of the action taken in London by the former Conservative Mayor and the current Mayor. The consultation on the clean air zone framework was launched in October 2016 to ensure that a consistent approach was taken, and we expect to publish the summary of responses and our finalised framework shortly. Our plan was based on the best evidence available at the time. We have been pressing for updates to COPERT emission factors, and we got those updates in September last year. We said that when we got the new factors, we would update our modelling, and that is exactly what we have been doing. We have been updating our plan with new modelling based on the updated COPERT factors.

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the new plan will be published with the Welsh Government and other devolved Administrations because, as he knows, improving air quality is a devolved matter. As such, the issues in Islwyn—particularly on the A472 at Hafodyrynys, which he mentioned—are a matter for Caerphilly County Borough Council and the Welsh Government. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern where people’s homes face straight on to a strategic road used by a number of heavy goods vehicles. He has described the experiences of his constituents, and I hope that joint action can be taken by for Caerphilly council and the Welsh Government to improve the situation.

I understand that Caerphilly council is producing an air quality action plan for submission to the Welsh Government, and has established an air quality steering group to produce the action plan. The steering group comprises local residents, ward members, Public Health Wales, and officers from the council and the neighbouring councils of Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen. I also understand that the Welsh Government have very recently received a draft action plan from Caerphilly council, but given the upcoming elections, it is right and proper that the incoming Administration take ownership of the plan, finalise it and take forward its implementation.

The Welsh Government undertook a public consultation on local air quality and noise management in Wales, which closed on 6 December. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs in the Welsh Government issued a written statement on 30 March, explaining how the local air quality and noise management system in Wales will change in light of the responses received. Through our discussions with the Welsh Government, I know that they are firmly committed to improving air quality across Wales. Legislative frameworks are in place to limit the levels of air pollution. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of such EU directives and domestic legislation, including the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, which they hope will reduce or remove barriers to effective action on local air quality. There is a role for national measures to improve air quality, which we are undertaking, but local actions—with targeted, bespoke interventions—can make substantial changes, including measures to improve traffic flow, planning and deterrents for idling traffic.

I want to talk briefly about the situation in England. English local authorities have powers, under the Road Traffic (Vehicle Emissions) (Fixed Penalty) (England) Regulations 2002, to issue fixed penalty notices of £20 to drivers who allow their vehicle engines to run unnecessarily while the vehicle is stationary. In November, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary wrote to 230 local authorities across England that have long-standing air quality challenges to highlight the need for further action and to understand better the issues they are facing. Responses from the local authorities show that many are working in partnership with other local authorities and regional air quality groups, as well as at county level. Many are taking forward measures in air quality action plans, traffic management initiatives and improved air quality-focused planning guidance for new developments.

Local authorities of course need support. This is why DEFRA provides statutory policy and technical guidance for local authorities in England to enable them to fulfil their air quality management duties. I am aware that the Welsh Government provide similar technical guidance to local authorities in Wales. The successful applicants to our clean air grant fund were announced in February. Nearly £3.7 million was awarded to local authorities to deliver projects such as clean air zone feasibility studies in Bristol and the retrofitting of Derby City Council’s HGV fleet with emissions-reduction technology.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also wrote to public health directors, together with the public health Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), to encourage them to engage with their local councils on actions that can reduce air pollution. On 1 March, DEFRA, in partnership with Public Health England, released an updated air quality toolkit for directors of public health. The toolkit is a suite of information, guidance and communication tools, designed to make it easier for local authorities to be as effective as possible in improving local air quality.

In conclusion, I assure all hon. Members that air quality is a top priority for DEFRA, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who leads on the issue, the Secretary of State and the whole Government. As the Prime Minister said recently:

“We have taken action, but there is more to do and we will do it.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2016; Vol. 616, c. 887.]

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.