HL Deb 06 June 1995 vol 564 cc1263-5

2.58 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are considering further measures to reduce air pollution at times when weather conditions lead to harmful combinations of gases in certain areas.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, the Government are currently reviewing the advice provided to the public during episodes. The case for additional measures, including traffic bans, in the event of particularly severe pollution episodes is kept continually under review.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Can he confirm that such mixtures of gases in these circumstances occur in predictable places, where there are concentrations of motor traffic? Does he agree that sufferers from asthma in particular are likely to experience a worsening of their affliction when they are in those areas at the time?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, unfortunately, one cannot make such a generalisation. During normal conditions, ambient levels of most pollutants tend to be highest by roadsides. But ozone levels tend to be highest in rural locations, where traffic is sparse, as a result of ozone formation caused by the reaction of ozone precursors emitted from urban areas and reacting with sunlight. Everybody should be concerned about the effect on asthma sufferers, particularly parents of children with asthma. However, medical opinion is that the cause of asthma remains unclear and there is no convincing evidence that air pollution can cause asthma to develop in those who do not already suffer from the disease.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Manchester comes within the "certain areas" referred to in the Question? Is he aware also that, from the cradle to the grave, the numbers of people dying in Manchester from the effects of the type of activity he mentioned are among the highest, if not the highest, in the United Kingdom? Can the Minister tell me, if not today then perhaps he can publish his response in the Library, the levels reached in the five largest metropolitan areas outside of London? In doing that, will he consider whether anything can be done to lessen the pollution in the city of Manchester because of its adverse effect on people in general?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the Government monitor air quality extensively in major urban centres through their enhanced urban network. They are seeking to expand that network further, integrating local authority monitoring networks. I shall write to the noble Lord regarding the five largest metropolitan districts and the levels he asked for. However, as I indicated to my noble friend, the levels of primary pollutants will inevitably be higher in urban areas where traffic levels are higher. Government proposals published in January aim to identify those areas where national air quality targets are likely to be breached and target appropriate action to ensure that air quality is improved.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, will my noble friend give encouragement to the use of natural gas vehicles? I declare an interest as the president of the Natural Gas Vehicles Association. Those vehicles have significantly lower levels of the type of pollution referred to in the Question.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the Government are currently sponsoring research at the Transport Research Laboratory into a range of alternative vehicle propulsion technologies, including compressed natural gas. I hope that the results, when they become available next year, will point the way forward for cleaner vehicles in the future.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Viscount indicated that the Government are carefully monitoring the situation and are considering when the episodes, as he described them, occur. Can he tell us whether those episodes tend in normal circumstances, in urban areas, to occur at certain periods of the day and times of the week? If so, can measures be taken to deal with that situation?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the timing of the episodes is rather difficult to predict. Ozone is a Europe-wide problem. Much of the ozone in last month's episode was carried into Britain from northern and central Europe on easterly airstreams. The correlation that the noble Lord is looking for, therefore, is not really available. The chemical smog that is made above industrial areas produces ozone concentrations at lower levels outside those areas. It is difficult to predict where the episodes may occur.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the noble Viscount recall that during the passage of the Environment Bill before your Lordships' House, the Government undertook—after many debates on air quality—to table an amendment in another place which would deal with the matter. Has the amendment been tabled? If not, why not?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, we shall be tabling amendments to the Environment Bill this week, implementing the proposals on air quality management that we published earlier this year and which were warmly welcomed. We are therefore undertaking to implement what I said in this House when the Environment Bill was before us.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the noble Viscount appreciate that air pollution is not confined to urban areas? He said that ozone is prevalent in country areas, but problems also exist when farmers burn plastic bags and so forth causing dioxins and when they overspray in windy weather causing volatile pesticides to enter the atmosphere. There seem to be links between occurrences of asthma—it may be bronchial constriction rather than asthma—among children in rural areas. Can the Minister say what research is taking place in that field?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, all the items identified by the noble Countess acid to the number of pollutants which are present in the atmosphere individually or collectively. The same problem occurs with photochemical smog, except that in country areas the precursors would probably be widely dispersed before it developed. It is in urban areas, where there is a concentration of pollutant emissions, not only from motor vehicles but also from power stations and so forth, that problems of ozone are created which then cause the irritants which people with respiratory diseases find uncomfortable.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is there not another factor in his matter which must not be overlooked; namely, that in any weather more air pollution is caused by oil-fired and coal-fired power stations than by nuclear and other forms of generation? Will the Government ensure therefore that in any further development of our needs for electricity, priority is given to nuclear and other forms of generation?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, we need to bear those matters in mind. However, it is because half of the pollutants are generated by the transport sector that we need to turn our attention more precisely in that direction in order to make certain that we alleviate the problem. Of course, my noble friend has brought out an extremely interesting and valuable point.

Baroness Robson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not only motorcars, but also diesel buses that cause pollution in our cities? Oxford is a perfect example. No doubt the Minister is aware that Oxford has entered into an experiment by starting to use a number of electric buses. What assessment has been made of the success and economics of using those buses?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, that goes back to the research taking place at the Transport Research Laboratory into the range of alternative vehicle propulsion technologies. When we seek to achieve improvements in our air quality in urban areas, it is important that we make certain that the public sector plays its part with public transport to reduce the number of cars being used. I am extremely pleased to hear that Oxford is using electric buses because the resultant pollution from them will be minimal.