Charles Walker leads air pollution debate

Charles Walker says Government plans to tackle Nitrogen Dioxide pollution in Broxbourne are not compatible with Veolia’s planning application for a 350,000 tonnes incinerator, generating a further 97,820 HGV movements a year.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in tonight’s Adjournment debate on air pollution around the A10 and Broxbourne—a matter close to my heart because I happen to live near to the A10, in the constituency of Broxbourne, in the borough of Broxbourne. I am never happier than when representing my constituency in the Chamber of the House of Commons. It is why I was elected to serve in this place—to give a voice to my constituents’ concerns on the Floor of this place.

On 5 October, I received a letter by email from the Minister to say that the A10 running through Broxbourne—the spine of Broxbourne—had some of the highest roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in the country. This is a cause of great concern to many. However, I am well aware that the Government will be working closely with Hertfordshire County Council and Broxbourne Borough Council to address the problem. I accept fully the Government’s reassurances that this is a collective priority of both national Government and local government.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of air pollution. Air pollution is not a significant issue in only one constituency—it also applies to my own. To address pollution in Northern Ireland, the ecarNI project consists of a consortium of public and private sector organisations working together to bring benefits to our environment, society and economy. I spoke to the hon. Gentleman about this beforehand. Does he agree that more needs to be done to increase both the number of electric cars on our roads and access to charging points through grants and other incentives, thereby reducing air pollution?

Mr Walker

I agree that if we want to promote electric cars, we have to have ease of access to the energy that powers them, so more charging points would seem to be absolutely essential in the drive to get more people transporting themselves around in electric cars. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

On 5 October, I received the letter—the email—from the Minister alerting me to the pollution levels on the A10. I have to say that I am disappointed, not by the conduct of the Minister but the conduct of the Environment Agency in relation to a really important local issue going on in my constituency that has a direct bearing on this pollution.

The background to this is that Veolia has put forward a planning application for a massive 350,000-tonne incinerator in my constituency, which has generated a huge amount of local concern. We have just had a public inquiry, and it is now being considered by the chair of that inquiry. What is deeply irritating is that the public inquiry closed on 2 August—the very same date that I received a letter from the Environment Agency saying that it was minded to grant the permit to the Rye House energy recovery facility on Ratty’s Lane. I am stunned that it chose to write to me to announce that on 2 August, and I am further amazed that originally it ​wanted to close its consultation on 30 August. After interventions from myself and others, the consultation period ran to 24 September.

It simply is not good enough for the Environment Agency to have entirely ignored in its draft determination the major issues relating to nitrogen dioxide on the A10—I am sure that it would have known about that. It is worth drawing the House’s attention to the covering letter of the draft determination, which is extraordinary Whitehall speak. I will take the edited highlights on page 1 and thread them together. The EA starts:

“Unless the document explains otherwise, we have accepted the Applicant’s proposals. The document is in draft at this stage, because we have yet to make a final decision.”

The first sentence says that the EA has accepted the applicant’s proposals, and the sentence after states that the document is in draft because it has yet to make a final decision. However, it goes on to say:

“Our mind remains open at this stage… unless we receive information that leads us to alter the conditions in the draft Permit, or to reject the Application altogether, we will issue the Permit in its current form.”

Then, in a piece of Orwellian double-speak, the EA says:

“In this document we frequently say ‘we have decided’. That gives the impression that our mind is already made up; but as we have explained above, we have not yet done so. The language we use enables this document to become the final decision document in due course with no more re-drafting than is absolutely necessary.”

What a load of phooey and rubbish—I am not sure that “phooey” is a parliamentary word, but once it is in Hansard, perhaps it will become so.

It is impossible to imagine that the EA was not aware of the information about nitrogen dioxide on the A10 when looking at the draft permit. As I said, there is a planning application before the planning inspector for a 350,000-tonne incinerator in my constituency. Of course, it would be entirely legitimate for Members to say, “Well, Mr Walker, you’re just a nimby, aren’t you?” But unlike on most occasions when someone is accused of being a nimby, I can come up with a good defence. The proposed site for the 350,000-tonne incinerator already has a 750 MW power station next to it—that is a lot of megawatts—as well as a 90,000-tonne refuse-derived fuel plant and a 66,000-tonne anaerobic digester. We are doing our bit for Hertfordshire.

On top of that, if the 350,000-tonne incinerator goes ahead, a further 97,820 HGV movements from diesel lorries will be generated in my constituency up the A10. My voice is rising because that is not good enough. Another 97,820 HGV movements up the A10 and down the link road where, at a measuring station, nitrogen dioxide levels are already 35% above acceptable air quality standards, is not acceptable. Another 98,000 lorries is not compatible with any pledge that I or my council has been given about taking seriously the business of this pollution on the A10.

I am aware that some of the proponents of this power station have been touring various party political conferences—perhaps those populated by Conservative Members, but not me—saying, “Does that Charles Walker wield undue influence?” Do I wield undue influence on behalf of my constituents? Mr Deputy Speaker, I say to you that the only influence I wield is the voice that ​I bring to this place—the Chamber of the House of Commons. When Broxbourne is doing its bit on power generation and on recycling, and is paying the cost of that right now—air pollution up the A10 is at some of the highest levels in the country—it is a pretty rum deal that we are being asked to do even more and to bear even more of this burden. It is not credible that the Environment Agency did not factor this into its decision making on the draft permit.

I am not known for going on at great length in this place, and I feel that if I was to add further to my speech, I would be going over old ground. I will just conclude with a quote from the Royal College of Physicians. It has written to me about tonight’s Adjournment debate, so concerned is it for my constituents. It states:

“The negative health impacts of air pollution can and must be mitigated. Closer working between different government departments to deliver strict enforcement of air quality limits, and transition to clean fuels and renewable energy sources will go some way to reducing our exposure to air pollution.”

I want to start seeing such joined-up thinking, and my constituents want to experience that joined-up thinking, because right now they are feeling extremely let down and, dare I say it, extremely vulnerable to events over which they do not seem to have any control. As I say, the public planning inquiry for this incinerator ended on 2 August, which was too late—I repeat, too late—for the new evidence, which I have presented on the Floor of the House today, to be inserted as part of my constituents’ representations, and that is a pretty poor show.

7.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on securing this important debate, as well as on bringing to the attention of the House the specific challenges we face on the stretch of the A10 in the Broxbourne constituency, the wider importance of tackling poor air quality and, indeed, the impact of the potential incinerator.

I understand that my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about the impact of the proposed plant, and about the possible increase in the number of HGV movements further worsening the air quality. He will be aware that the application has been called in by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for his own determination. It would not be appropriate for me to make direct comment on the application, as the final decision now lies with the Secretary of State. I am absolutely convinced that he will take into consideration all the relevant information regarding the application.

It is fair to say that the Environment Agency is an independent regulator, so I do not have any control over how it considers approving permits. I share my hon. Friend’s frustration about the legalese that is often in such documents, but we have to recognise that this is a quasi-judicial process. My general expectation is that the Environment Agency would consider the impact of the proposed development itself, rather than its location. However, the formal planning process should consider the location, including the travel routes and the impact it may have on the environment, including the air quality, in determining whether the development should go ahead.​
However, as I said, this is now in the hands of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

My hon. Friend mentioned the point raised by the Royal College of Physicians; I am glad that it has shown an interest in this debate. It is important that I should start by providing some context. Overall, air quality has been improving in this country, but we are still falling short on a specific element of air pollution: roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide.

We are not alone in that across the European Union. Current air quality problems, particularly on NO2, are in large part caused by the EU’s failed regime for vehicle emissions testing: cars were deemed to have passed the test of operation within NO2 limits, when, for several manufacturers, that was far from the truth. Eighteen other EU member states, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, are also breaching air pollution limits as a result of that failed testing regime.

A former UK Government took the decision to encourage diesel vehicles, to tackle the challenge of climate change and reduce carbon. Although we may have benefited in that regard, we are now absolutely suffering given the impact on air quality. The combined effect of those two factors means that we are having to go much further than was anticipated on tackling the NO2 air quality challenge when the UK signed up to the targets, prior to 2010.

Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010—emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen by almost 27% and are at their lowest level since records began. But there is clearly more to do. That is why the Government have committed £3.5 billion to transport and improved air quality, including £1.5 billion support for electric vehicles, £1.2 billion for cycling and walking, and £475 million specifically in support of the activity resulting from the UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide emissions. I should remind myself that, after the votes tomorrow, a further £20 million in funding will be allocated by the Budget to support more local authorities to meet their air quality obligations.

In Broxbourne specifically, the Government have already provided a quarter of a million pounds to retrofit buses with pollution-reducing technology. The Government are also taking regulatory action. We have already made clear our intention to end the sale of new conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040, and have implemented a vehicle excise duty surcharge on new diesel vehicles until the cleanest models come on the market. We will also be publishing a clean air strategy before the end of the year, which will set goals working towards World Health Organisation recommendations on particulate matter emissions. That goes further than what the EU requires, and we have also committed to new legislation on air quality.

I should point out that councils already have many powers to tackle air quality and a legal duty to do so; awaiting any new legislation that may arise should not be an excuse to avoid action now. All councils have existing legal obligations on monitoring air quality, establishing air quality management areas and devising action plans to address the issue. Some time ago, I wrote to several councils with long-standing issues to challenge them on what action they were taking locally to tackle the problem.​

Tonight, my hon. Friend has raised the A10 in his constituency of Broxbourne—specifically, the stretch of the A10 between the B198 and the slip road to the A1170, near the retail park in Cheshunt. The A10 road link was initially identified as moderately exceeding nitrogen dioxide limits, according to the central national model used by the Government for reporting compliance to the European Commission, in line with the ambient air quality directive requirements. I contacted Broxbourne Borough Council about this matter and I am pleased to say that an air quality management area for part of the A10 has already been established.

As the House will be aware, the High Court required the Government to take a more direct legal approach with those local authorities responsible for roads such as this, which our projections indicated would become compliant with legal limits within the next few years. To that effect, I issued ministerial directions and offered support to 33 local authorities to take more detailed study and action. As part of that work, Broxbourne has carried out a detailed study of the A10 road link in question, using local modelling data, which gives a much more granular, representative picture of air quality on that road. The study was submitted to the Government on 31 July this year, as required by the ministerial direction.

Some variance between the national model and the output of a local study is to be expected. That reflects the level of detail that can be modelled at a national level. It is also important to add that the latest 2017 reporting data suggests that our previous projections were overall more pessimistic than other projections, and that nitrogen dioxide levels at a national level have fallen faster than expected.

However, the Broxbourne study clearly identified a much more significant problem than the national model, projecting that this stretch of road will see emissions that exceed the legal limit until 2028 if no further action is taken. That is clearly unacceptable. Now that both the council and the Government have a greater understanding of the problem, our priority is to work with Broxbourne Borough Council to find a means of addressing this as quickly as possible.

I recognise that this is a stretch of road that presents a number of challenges due to the sheer amount of traffic using the route into and out of London and on to the M25, as well as the numerous junctions in the area and the importance of the route in relation to key international transport hubs.

Earlier this month, I issued Broxbourne Borough Council with a further ministerial direction requiring it to carry out a more detailed study to identify the most suitable measures to address the exceedance in the shortest time possible. The deadlines for that work include an initial plan by 31 January 2019 and a final plan by 31 October 2019, and sooner where possible. That is a challenging deadline, in particular as the work includes more detailed local transport and air quality modelling to really understand what is happening in the local area and understand what solutions can be found to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels on this specific stretch of road. We can then provide Broxbourne with the funding to implement the solutions.

There is joint working: I am pleased to say that the Department for Transport and my Department have established a joint air quality unit, with officials from ​the two Departments working together. They have already provided detailed guidance and will be supporting local councils as they develop this work. The unit is already working closely with Broxbourne, having held a workshop last week to explain the process over the next 12 months and the support we will be offering. We will shortly be providing a further £100,000 of funding to get this process under way. The council is now actively considering what measures could bring forward compliance with legal limits as soon as possible, which could include a charging clean air zone.

We will also continue to work closely with other parties responsible for roads that interact with the A10 and which may also be able to take action that could have an impact on this link. As I have said, the M25 is a major source of traffic on and off the A10, so we will ensure that Highways England is engaging with Broxbourne to understand these actions and to identify what complementary actions can be taken to drive improvements.

I will also continue to press the Mayor of London on the need to take robust action to address very high emissions in the capital. Specifically, we will need to understand what the impacts will be on the traffic coming into and out of London on the A10 as a result of the tightening of the standards for the London-wide low emission zone for HGVs.

Mr Charles Walker

I know the Minister will not be able to comment on this, but may I just restate my constituents’ irritation that despite all these words of concern a planning application for a 350,000-tonne incinerator that will pump further nitrogen dioxide into the Broxbourne-Lee valley and generate another 97,820 lorry movements is not compatible with the desire to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels?

Dr Coffey

I understand that. Broxbourne has come to the attention of the Government via national modelling and local modelling specifically because of nitrogen dioxide emissions on that stretch of road. That is why the Government are working directly with Broxbourne. I have already indicated to my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will be making the determination. I fully expect that the location and the travel routes that are being proposed would be part of his consideration.

I pay tribute to Broxbourne Borough Council, as I believe it has embraced this important situation with a positive attitude. It appears to recognise that what may appear to be politically difficult decisions on tackling air quality still have to be taken in a timely manner to proactively improve air quality. Frankly, I wish more councils would act in such a proactive manner. I have already suggested to my hon. Friend that I cannot comment directly on the application. I have to leave it at the comments that I have made twice to the House now on the process and next steps.

I also commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his commitment to the issue. He talked about the importance of improving air quality across the United Kingdom. He will be aware that how this gets tackled is a devolved matter, but I am sure that he will support the positive action that is being taken to ​increase the opportunities for electric charging and similar. He and I were together at the bike ride for the poppy appeal—[Interruption.] Indeed, you took part, too, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to say that he and I managed to achieve the same distance on the electric bike and that we were not the slowest—but nor were we the fastest.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne is keen to see quick progress. I am conscious of the decision that he wants the Secretary of State to make on this matter, but I stress to the House that it is important that we work together on the impacts of air pollution. I am conscious of what he said about lorry movements today.

I thought it might be worth adding that, although we have largely been talking about the impact of NO2 emissions, the other challenge that people are increasingly becoming aware of—I expect that the Royal College of Physicians is increasingly pressing the case on this—is tackling the issue of particulate matter. This tends to be soot and dust—that is largely the way of describing it—and the width of a human hair is 10 times more than the size of one of these elements of particulate matter. That gives hon. Members an indication of quite how tiny these elements are.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow, the World Health Organisation is holding its first ever global conference on the impact of air pollution on human health. I am conscious that my hon. Friend is very concerned about the impact on the health of his residents, particularly along the A10. I am really pleased that this issue is gaining traction. One challenge of NO2 emissions—I point out that we are absolutely compliant with the law on particulate matter emissions—is that NO2 particularly affects those who are already vulnerable to poor health, whether they are little children, people with asthma or elderly people. The challenge of particulate matter is that it pretty much has an impact on everybody. It is one of those things—it can simply get through our internal systems and cause difficulties when we breathe in. The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants has re-released figures that suggest that the deaths of fewer than 40,000 people can be attributed to the impact of air pollution, but that is still 40,000 people too many.

This is a challenge that we face as a country. We have been praised by the WHO on what we are trying to do about particulate matter. It is why there has been a call for evidence, which has closed, on particulate matter coming from tyres and brakes—I am conscious that that may well be a consideration in terms of the HGVs, as well as other vehicles, along the A10. We have also undertaken a consultation on the impact of domestic burning, which accounts for about 40% of the particulate matter generated in this country.

The Government are taking a holistic approach to how we tackle climate change and air quality. It is important that the two go together. We need to put more focus on the actions that each of us can take to improve air quality in our homes and communities, and I assure the House that the Government are treating this as very important indeed. Our intention is to continue to improve air quality for all the associated public health benefits. We are taking action alongside Broxbourne Borough Council and across the country to realise this ​vision. I thank my hon. Friend again for affording me the opportunity to respond to his concerns in this debate.

Hansard