Improving Air Quality
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
Last month, the World Health Organisation published a list of the 30 worst polluted areas—those exceeding their limits—in the country. These included, perhaps not surprisingly, London, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester, but they also included Storrington in my constituency—Storrington was among the 30 worst polluted areas in the whole country. It is worse than that. Compare My Move reported earlier this month that, using the WHO data on the worst pollutants—fine particulate matter—the worst cities for air pollution were Bristol, Stanford-le-Hope, Swansea and Storrington; it called that a city. These places had a higher concentration of pollutants than London. Storrington was the worst place in the South-East.
The “city” of Storrington is in fact a village, of just 7,000 residents, and it is at the foot of the South Downs national park. It is in very picturesque country and it is astonishing that it should be one of the places with the very worst air pollution in the country. The reason is the traffic that is forced through the village. It was declared an air quality management area eight years ago. A low emissions trial was set up, but it was abandoned after just one year because, ironically, there was no mobile phone signal available in that rural area, so the data could not be sent. Some 3% of the traffic through Storrington is made up of heavy goods vehicles, but they are responsible for 30% of the pollution.
Local people know that there is a very good reason traffic is so heavy through Storrington, and why the air pollution is consequently so bad when the traffic queues. The reason is that the traffic is forced up through the downs because of congestion on the A27, which runs at the bottom of the south downs and through my constituency. That was once said, or meant to be the coastal highway, but significant parts of it are not dualled and it has very serious congestion, including at Arundel. In consequence, the traffic aims to miss the congestion on the A27 and instead rat-runs through the historic town of Arundel in my constituency and up through the south downs and downland villages such as Storrington. That accounts for the terrible air quality.
There is, therefore, a very strong environmental case for trying to do something about that traffic. The obvious thing to do is to upgrade the A27 to make the traffic flow freely along what is in any case a very important route economically, as the east-west connection in the south of England. At last—this has been delayed for over three decades—we have a plan for the Arundel bypass. I am very grateful to the Government for announcing the funding for the bypass a few years ago, and Highways England has recently announced the preferred route for the scheme. There are of course some local objections to the bypass, as there always are, but my judgment is that there is overwhelming local support for it, not least because of all the traffic running up through the towns and the air pollution in places such as Storrington as a consequence.
It was, therefore, very surprising and disappointing when the South Downs National Park Authority announced that it would seek a judicial review of Highways England’s preferred route. This is an extraordinary position: a public body, using public funds and through proper consultation, has identified the best route for a bypass that the Government have announced funding for and say is necessary; and another publicly funded body, the South Downs National Park Authority—paying absolutely no regard to the views of local people or local villages in the communities in the South Downs national park—has decided, on what is clearly a purely ideological basis, to seek a judicial review of the route and has tried to prevent it from happening simply because it touches a tiny part of the national park right at the bottom of it.
In fact, everybody knows that this will be a South Downs national park relief road. Highways England official projections show that annually there are 15,287 daily traffic movements on average through Storrington, causing all the congestion and pollution and that, with the Arundel bypass on the preferred route, there would be over 3,000 fewer traffic movements in the first year after the bypass opens—over 20% fewer—and by 2041 there would be nearly 6,000 fewer traffic movements, or 38% fewer. So the bypass would clearly prevent the problems of the traffic queuing in this downland village.
Despite that, we have this attempted judicial review. The meeting was not public. Notice was barely given of it. Where is the accountability for this decision? Why is not the South Downs National Park Authority made party to the collective decisions that ought to be taken by local authorities on environmental matters, including reducing air pollution? Why can it simply stand above that, when it is clearly of such environmental benefit overall to the south downs and the downland communities? Its actions are completely unacceptable, and local communities are rightly very angry at what it is seeking to do.
Another village in my constituency, Cowfold, is also over the statutory limits on air pollution. It exceeds both the EU and the WHO maximum levels. It is an even smaller village, of only 2,000 people, but it sits on the A272, and again there is queuing traffic. It was declared an air quality management area in 2011, but there has been no real action for seven years. Some 4% of the traffic is heavy goods vehicles, but they contribute 37% of the pollution. The parish council wants a very simple thing. It wants signs put up by the side of the main routes that run north and south alongside the village, the A24 and the A23, to discourage heavy goods vehicles from taking the route along the A272.
There are perfectly viable dual carriageway routes that go away from this road and village, and there are means by which to discourage heavy goods vehicles from taking this route, yet we have seen a complete failure by the relevant local authorities to take forward any initiative to do the simple thing of introducing these signs. West Sussex County Council says that there is no evidence to support the contention that heavy goods vehicle traffic would be affected by the signs wherever they might be placed. It needs a feasibility study, but there is no funding for one.
I welcome the Government’s air quality plan published last July—I am not churlish about it as other hon. Members are—because it represents a welcome step towards taking action in places such as Storrington and Cowfold. I note that the Government announced a £255 million implementation fund to support local authorities in conducting things such as feasibility studies, and I think £40 million of that was meant to be made available immediately, so can the Minister confirm that the fund is available to places such as Storrington and Cowfold, so that they can conduct feasibility studies, and that the clean air fund, which the Government also nnounced, will be available to those local authorities if they then need to take measures as a consequence of the feasibility studies?
We cannot let this matter drag on. It has affected Storrington and Cowfold for well over a decade. We need energetic joint action by all the local authorities, and that needs to be supported, in the way the Government have suggested, by Government funding so that studies can be commissioned and action taken. At the moment, there has been inertia by all concerned, but when there are rural areas and tiny villages at the foot of the south downs with the very worst air pollution in the country, something is wrong. It is completely avoidable and it is time we did something about it.
To read the Hansard of the full debate, please see here.