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Written Statement - Pollution from industry and traffic

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Jane Davidson, Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing

I provide here a written statement updating Members on the Assembly Government’s ongoing work to prevent and reduce pollution caused by industry and traffic in Wales.

Health effects of pollution from industry and traffic

A variety of air pollutants emitted from both industry and traffic have known or suspected harmful effects on human health and the environment. Elevated levels and/or long-term exposure to air pollution can lead to symptoms and conditions affecting the respiratory and inflammatory systems, and also more serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

The two main air pollutants of concern are nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. Both are emitted by the combustion of fuel by industry and vehicles, and particulate matter also comes from road dust and brake and tyre wear. The main sources of these pollutants in urban areas are transport. The transport sector has made and continues to make advances in reducing emissions, largely through European vehicle emission regulations. Emerging evidence indicates that emissions controls for diesel vehicles have fallen some way short of the reductions anticipated.

The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) published a report last year which estimates that the health burden of particulate matter air pollution in the UK due to human activity is equivalent to a loss of life expectancy from birth of approximately six months. Air pollution of fine particles is associated with more than 455,000 premature deaths every year in the EU’s 27 member states, according to a recent study by the European Topic Centre on Air and Climate Change on behalf of the European Environment Agency. More recently, the ‘Aphekom’ project funded by the European Commission has concluded that compliance with the World Health Organisation's annual air quality guideline on fine particulate matter in 25 large European cities could add up to 22 months of life expectancy for persons 30 years of age and older, and produce 31.5 billion Euros in monetary health benefits every year, including savings on health expenditures, absenteeism and intangible costs such as wellbeing, life expectancy and quality of life.

Nitrogen dioxide can irritate the lungs and lower resistance to respiratory infections such as influenza.

Noise from roads, railways and industrial sources also affects our health and wellbeing. At low levels it can be easily ignored, particularly in towns and cities where we are used to a certain background level. But as noise gets louder it can become an irritation or a distraction, interfere with conversation and other work or leisure activities and disrupt sleep. Long-term exposure to high levels of road traffic noise has been linked to an increased risk of more serious health effects, though it is currently unclear how much of this is due to the air pollutants that also come with living close to busy roads. In the World Health Organisation's Night Noise Guidelines for Europe, children, the elderly, pregnant women, those with ill health and shift workers are identified as groups at risk.

During the course of the last century, individual vehicles and industrial processes have become cleaner and quieter (in the case of industry, this also refers to emissions to water and land). However, the increasing number of vehicles on our roads and consumer demand for industrial products has worked in the opposite direction to counter the otherwise improving trend.

Further progress, necessary for the reduction of adverse impacts of pollution on health observed even at current low pollution levels, requires development and use of new technologies and often potential changes in lifestyle and in the urban landscape.

Progress in this Assembly term

Reducing levels of pollution has been a major priority during my time as Minister for Environment Sustainability and Housing. Wales is using its size as a nation to our advantage, working closely in partnership with our regulators and businesses to protect and improve our health and environment. The Assembly Government has achieved a great deal to date with the powers we have. Working in collaboration with other UK administrations has also brought in effective and efficient legislative tools which best serve Wales and meet our European obligations.

The UK Government and the devolved administrations published the latest Air Quality Strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2007. The strategy sets out a way forward for work and planning on air quality issues. It sets out the air quality standards and objectives to be achieved and introduces a new policy framework for tackling fine particulates. A system of Local Air Quality Management (LAQM) is in place in Wales with the overall aim of ensuring that the national air quality objectives will be achieved in all areas. Local authorities are required to review their current air quality and assess whether any locations are likely to exceed the national objectives. If they identify areas of exceedence then one or more air quality management areas will need to be defined and associated action plans drawn up. Local authorities work together to share best practice and input extensively to the ongoing review of LAQM. Last year, we published in conjunction with Defra and the other devolved administrations the document Air Pollution: Action in a Changing Climate, which highlights the additional health benefits that can be achieved through closer integration of air quality and climate change policies in future. Air pollution often originates from the same activities that contribute to climate change (notably transport and electricity generation) so it makes sense to consider how the linkages between air quality and climate change policy areas can be managed to best effect.

The Environmental Noise (Wales) Regulations transpose the Environmental Noise Directive, which requires us to produce strategic noise maps and action plans for our largest urban areas and our busiest roads and railways and review and update them as needed every five years.

One of the most important tools we have is the Environmental Permitting regime which addresses all forms of pollution from industrial sources. The Environmental Permitting regime covers around 1,650 businesses in Wales and requires industrial activities that may cause pollution to apply to the Environment Agency or local authorities for a permit before they can operate. These permits impose limits on emissions and conditions on operation of these activities. These include emissions to air (including for example noise, dust and odour), water and land. This legislation requires industry to only emit pollution below levels acceptable for health and the environment and to use the best available techniques to reduce their emissions on an ongoing basis. It is a fundamental and powerful tool to protect our environment. It ensures that our vulnerable citizens and those in deprived areas are afforded the same protection from pollution in Wales as everyone else.
The Environment Agency Wales and local authorities are the regulators for the Environmental Permitting regime. The use of this regime over the past four years has provided the platform for industry and the Environment Agency (who regulate the majority of these sites in Wales) to help achieve the following reductions from their regulated sites in Wales :

  • A 60 per cent reduction in oxides of sulphur (SOx) and a 24 per cent reduction in oxides of nitrogen (NOx) – both of these contribute to local air quality as well as acid rain further afield.
  • A reduction of 27 per cent in particulate matter (PM10) the other major pollutant of concern in Wales along with NOx.
  • A 37 per cent reduction in carbon monoxide from regulated industry – the major source of carbon monoxide in Wales.
  • A reduction of 26 per cent in emissions of lead – which in high levels can be toxic to plants, animals and humans.
  • A reduction in the number of serious pollution incidents (known as category 1 and 2) from 24 a year in 2007 to just 7 in 2010.

In this Assembly we have shaped our approach to implementing European obligations on industrial and traffic pollution to our vision of a sustainable Wales. Examples of how closely Assembly Government officials work alongside local authorities, companies and representatives of the wider community to achieve our common environmental goals include:

  • Our approach to noise action planning, now undergoing full public consultation, was developed with input from local authorities, transport providers and other interested organisations. The consultation document explains in detail our proposed procedure for designating quiet areas (a requirement of the Environmental Noise Directive) by inviting local authorities to nominate tranquil public open spaces that are known to confer wellbeing on local communities. Such areas, once identified, will receive protection from noise-generating development under provisions introduced in the 2010 edition of Planning Policy Wales.
  • In Port Talbot, we have brought industry, regulators, local authorities, residents and health professionals together, often in open forums, to tackle the challenges posed by particulate matter air pollution. One outcome of a recent open evidence session is the delivery of a key advice note (on the investigation of particulate matter in the Port Talbot area) from the UK Air Quality Expert Group. Recent years have seen a low number of exceedences of particulate matter (PM10) in the Port Talbot area. In the Tawe Valley north of Swansea we have developed a similar partnership approach with industry and regulators to address levels of nickel in air.
  • Our local authorities have worked closely together and with Assembly Government officials and this joined-up approach resulted in them completing their full quota of inspections of regulated industry last year, outperforming their English counterparts. We have delivered a consistently high standard of industrial pollution control across Wales, something that is fundamental to protecting our environment and the health of the public, in particular vulnerable citizens and those living in deprived areas.
  • The Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2007 and 2010 have continued forward an integrated approach to the prevention and control of pollution from industry in Wales. We have worked jointly with Defra on composite regulations to deliver a consistent regulatory package to the benefit of both businesses and the regulators, while ensuring proper protection of human health and the environment, delivering value for money and meeting the needs of Wales. This streamlining of the procedural parts of legislation has enabled the simplification of the operation of the permitting system that industry and regulators work with, without in any way compromising environmental or human health standards. This framework of regulations has brought much needed simplification to the complexity that industry and regulators previously faced with multiple environmental permitting regimes with identical environmental outcomes.

Looking forward

Our vision for the future as stated in One Wales, One Planet is of communities that are safe, sustainable and attractive places to live and work, and where people enjoy good health. Our priorities for the next Assembly in relation to pollution therefore include the following:

  • As stated in One Wales: Connecting the Nation -  the Wales Transport Strategy, a fast, reliable, affordable public transport system, so important to attracting business investment and fighting climate change, should also deliver cleaner air and greater respite from noise in built-up areas, thus improving quality of life for all. For social, environmental and economic reasons this must be a top priority for the next Assembly term.
  • We will update our strategic noise maps and action plans in line with the Environmental Noise Directive, using on-line tools to share information and best practice with local authority and transport provider partners across Wales. We will tailor our noise action planning to maximise the benefits conferred on local communities. Wherever possible we will exploit potential synergies between noise and other policy areas, particularly transport infrastructure and air quality.
  • Building upon the strengths of our current transparent, integrated approach to industry regulation, working in partnership with other UK administrations to ensure consistency and fairness to Welsh businesses, whilst developing the most efficient tools to reduce and, where possible, eliminate pollution across Wales.