27 February 1998

Tony Clarke MP (Lab. Northampton, South)

The Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997 puts the onus on local authorities to produce plans for reducing traffic in their areas. They also measure the effects of pollution on air quality. Eight of the nine pollutants that they monitor are from road traffic emissions. If ever there was a need to reduce road traffic, it is now, because we must ensure that those pollutants are removed so that the air is cleaner.

Northampton was one of the first towns to undertake real-time air quality monitoring. As chair of the committee, I was able to see from the machines what roads were being polluted at what times of the day. I saw the huge polluting effects of the M1, which passes my constituency. No matter how polluted the town became due to wind direction, the local authority could do nothing about it. We knew that we needed Government assistance if we were ever to solve the problems of congestion on that motorway. Northampton's air quality literally depends on which way the wind blows. If the wind blows away from the M1, our air quality is high. If it blows towards the M1, our air quality reduces.

We have tried hard to raise public awareness, and to get people out of their cars and on to public transport. We have tried all sorts of methods. I remember having quotations placed on the back of Northampton buses, which we think worked.

We have also been working closely with the private sector, to try to promote rapid light transport in Northampton. The local authority is working to try to introduce the necessary measures to effect the reduction of traffic in our county. We cannot do that alone; we need Government intervention and support to ensure that there is a national strategy to reduce car use.

I still receive letters from constituents—and ward constituents, as I still have the pleasure of serving on Northampton borough council—about traffic problems, such as car parking and the speed and volume of traffic. To use a term from the Green party campaign concerning the national march, my constituents are, "fuming mad". They say, "This is dreadful. You must get rid of this traffic." Most people are coming round to accepting that there are simply too many vehicles on our roads—21 million at the last count—and that we must reduce the number.

The original target set was the number of cars in 1990. For some of us, that does not go back far enough. I imagine that many of today's 21 million cars already existed in 1990. We should look forward to the day when there are fewer cars than there were in 1990. Perhaps the number of cars in 1971 would be a good target.

In 1971, 80 per cent. of seven and eight-year-olds walked or cycled to school. Now, less than 8 per cent. of children walk or cycle to school. When one considers that incredible difference in such a short time, one sees the need for quick and clear action.

It is 100 years—almost to the day—since the Government repealed the laws requiring motor vehicles to be preceded by persons carrying red flags. We might reflect on how the roads would be had that law not been repealed. Some of us might welcome the sight of 21 million people marching down the high streets with red flags aflame but we must look to the day when we can use less restrictive measures on the motor car and entice people out of their vehicles on to public transport or bicycles, or persuade them to walk short distances. That would bring about the improvements that we all want.

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