Sixty years ago today the Clean Air Act came into force. It was a landmark in public health legislation, clearing the air in our capital city by banishing coal burning in certain zones. Four years earlier, Londoners had choked during the ‘great smog’ of December 52. Windless conditions trapped a thick cloud of coal smoke over the city for five days. The event created some of the most remarkable images of London ever shot. Routemaster buses barely visible through the haze. Masked policemen peering through the gloom. Tower Bridge floating over a river of fog. As many as 12,000 people are thought to have died as a result.
Pea-soupers are thankfully a thing of the past, but, scandalously, thousands of Londoners are still dying from air pollution in 2016. These days it is not coal fires causing the problem, but tiny airborne particles and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) produced by cars, buses and lorries. Particulate matter has been shown to cause cancer. NO2 can cause inflammation of the lungs, leading to asthma and bronchitis, and an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Together the two pollutants are thought to be linked to over 50,000 early deaths a year. But unlike the Great Smog, which was so thick Londoners couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of them, today’s pollution is usually invisible to the naked eye.
If it hadn’t been for the EU we would probably still be ignoring the problem. But back in 2008 the European Union introduced legislation setting safety limits on air pollution in towns and cities. The UK was supposed to meet these air quality targets by 2010. But six years on, 38 out of 43 air quality zones across the country are still breaching these limits, including Wakefield.
It took a legal case at the European Court of Justice to force the Government to act. The large EU fines we potentially faced from further infringement proceedings focused ministerial minds. And earlier this year the Government at last brought a plan forward to tackle air pollution.
What happens now the country has voted to leave the EU? Well, EU air pollution limits were transposed into UK law, so technically they still stand. But dealing with air pollution will require a step change in transport policy. We need to get the most polluting bangers off the road, incentivise cleaner electric and hybrid vehicles, invest in public transport, create clean air zones and encourage people to walk and cycle for shorter journeys.
Unfortunately the political reality is that without the threat of legal sanctions or EU fines, the Government is unlikely to act. Given the poor record of successive administrations on this issue, it seems likely that a future Government will find it convenient to quietly drop these commitments. Fortunately for Londoners, Mayor Khan has been clear action will still be taken in London, but areas, like my city of Wakefield, could now be left to choke.
Whoever is our next Prime Minister, the Environmental Audit Committee will hold their feet to the fire over air pollution. We will ensure air quality doesn’t drop off the Government agenda. The best way we can do that is by ensuing air quality remains a commitment for the UK government. The original Clean Air Act introduced areas where only smokeless fuels could be burned, limiting the grit and dust that houses and factories could belch out across our cities. A new Clean Air Act is now needed for the 21st Century. One that limits diesel pollution and ensures that Government, nationally, regionally and locally, prioritises the policies needed to clear the air in our towns and cities.
This article was first published by the Huffington Post on 5 July 2016.