Breathing easily: how to clean up our air

Today we celebrate the sixtieth year since the Clean Air Act, introduced by a Conservative Government, received royal assent. This Act of Parliament introduced ‘smokeless zones’, banishing dirty chimneys and power stations from Britain’s urban centres, and consigning to history the London smogs of Dickens and Conan Doyle. With its passage into statute, the health of the nation took a big leap forward.

But 60 years on, air pollution remains a big problem. In the 1990s, policy makers in the EU and the UK decided to promote diesel cars, believing them to have lower carbon emissions than the petrol alternatives. But while the benefit of lower CO2 emissions has subsequently been found to have been overstated, the surge in diesel cars has produced more harmful emissions of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. So dirty air still blights our cities.

The Royal College of Physicians recently produced a report examining the health effects of air pollution. They estimate that around 40,000 people die prematurely each year from dirty air. The EU sets and enforces stringent air quality standards across all member states, including, for now, the UK. The recent vote to leave the EU does not undermine the imperative for tackling air pollution, and the standards should not be weakened. Indeed, there is research showing that even the EU’s legal limits are not sufficient to prevent all negative health effects.

What is the best policy response to air pollution, which the London mayoral election has shown is of growing concern to the public? One important step is to implement the phase-out of coal-fired power stations as soon as possible. Bright Blue has been among the leading voices in support of the Government’s decision to phase out coal from our electricity generation by 2025. Burning coal causes 1,600 premature deaths in the UK. So, as well as removing a big chunk of our carbon emissions, the coal phase-out will provide a major boost to public health.

Up to 70% of our air pollution, however, comes from road transport. So any credible response to this challenge must tackle this. In December 2015, the Government announced an air quality plan to reduce pollution. The centre-piece was the introduction of five ‘clean air zones’ in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, and Southampton by 2020. Councils in these cities will be able to levy a charge on drivers of polluting lorries and coaches that travel inside the designated clean air zone. In addition, there will be an ultra-low emission zone coming into effect in London in 2020. Experience from similar schemes in Germany and Denmark suggests clean air zones are effective at cutting air pollution.

But these measures are not ambitious enough. Under the plan for London, the legal limits won’t be met until 2025, meaning that children in the capital will continue inhaling unsafe levels of air pollution for another nine years. The zone also doesn’t include parts of London beyond zone one, despite the problem extending past the inner core of the city.

The Government is also wrong to limit the number of cities with clean air zones. Many more cities have unsafe levels of air pollution than the six granted clean air zones by the Government. Germany has a network of over 70 low emissions zones. The Government also excludes private cars from the policy, despite them constituting a major share of the pollution.

Bright Blue is today launching a campaign to establish a network of clean air zones across England. City councils should be given the power to set one up, in consultation with local residents and businesses. Polluters should pay for the environmental and health costs they impose on other people. Vulnerable groups should be exempted from charges.

Any revenue this scheme raises should help fund a diesel scrappage scheme. This will help replace diesel vehicles with new ultra-low emission vehicles. Sales of electric vehicles are increasing significantly each year, and the trend is expected to continue. Clean air zones and a diesel scrappage scheme together are a carrot and stick approach to accelerate this transition.

Today we are reminded of the proud conservative legacy on air pollution. In the last century we forced dirty factories out of our cities. This century we need to drive polluting vehicles off our roads for good.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue