The Great Smog of 1952 caused an estimated 4000 deaths from a 5 day event, and showed the urgent need for controls on pollution. This lead to the Clean Air Act of 5 July 1956 which mandated the use of smokeless fuels in certain areas to reduce sulphur dioxide levels. The law was further tweaked by the Clean Air Act 1968, which increased the height of chimneys for industrial use. Today, we face a challenge from the risks of NO2 and particulate pollution. UK law has been slow to catch up with the dangers facing people’s health.

The EU introduced the 2008 Ambient Air Quality Directive (2008/50/EC) to limit the outdoor levels of NO2 and particulates. This was brought into British law by the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010. While the limits specified are legally binding on local councils, they are often breached. 278 of the 391 local authorities missed the legal targets last year. While the European Commission could fine the UK, that would not bring down the pollution level in a reasonable time. At current levels, air pollution in the UK causes tens of thousands of deaths per year, so it is vitally important that we take stronger action.

Labour MP Geraint Davies introduced a draft Clean Air Bill which had its first reading in November 2018. It’s second reading is expected on 2nd Feb. This bill aims to introduce sensible measures such as proper monitoring of on-road diesel pollution, new powers to ban diesel vehicles from low emission zones, improving cycle and pedestrian routes and better electric-powered public transport. Unfortunately, private member bills rarely are passed into law but they may do with enough public pressure.

A separate draft bill has been developed by Clean Air in London together with Baroness Jenny Jones. This focuses on the right to breathe clean air, the principle that the polluter pays, pollution limits set by scientific evidence and the precautionary principle, new powers for local authorities, an enhanced role for the Environment Agency and a new emphasis on tackling climate change.

Clean Air in London recently commented “In a sense, [our] proposal is ‘top down’ (clean air as a human right with requirements, principles and mechanisms defined and passed down) and Geraint Davies’ excellent draft Clean Air Bill is ‘bottom up’ e.g. clear actions on specific sources of pollution and specific solutions. The approaches are complementary, both address important issues, and lend themselves to being merged (or enacted separately).”

Both campaign groups have committed to working together to have new standards for clean air enacted in law.

Jenny Jones said “I’m very excited by the idea of the Clean Air Bill making the right to healthy air a human right. We should all enjoy clean air even when we are working in a busy city, or living under an airport flight path. I hope that people will add their ideas to this Bill and support my attempt to push the government into action.

There are big debates coming up this year as we need to replace the European environmental safeguards with tough UK laws and enforcement. I think this Bill contains some key proposals which could make us world leader for environmental regulation.”

We need to keep applying pressure on our elected representatives to make sure a new Clean Air Bill actually happens. Write to your MP to make them aware of the air pollution crisis!