Air Pollution and the British Lung Foundation October 2016
Thank you for contacting me recently regarding air pollution and the related campaign by the British Lung Foundation (BLF).
I appreciate how important this issue is. The World Health Organization has highlighted the risks associated with air pollution, including in 2013 an assessment which found outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic to humans, with the particulate matter component of air pollution most closely associated with increased cancer incidence, especially cancer of the lung.
I know that the campaign by the BLF has highlighted that tens of thousands of people die early every year in the UK because of air pollution. I appreciate that the BLF IS also concerned about the UK routinely exceeding the legal levels for pollution, which were set out in a 2008 EU ambient air quality directive. I share these concerns.
I am also concerned that many environmental protections - including on air quality - are at risk following the outcome of the referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Until the UK leaves the EU, EU law will still have effect in the UK and the Government has now confirmed it intends to enact a Great Repeal Bill which will end the primacy of EU law in the UK. The Government's Bill will seek to incorporate EU legislation into UK law, after which the Government will decide which parts to keep, change or retain. There is therefore considerable uncertainty about the implications for our environment of leaving the EU.
I believe the Government must incorporate the provisions of the clean air directive into UK law and then begin to comply with its provisions in a way which it has failed to do for the past six years. Indeed, earlier this year it was reported environmental lawyers ClientEarth are suing the Government for the second time in a year, having won a case at the Supreme Court in 2015 which ordered ministers to fulfil their legal duty to cut pollution in "the shortest time possible". The new case argues the Government is still failing to do this.
In December 2015, the Government published its Air Quality plans and outlined plans to legislate to require the implementation of Clean Air Zones in five cities outside of London - Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Southampton and Derby. I am disappointed that the Government has decided that just five cities outside London will be required to have Clean Air Zones, ignoring other towns and cities blighted by air pollution. I am also concerned about the ability of struggling councils to tackle the issue of air pollution, given that they have been subjected to cuts under the air quality grant scheme by nearly 80% since 2010. I believe the Government must do much more to tackle air pollution, particularly as we know it is linked to cancer, asthma, strokes and heart disease and causes up to 50,000 premature deaths each year in the UK. It is also alarming that primary schools have been forced to close because they are exposing young children to dangerous levels of pollution. Air pollution also disproportionately affects more deprived communities and this must change.
In April 2016 the House of Commons' Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee published a report on Air Pollution which called for urgent Government action and for new Clean Air Zones in dozens of English towns and cities to cut the risk of cardiac, respiratory and other diseases caused by polluted air. The Government has now responded to the Select Committee's report and has said it will consult on a proposed framework for Clean Air Zones "later this year". I will follow developments on this closely.
I believe the Government must urgently review its air quality plans and act to prevent this public health crisis. I hope the Government will listen to the concerns that have been raised by the British Lung Foundation. I would like to see a national framework for low emission zones and genuine action at international level to close loopholes in emissions testing. Following the result of the EU referendum, the UK Government will need to set out its strategy for the future and how it will protect the provisions of important directives. Without a national framework, local action risks being expensive and un-coordinated.
Most importantly, the Government will need to set out how enforcement mechanisms will be put in place because currently the UK Government can be taken to the EU Court for failing to meet its obligations.
Thank you once again for contacting me and for sharing your views. I can assure you I will continue to press the Government to establish a comprehensive and effective strategy to improve air quality across the whole country.