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Hold your breath for Brexit (but not for clean air)

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A commentary on today’s air quality strategy 

A’s for effort to environment secretary Michael Gove and health secretary Matt Hancock who this morning made a valiant attempt to convince the country that the government may actually be doing something other than careering around in blind panic ahead of tomorrow’s crunch vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. 

The pair teamed up at the top of the BT Tower, far above the capital’s toxic streets, to launch the government’s new clean air strategy.

Mr Gove promised new powers for local authorities to tackle air quality. What exactly these will entail was, ironically, not very clear but largely seemed to relate to telling people how they can and can’t heat their homes.

As LGC reported earlier, the government said action would be taken to make smoke control areas – where it is illegal to allow smoke emissions from chimneys – easier to enforce. Councils may be allowed to go further in areas of high pollution, with, for example, new powers to increase the rate of upgrades of inefficient and polluting heating appliances such as coal fires and wood burning stoves.

The strategy has been lauded by the World Health Organization as making Britain the first major economy in the world to set an ambition to improve air quality in line with their latest standards.

However, there has been rather less excitement about it amongst environmental campaigners, who say the proposals will do little to tackle vehicle pollution which is the biggest cause of poor air quality.

Despite some dramatic language from Mr Hancock, who declared the current state of Britain’s air a ‘health emergency’, the strategy has barely registered elsewhere during another day of Brexit drama which saw the resignation of a government whip, last minute reassurances from the EU over the Northern Ireland backstop and a plea from the PM to back her deal “for country’s sake”.

The trouble is, even if the strategy had contained plans for more radical action, when a government is this precarious the chances of its plans becoming law anytime soon are so slim as to make them little more than interesting ideas. 

The opportunity cost of Brexit is mounting day by day. 

Sarah Calkin, deputy editor

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