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Air pollution is a national emergency that needs to be tackled now

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Air pollution used to be a more visible problem in the UK due to extensive domestic and industrial combustion of coal.

Today the air we breathe is visibly cleaner thanks to legislation and the work of environmental health professionals.

However, major but much less visible problems still persist and it is clear to us that air pollution is a national emergency that needs to be tackled now.

But this seems to have not registered with the government. Not only did we have to wait for more than 18 months for the government to produce a national plan to address nitrogen dioxide pollution, but the version published amounts to nothing more than a plan for a plan’s sake. It simply does not meet expectations of a strategic approach to the current emergency.

Virtually every pointint he government’s plan is full of holes and it appears to be a hasty and deeply impractical document

We have two central concerns. First, the government’s proposals require local authorities to develop innovative solutions to a national problem. This is an abdication of responsibility in the absence of tried and tested national measures.

Second, the government’s consultation paper fails to specify any significant measures, avoids implementation dates, and fails to address the key practical issues.

Clean air zones are being relied on to address the concerns, yet CAZs are currently no more than a trial in five cities. There has been no evaluation of their success and Chartered Institute of Environmental Health members involved in their implementation indicate CAZs merely move the pollution hotspots around.

The government’s plan makes no mention of additional resources and it’s concerning that where local authorities are unable to demonstrate improvements, they may become liable, in a legal sense, for pollution and associated health implications.

It is also unclear whether local authorities will have the ability to legally require others to assist them in implementing necessary measures.

The government says local authorities should consider a wide range of options to address the problem, such as “retrofitting technologies and new fuels”. Surely, this is best accomplished nationally. Plus, councils are unlikely to influence vehicle operators to convert their vehicles unless it is economically viable to do so.

The alternative would be for councils to ban polluting vehicles as part of their CAZ. But this would impact on the local economy and potentially lead to the displacement of pollution to rural areas as polluting vehicles are sold off.

We are standing on the cliff edge of a public health emergency. Virtually every point in the government’s plan is full of holes and it appears to be a hasty and deeply impractical document which is no solution to a national emergency.

Tony Lewis, head of policy, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health

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