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Polly Billington: Our own Great Smog demands similar leadership

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More than three times as many people will die this year because of air pollution than died in the Great Smog of 1952, which led directly to the Clean Air Act 1956. We need the same leadership today – a new law to tackle air pollution.

Yesterday the government published its clean air strategy. But while a step in the right direction, it fails to provide adequate powers or funding to tackle the toxic fumes that kill thousands every year.

Air pollution is a national health crisis – one of the biggest killers in the country – and yet we lack the resources to tackle it. The human cost is immense: air pollution is the third biggest cause of death for children under the age of five in England.

A recent report for the government conducted by King’s College London showed that 36,000 people died because of air pollution every year in the UK. Prolonged exposure to the chemical pollutants, primarily from vehicle engines and wood burning, can exacerbate respiratory conditions and has been associated with a range of other health problems. Young children and older adults are particularly at risk.

The most worrying factor is that it seems to be worsening. The number of deaths has increased by 24% just in the last three years.

Six decades ago, legislation was enacted to address the pollution in our cities from wood burning fires, factories and coal-fired power stations. Today we need to face up to the new challenge. So next month, local leaders and metropolitan mayors will convene at a National Clean Air Summit in February to agree a new action plan for clean air in Britain.

At the National Clean Air Summit last year, UK100 worked with the Mayor of London to convene people from across the UK to commit to action and call for more urgency and ambition from the Government. The summit identified four priority areas for action.

First, we need environment and clean air legislation that establishes strong air quality limits linked to World Health Organization recommended guidelines, enforced by an independent statutory body. The legislation should grant local and regional authorities the powers and resources they need, while ensuring action at a national level to tackle all sources of air pollution, including from construction, buildings, transport, wood-burning and maritime sources.

Second, we need a targeted national scheme to replace older polluting vehicles, supporting drivers and businesses to change to low emission vehicles and other sustainable forms of transport, taking special care that poorer people and small businesses are helped to shift.

Third, we need an enhanced clean air fund open to all towns and cities in England, funded by the government and motor-vehicle manufacturers, and sufficient to support the delivery of clean air zones and provide investment for cleaner public transport and taxis, as well as walking and cycling.

And finally, we need support for businesses to innovate around clean transport technology and help the UK be a global leader in manufacturing low-emission vehicles as part of the Road to Zero, transport, clean growth and industrial strategies.

This should include a commitment to phase out sales of new pure diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2030. To ensure the rollout of the vital electric vehicle infrastructure needed to support this, cities should have the power to install charge points at petrol stations and private car parks.

All of this is dependent of adequate investment. Last year before the government’s budget announcement 16 local and regional leaders representing over 18 million people called on chancellor Philip Hammond to find an extra £1.5bn of investment to boost the existing clean air fund. It currently stands at just £220m.

We haven’t had a major piece of legislation to tackle air pollution for over 20 years. It is time for our political leaders to act.

Polly Billington, director, UK100

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