Tens of thousands of Britons die from man-made air pollution every year but the Government is trying to water-down safety standards and shift blame to councils rather than tackling the problem, according to Parliament's green watchdog.
Latest figures suggest that air pollution contributed to the premature deaths of 200,000 people in 2008, hitting urban poor communities the hardest. Treating victims of Britain's dirty air for lung and heart diseases costs as much as £20bn every year.
Yet neither Defra nor Department of Transport mention air quality in their business plans - despite Coalition promises to work towards EU air quality standards.
The Environmental Audit Committee inquiry, published today, showed that the government has “failed to get to grips” with the issue since the Committee's damming 2010 report shone a spotlight on the scale of the problem. Instead, it has shifted responsibility to local authorities as part of its localism agenda. This could, under the Localism Bill, leave councils facing tens of millions of pounds in fines despite having no control over some pollution sources.
Joan Walley, chair of the Committee, said: “It is a national scandal that thousands of people are still dying from air pollution in the UK in 2011 - and the government is taking no responsibility for this.
“Despite a coalition pledge to meet European safety standards on air pollution, the Government appears to be lobbying behind the scenes to water these rules down.”
Poor air quality is caused by three main pollutants - nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and ozone. The UK is failing to meet EU limits for both nitrogen dioxide and PM.
Particulate Matter is airborne and can come from burning coal, exhaust emissions, tyre wear and construction. It led to 29,000 premature deaths in 2008, according to the Committee on the medical effects of air pollution (Comeap), a government advisory body.
Under EU laws the daily pollution levels of PM must not be above the legal limit on more than 35 days in a year. The Campaign for Clean Air in London reported that by 21 April, London had already exceeded this limit for 2011 - the worst performance in eight years.
Britain is one of Europe's worst emitters of nitrogen oxides, which are by-products of burning fuel. Long-term exposure can lead to asthma, bronchitis and can aggravate allergies, especially in children.
In 2010, 40 out of the 43 UK air quality assessment zones did not achieve compliance with the EU limit for nitrogen dioxide. The government has so far avoided paying hundreds of millions of pounds in fines by successfully lobbying for compliance extensions.
Defra has recently submitted an application to the European Commission asking to extend the deadline for compliance until 2015.
Research suggests that living near busy roads could account for 15-30 per cent of new cases of asthma in children, and a similar percentage of cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease in adults aged over 65.
Deprived communities, who tend to live closest to the busiest roads, are affected most by poor air quality contributing to lower life expectancies, according to research from the Netherlands and London.
The Committee and environmental groups are calling for a public awareness campaign to drive air quality up the political agenda and ensure people understand the health dangers and what they can do to protect themselves and their children.
James Grugeon, CEO of Environmental Protection UK, said: “This report confirms that the Government is placing an extraordinarily low priority on resolving the public health crisis caused by air pollution. The fact that air quality does not even make the lead department's business plan speaks volumes about the complacency on this issue.
"The Government must now follow the Committee's well reasoned suggestions and deliver a true cross-departmental strategy to comply urgently and fully with the air pollution targets the UK has failed to meet.”
A Defra spokeswoman said the Government was working towards meeting air quality targets. “We are investing significant sums of money to facilitate further reductions in pollution around transport, including over £1 billion to promote the uptake of ultra low emission vehicle technologies and to support local transport authorities to deliver sustainable transport measures.”