Government accused of ‘dodging responsibility’ as study reveals most English people live with illegal air pollution

'Tories have completely failed to tackle the problem of air pollution across the country,' say Labour

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Saturday 29 December 2018 01:05
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Theresa May responds to high court ruling that air pollution plan is 'unlawful'

Over 60 per cent of people in England live in areas with illegal levels of air pollution, according to new analysis by the Labour party.

Labour accused the government of “dodging responsibility” when it comes to tackling pollution, after its air quality strategy was branded unlawful three times in UK courts.

Air pollution has been linked with around 40,000 deaths every year in the UK, and is thought to be associated with everything from respiratory problems to dementia.

The data, which covers 2016, shows over 33 million people in 44 per cent of England’s local authorities are coping with pollution above the limits deemed to be safe.

London had the biggest pollution problem, with 32 out of 33 London boroughs exceeding legal air quality limits.

However the north of England was the region that suffered most due to toxic fumes, with over three quarters of people in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber living with filthy air.

“The Tories have completely failed to tackle the problem of air pollution across the country,” said shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman.

“Despite losing repeatedly in the courts on this issue, they continue to dodge responsibility, leaving millions of people living in areas of illegally high levels of pollution.”

The analysis follows on from another study conducted by Labour for 2015 that found a similar proportion of the population afflicted by toxic pollution.

With dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide – which primarily comes from car exhausts – still found across much of the nation, campaigners are concerned that following Brexit the UK will lack the oversight to ensure ministers stick to air quality rules.

Currently the European Commission is meant to ensure countries follow air quality rules, and took Britain to court this year for failing to protect its citizens from toxic pollution.

The government recently announced it will look into the creation of a new body to ensure the government sticks to green laws as part of a draft environment bill.

While this step towards a green watchdog was welcomed, groups questioned the independence of the proposed body and said it lacked the “strong legal teeth” needed to protect the environment.

Current government plans to tackle air pollution have been branded inadequate, largely due to the failure to deal with the high-polluting vehicles that emit most of the dangerous fumes.

However, environment minister Therese Coffey accused Labour of “astonishing hypocrisy” in their assessment of the nation’s air pollution problem.

“Labour deliberately encouraged the dash to diesel which has directly led to air pollution in our towns and cities. Worse than that, they ignored official advice that their policies would create health problems,” she said.

Ms Coffey said the Conservatives had cut nitrogen dioxide levels by 27 per cent since 2010 and invested £3.5bn in cleaning up the air.

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“Labour should apologise for ignoring advice and fuelling this major public health problem,” she added.

“It should also be getting those Labour-led councils that are dragging their feet on improving air quality to accelerate local solutions as quickly as possible.”

Ms Hayman said Labour would deliver a new Clean Air Act, including a network of clean air zones in cities “to get a grip on the illegal levels of pollution”.

A recent London study found that while such zones, which restrict or penalise high polluting vehicles in certain areas, had cut nitrogen dioxide in parts of London, they had failed to protect children from health problems.

The scientists behind the research recommended even stricter strategies such as the capital’s imminent ultra-low emission zone to have a positive health impact.

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