New funding for councils to tackle air pollution ‘won’t touch the sides’, green groups say

‘Throwing as little as £3m at the problem is about as effective as chucking your small change into a wishing well in the hope a solution will appear’

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 03 April 2019 09:55 BST
EU takes British government to court for illegal and dangerous air pollution levels

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Green groups have dismissed the government’s latest cash injection to help local authorities tackle toxic air pollution as inadequate, given the scale of the challenge facing them.

Gases and particulates spewed into the air are linked to 40,000 deaths in the UK every year, and diseases ranging from lung cancer to psychosis.

London’s imminent ultra-low emission zone has been hailed as a major step in tackling this toxic problem, and experts say towns around the country need support for similar schemes.

But with spending on new roads running into billions while pollution from traffic costs the economy many billions more, ministers have been accused of getting their priorities wrong.

In its latest spending pledge, the environment department has set aside £3m to support 28 projects for local authorities across England.

These schemes range from cleaning up buses in York to promoting electric charging points for canal boats in Islington.

The money is from the government’s air quality grant, which has provided £57m in clean air funding to local councils over the past two decades.

“Today’s funding demonstrates the government’s commitment to supporting the local momentum needed to continue to improve our air now and for future generations,” said environment minister Therese Coffey.

“Local authorities are best placed to introduce systems that work best for their areas, which is why we are working closely with them to ensure they have the appropriate funding and support.”

However, green campaigners said these authorities needed far more support.

“This money is welcome, but much more is needed to address the air pollution crisis affecting the nation’s health,” said Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates.

Specifically, they called for resources that would allow more councils to introduce clean air zones, where drivers must conform to strict vehicle requirements.

Outside London, five cities have been told by the government to introduce such zones, but dozens more are suffering from illegal levels of air pollution.

“Air pollution is a national crisis, so throwing as little as £3m at the problem is about as effective as chucking your small change into a wishing well in the hope a solution will appear,” said Areeba Hamid, clean air campaigner at Greenpeace UK.

“£3m simply won’t touch the sides of the issue.”

Public Health England-supported research has concluded that the health and social care costs of air pollution are likely to approach £19bn by 2035 unless drastic action is taken.

The government’s wider air-quality plan consists of £3.5bn to clean up the nation’s air, including investment in local authorities, support for cycling and walking and a transition to low-emission vehicles.

Meanwhile, the last Budget saw the announcement of a £25.3bn spending plan for road building and repairs from 2020.

“Instead of spending billions of pounds on new roads that create more traffic and pollution, ministers should prioritise funding initiatives that tackle the UK’s air pollution scandal,” said Ms Bates.

Simon Alcock from ClientEarth, environmental lawyers who have successfully sued the government three times over illegal air pollution levels, agreed the overall pledge was insufficient.

“When you compare it with air pollution’s annual social cost of £19bn per year, £3.5bn over 11 years is nowhere near enough,” he said.

“The government’s response – to dump the problem on local authorities but not give them the proper resources to deal with the issue – is not helping.”

Responding to the criticism, a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “Tackling air pollution needs strong collective action. However, due to the highly localised nature of the problem, local leaders are best placed to determine the best approach to rapidly meet the needs of their communities”.

“We are committed to working constructively with local government leaders to reduce harmful levels of pollution, and considering what further action is required. We’re already investing £3.5bn to clean up our air, reducing harmful road transport emissions, while our Clean Air Strategy has been praised by the World Health Organisation as an ‘example for the rest of the world to follow’.”

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