Our air is toxic and it’s killing thousands prematurely – it’s down to the next prime minister to finally act

We need new enforceable targets that empower local authorities to act and encourage the government to invest in green transport and technology

Conservative leadership bid: Results of fifth ballot

As the Conservative leadership contest rumbles on with the final two, Brexit and tax cuts continue to dominate, with a curious absence of offering a more radical environment policy in particular to tackling the UK’s toxic air.

It may be because three of the four serious contenders are in the current government, with latest leadership casualty, Michael Gove, environment secretary. It’s no wonder then him and his cabinet colleagues are keen to defend the government’s progress to date.

Yet, as the young woman from Glasgow pointed out during the BBC's televised debates on Tuesday, the government’s current measures don’t go far enough, nor do they reflect the emergency that we really face in this country.

Each year in the UK 66,000 people die prematurely because of air pollution. If dirty drinking water caused the same early death toll there would be a public outcry. However, this is not a leadership priority and the government are dragging their heels.

The High Court’s decision in May to grant an inquest into the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died of an asthma attack six years ago during a peak in air pollution in her area, is a tragic reminder that this issue cannot be ignored.

There have already been three successful cases brought against the government’s refusal to tackle the toxic levels of air pollution, but the measures take in response still lack an urgent or holistic approach.

For example, even though the government refers to indoor air quality 21 times in its Clean Air Strategy and notes that it is where we spend 90 per cent of our time, Michael Gove refuses to have the government take responsibility for it by including indoor air quality in the Environment Bill.

A recent letter to Michael Gove, as secretary of state for the environment, from the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, urged the government to include indoor air pollution in an "all hands-on deck" approach to air pollution as a matter of public health.

It noted that the Department for the Environment must take on a leadership role in the government, but this must also come from the next Conservative leader as prime minister of the country.

Whoever it is, he might, when considering taxation, listen to the advice of the UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres, to “tax pollution; end fossil fuel subsidies”; and he should make reducing air pollution and emissions more generally a priority in all departments, rather than just leaving it to one.

And if the discussion must be around Brexit, and a possible date for departure, it should also consider how long it would take to enshrine these crucial rights to air quality limits in British law.

The government have long resisted my calls for a Clean Air Act, but outside of the EU we would be stripped of EU protections and need to give citizens the right to clean air. Either a new Clean Air Act or a stipulation within the Environment Bill would be required to hold the government to account.

The new legislation should make enforceable targets that empower local authorities to act plus encourage the government to invest in green transport and technology.

Both Johnson and Hunt should make clear that we have the right to clean air and any future government has a duty to deliver it - but I’m not holding my breath.

Geraint Davies is the Labour MP for Swansea West

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