Freedom to breathe

Recent events have shown that public health and wellbeing are not priorities for this government. Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb explains how a Clean Air Act is now a matter of priority

The Grenfell fire has exposed the failures of a government culture where lives are weighed against the cost of prevention. Nowhere is that attitude more ingrained than in the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) approach to air pollution. 

We need a Clean Air Act to not only put new and better rules into primary legislation, but to put the underlying principles of European environmental law onto the UK statute book as well. We need the precautionary principle to underpin a new set of regulatory bodies with genuine independence and real teeth. Cost-benefit analysis has its place to help sort out the best route to taking action, but the precautionary principle is needed to ensure that people come before profit. 

With an estimated 40,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution every year, it is one of this country’s biggest public health scandals. Yet 17 years ago, when I was first elected to the London Assembly, it was hard getting the media to talk about it. The approach from Labour, Conservative and coalition governments has been to downplay the impacts, wipe their hands of the responsibility, and argue that the European Commission was dealing with it. 

Defra has spent the last two decades saying that the technical fix of improving car engines would solve the air pollution problem. Progress has undoubtedly been made, especially with particulates from lorries, which the European Commission tightly regulated, but the whole issue of traffic reduction has never been seriously considered by the government, nor any of the London mayors. The result is that we have cleaner cars and vans on the roads than in 1999, when the European directive on air pollution came into force, but there are a lot more of them. 

In stark contrast to the other parties’ approach to reducing pollution, including Corbyn’s Labour Party, only the Green Party is willing to discuss reducing traffic in order to reduce pollution. You can’t say you are reducing pollution while building new roads that generate extra traffic, as Sadiq Khan is doing with the Silvertown Tunnel in east London. You can’t reduce pollution if you expand traffic generating developments like Heathrow, which many Labour MPs support. Instead, you have to invest in the rail system, expand the bus network and spend your billions of pounds on high-quality cycle lanes and pedestrian facilities. 

The switch to polluting diesel, which started back in Margaret Thatcher’s day, was partly driven by climate change concerns. This has cancelled out many of the expected reductions in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), especially as the government has been extremely slow to act on the warnings, switch off the incentives and put diesel sales into reverse. 

Another problem with the over-reliance on the technical fix has been the car manufacturers scamming the tests with defeat devices. I was aware of the major gap between test results and the reality of pollution on the roads years in advance of the scandal becoming public, but even I was staggered by the industrial scale of the cheating. The European Commission must carry some of the blame for having a system of light touch regulation on cars, which allowed this to happen. 

With Brexit, we now have the chance to set up independent monitoring of vehicle performance on the roads and even our own database of which cars are the most polluting. 

We can also build upon existing European rules with a new Clean Air Act that includes legislation on PM2.5, the extremely small bits of grit and particulate matter that the World Health Organization has come to recognise as being very damaging to human health because of the way they can be drawn into the respiratory system, pass through the lungs, then infiltrate the brain and other organs. 

The key strength of the European directive was that its limit values had legal force. In 1999, the UK government signed up to the directive and agreed to reduce pollution below the limit value by 2010. It failed and we have been inhaling illegal air ever since. Their current timetable still has some Londoners breathing illegal air in 2030, and that could go even further beyond that date if Heathrow is expanded. Environmental law firm ClientEarth has taken full advantage of those rules being transposed into UK law and has beaten the government in court twice. 

The complacency of Defra’s civil servants has been shaken by the High Court’s rejection of its revised national strategy as being inadequate and the latest version is also being challenged. The traditional arguments relying on cost-benefit analysis that actions would be too expensive and not worth the gains to public health have been scrutinised and rejected. The court believes that as the government signed up to reduce pollution below legal limits, it should get on with it. 

A Clean Air Act should be a matter of real urgency. The short- term approach of this government is quite literally suffocating for the thousands of Londoners and residents of other cities that deserve a lot more from the government than they are currently receiving from a government that puts immediate concerns of ‘value-for-money’ before health and safety. If you cut corners early on, you may save a bit of money initially, but, as we have seen, in the end the costs may be far, far greater. That is the lesson of Grenfell and of our struggle for clean air. We need a government that will act on the maxim ‘better safe than sorry’.