EFRA urges DEFRA to act on air pollution

Urgent Government action is needed to avert the UK's air quality crisis, including the introduction of clean air zones in towns and cities, a diesel scrappage scheme and steps to tackle farming emissions, according to a major new report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA).

In its Air Quality report, released today (27 April), EFRA – which acts as a policy watchdog for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – claims that more action must be taken to cut the health and environmental impacts of pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, in order to prevent up to 50,000 people dying early from air pollution-related illnesses.

The report specifically calls on the Government to devolve greater flexibility to all local authorities on use of development and traffic movement powers to tackle car pollution both in and out of clean air zones.

EFRA chair and Conservative Party MP Neil Parish said: “Only five cities – Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton – will have new powers to charge polluting vehicles to enter new clean air zones. Councils in the dozens of other English cities currently exceeding EU pollution limits must also be given the option of using such powers if their communities support action.

“The zones need to deliver local solutions to local problems. DEFRA’s proposed ‘one-size-fits-all’ clean air zones will set rigid rules on cities as diverse as Southampton and Leeds. Communities must be given legal powers to set controls that meet their own circumstances—for example, some might want to charge polluting vehicles to access zones at certain times of day or to target specific bus routes.”

Agricultural emissions

EFRA is also urging the Government to create a reasonable incentive for people to purchase more expensive low-emission vehicles to offset the high levels of pollution caused by diesel vehicles. The Air Quality report recommends the introduction of a diesel scrappage scheme aimed at cars at least 10 years old should come into effect at the next Budget.

Moreover, calls have been made for a spread of modern farming practices, rather than extra regulation, to give the agricultural sector the best opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The report has been well received from green groups such as Friends of the Earth (FoE), which believes it is clear evidence of the steps the Government must take to reduce air pollution.

FoE campaigner Jenny Bates said: “It’s right that all people, wherever they live in the country, are able to breathe clean air as soon as possible. The suggestion to extend Clean Air Zones to cities and major towns across the country is welcome news.

“Proposals to make it easier for local authorities to curb new developments which would generate new traffic and add to the air pollution problem, and measures to tackle emissions from farming, are also hugely important. Dirty air is already the nation’s biggest killer after smoking. The solutions are out there but we need the Government to listen to MPs and campaign groups and take more urgent action now.”

Pollution breaches

Air quality has been a contentious issue for the Government in recent months amid the disclosure of some alarming statistics. Earlier this year, a damning report revealed that indoor and outdoor air pollution was ‘claiming at least 40,000 UK lives a year’. Another revelation then came in January when it was revealed that London breached annual EU pollution limits in just one week.

The issue further intensified last month when a final warning was sent to DEFRA, threatening legal action if drastic improvement weren’t made to the UK’s approach to tackling air pollution.

Alan Andrews, a lawyer at ClientEarth – which is leading that legal action – said: “We’ve been telling the Government it needs to act on air pollution for years – the Supreme Court has ordered the Government to act and now a cross-party group of MPs has told the Government it must get a grip.

“It’s telling that even the Tory chairman of this Committee agrees that the Government is not doing enough. “The Committee is right to call for more clean air zones. We need a national network of these, alongside other measures that can be taken urgently. This is a public health crisis, it’s time for the Government to act in the interests of our health.”

George Ogleby

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