From Glasgow to Eastbourne: the 10 UK towns and cities breaching WHO air quality limits

Questions concerning the UK Government's handling of national air quality policies look set to re-emerge, after the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that 10 UK towns and cities, including London, Glasgow and Eastbourne, are failing to meet international air quality standards.

Using air quality data ranging from 2008 to 2013, a new study published today (12 May) revealed the list of UK towns and cities that were exceeding WHO standards for PM10 particulate matter, which is currently set at a “safe” annual average of 20 micrograms per cubic metre.

While London is in breach of WHO standards, the capital still boasts better air quality than Port Talbot, Stanford-le-Hope and Glasgow. The remaining areas that breached limits were Scunthorpe, Leeds, Eastbourne, Nottingham, Oxford and Southampton.

Commenting on the global report, WHO’s Dr Carlos Dora said: “It is crucial for city and national governments to make urban air quality a health and development priority. When air quality improves, health costs from air pollution-related diseases shrink, worker productivity expands and life expectancy grows.

“Reducing air pollution also brings an added climate bonus, which can become a part of countries’ commitments to the climate treaty.”

The study – which highlighted that 80% of people living in urban areas globally were breathing in unsafe levels of pollution – also revealed that even more UK regions were breaching limits for the smaller particle PM2.5, including Gibraltar which actually has a worse air quality score than London for both particles.

Air of concern

With new Mayor of London Sadiq Khan preparing to take on renewed action against the Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra), the figures released from WHO raise more concerns about the department’s “woeful” air quality policies.

Even though it took London just one week to breach annual air pollutions limits for 2016, the Government has seen fit to halve the amount of money given to local authorities in England to combat rising air pollution issues.

While the Government has moved to install Clean Air Zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton by 2020, air pollution both inside and outside the home causes at least 40,000 deaths a year in the UK, at the cost of £20bn.

Critical response

The growing number of issues surrounding air quality has increased the pressure on Government to implement a change, with Friends of the Earth calling for a Clean Air Zone in every town and city.

Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates said: “The figures for Europe might look like they’re improving slightly but we’re still talking about dangerous levels of pollution. There is no safe level of exposure.

“This is a public health crisis. It’s time it was treated that way. We need fewer and cleaner vehicles with a Clean Air Zone in every city and large town – and politicians must urgently introduce a diesel scrappage scheme to get the worst polluting vehicles off our roads, as well as more investment in alternatives to driving.”

In response to both the WHO study and the increased criticism from green campaigners, a Defra spokesman said: “Tackling air pollution is a priority for this Government, which is why we published our air quality plans last December.

“Our plans clearly set out how we will improve the UK’s air quality through a new programme of Clean Air Zones, which alongside national action and continued investment in clean technologies will create cleaner, healthier air for all.”

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie