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Act now to halt air pollution’s death toll, MPs urge government

Public health emergency is killing 50,000 people prematurely every year

Caroline White

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Poor air quality is a public health emergency, and the government must act now to stave off the associated annual toll of around 50,000 premature deaths, concludes an influential panel of MPs in a report published today.

Emissions have declined significantly over many decades, but not enough to prevent the early deaths from heart, respiratory, and other diseases linked to poor air quality, says the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report.

The MPs call on the Cabinet Office to set out how it plans to ensure that all government policies take air quality into account before the summer recess.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) must publish an overarching strategy for tackling all air pollutants, produced by all sectors from transport and industry to energy and farming by the end of this year, they say.

And the government must submit an annual progress report to parliament, they demands.

Defra’s plans for new Clean Air Zones to cut nitrogen dioxide pollution give councils insufficient control over implementation, says the report, pointing out that a ‘one size fits all’ zones must not be imposed on cities from Southampton to Leeds.

Communities must be able to tailor controls to meet their own circumstances, for example to charge vehicles to access zones at certain times of day or to target specific bus routes, it suggests.

Defra proposes to allow only London and five other cities to charge polluting vehicles, but dozens of areas elsewhere in England exceed EU limits so legislation must give charging powers to councils for use by any community which supports the approach, it says.

The government must also devolve to councils greater flexibility over how they can use powers to control traffic movement and new development, and provide them with adequate funding to take the best action for their communities, it urges.

Alluding to car manufacturers that have massaged their emissions claims, the report says the government must ensure that vehicle company marketing claims are fully accurate and must work with the EU to establish tougher standards that cut vehicle emissions on the road.

Government incentives are also needed to create a low-emissions vehicle market, as well as a scheme to give those scrapping diesel vehicles over 10 years old a discount on buying an ultra-low emissions vehicle, it says.

Similarly, Defra must help farmers to adopt modern practices that cut emissions of greenhouse gases and local air pollutants, including ammonia, it says. Better use could be made of Common Agricultural Policy money to achieve air quality improvements, it suggests.

Neil Parish, who chairs the Committee, commented: “The [clean air] 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."

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