Published: 29th May 2018
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Last week the government launched a consultation on its new draft Clean Air Strategy. The draft is breath-taking in its audacity: it points the finger of blame for the UK’s toxic air in every direction but at the government. It also waves a dismissive hand at road transport, the greatest source of dangerous air pollution in our cities and towns. In the foreword to the strategy, Michael Gove insists “industry and government have worked together to remedy many of the worst culprits by incentivising clean fuels and investing in new technology”. Try telling that to the European Court of Justice; the UK was referred there just a week before the government’s strategy was announced, for – what else – its continual failure to clean up our toxic air.
Astonishingly, Gove also claims that the “goals the government have set are even more ambitious than EU requirements”. This is patently absurd. For four decades, the real muscle when it comes to environmental protection has always been shown by the EU, and often in opposition to our own government.
Which brings us to two areas where the government has decided to target its efforts on tackling air pollution. Firstly, ammonia emissions from farming, which is likely to cause a bit of a stink among the farming community, especially since the Tories have previously resisted attempts in the EU to set tough targets on emissions from agriculture. In 2015, Gove’s department, Defra, specifically called on MEPs to vote against targets for farming emissions cuts, in defiance of its own experts’ advice, but in line with the wishes of the farming industry.
But there’s more hot air. Gove has also set his sights on solid fuel burners – another smoke screen designed to avoid taking on the motoring lobby. As I wrote in a column here some months ago, new stoves are coming on stream which eliminate almost all emissions – innovation being driven in no small part by strict emissions limits set by the EU.
The government is clearly hoping to absolve itself of responsibility and push the air pollution problem onto local authorities, without any firm legislation or funding to back up action. But rather than buck passing and a ‘not me Gove’ attitude, we need clear leadership on this serious health crisis responsible for 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and a host of serious health problems.
Above all else we need a national network of Clean Air Zones to take the most polluting vehicles out of our cities. The government’s own research shows that these are by far the most effective way to tackle air pollution. Yet the Tories have refused to make these compulsory, instead making them voluntary and a last-resort option for local authorities. Neither are they offering any cash to support local authorities who choose to introduce them.
The 15th and final defeat by the Lords of the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill was a vote on the need for an independent body to maintain EU environmental protection standards post-Brexit. Gove’s failure to push through an environment watchdog with any teeth and his weak Air Quality strategy emphasises just how critical it will be to have such a body to protect our health and environment.