Jayne Dowle: Political bottle needed in the fight to clean up our environment

A NEW joint report helmed by not one, but four influential committees of MPs makes no less than 10 recommendations on the environment.

What can be done to protect the environment?
What can be done to protect the environment?

The report has plenty to say, in particular on the subject of air pollution, which fills our urban areas with smog and is estimated to cost the UK economy £20bn a year.

However, it’s not just the detail laid out by scrutineers of environment, health and transport policy that the Government should be taking notice of.

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It’s the underlying philosophy of its recommendation to “place the protection of public health and the environment, rather than technical compliance or political convenience, at the centre of air quality policy”.

We know that air pollution has become nothing less than a national health emergency for people who live and work in urban areas, or close to heavy traffic routes. It also affects those of us who drive many miles each year, stuck in traffic choking on exhaust fumes.

It is believed to cause up to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year and contributes to the rise in asthma and other bronchial illnesses.

But, again, don’t miss the fundamental point. This report recommends putting people, public health and the environment first, rather than promoting legislation which simply ticks a bureaucratic box or scores political points.

It also looks forward to a brave new post-Brexit world. As Wakefield MP Mary Creagh, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, says: “Government must ensure that after Brexit our air quality standards are as good as or better than the level we enjoy as a result of our membership of the EU.”

If this is what leading MPs are saying, then this Government should re-address its attitude to the environment – root and branch. To be fair, placing Michael Gove in charge of Defra was a bold and decisive move; yet, as he is rapidly finding out, the natural world is a very big place.

There is only so far a Secretary of State can reach. In our own region, his admonishments to Sheffield City Council to call a halt to its “bonkers” tree-felling policy have so far borne little fruit.

And, indeed, there is only so far a Chancellor can reach. In his Spring Statement last week, Philip Hammond announced that he was to launch a consultation into single-use plastics, including chewing gum, which take years to decompose. The Treasury is already considering imposing a tax on cutlery, bottles and cups – the so-called “latte levy”.

It should hurry up and make the right decision. There is no time to waste. Around 12 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year, posing a huge threat to wildlife. You only have to watch Sir David Attenborough’s recent BBC documentary series Blue Planet II to see its destructive effects.

And just across the Pennines in Greater Manchester, researchers have found what is believed to be the world’s most polluted river with micro-plastics. This includes fibres from manmade materials such as polyester and microbeads – banned in January – from toothpastes, shampoos and shower gels.

The River Tame at Denton was found to have the highest levels of micro-plastics recorded anywhere in the world, at 517,000 particles per square metre. The level was far higher than famously despoiled areas such as the Incheon-Gyeonggi beaches in South Korea or the Pearl river estuary in Hong Kong.

It’s clear that something must be done. And we are the key to turning around our shameful reputation as human wrecking balls. Professor Jamie Woodward, who led the research for the University of Manchester, says that wherever you find people you find plastic.

He points out that micro-plastics find their way into rivers from a combination of industrial effluent and domestic waste water, and are even found in apparently clear mountain streams. I didn’t hear much about this in Mr Hammond’s Spring Statement, but if he is seriously committed to making our environment a better place to live, then he needs to join the dots.

That’s why I am heartened by this commitment to putting people and public health at the heart of environmental change. Rather than paying lip service to what should be done to stay on the right side of the law, the Government should make it its business to encourage families to reduce their own carbon footprint.

They might be surprised at the enthusiasm such ideas would be met with. Just look at the effect of the plastic bags tax, which Defra says has led to an 85 per cent decrease in the number of single-use bags being issued at supermarkets and shops since it was introduced in October 2016.

At the same time, ministers must work hand in hand with local councils – instead of at loggerheads – to implement sensible environmental policies. As well as saving precious trees in Sheffield, this should push anti-litter initiatives and support any measure which addresses the growing nuisance of fly-tipping. Together, we can make a difference, but we need a game plan. And only the Government can give us that.