'˜Urgent' action needed on '˜illegally poor' air, warn MPs

Ministers would be 'unwise and careless' to use Brexit as an excuse to water down the UK's air quality rules, the head of Parliament's environment committee has warned, as he called on the Government to tackle the problem of air pollution 'once and for all'.

London's Millennium Dome shrouded in smog

The Efra chairman Neil Parish has promised to hold Whitehall’s “feet to the fire” over its efforts to cut pollution levels, after the country’s air quality was judged in November to be “illegally poor”.

He has demanded that ministers deliver a “comprehensive strategy” detailing the “practical” measures they will take to improve conditions in pollution hotspots like Leeds.

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And he urged ministers to uphold EU standards on air quality, even after the UK is expected to leave in around two year’s time.

The comments from the Conservative MP came during a Westminster Hall debate on the Government’s efforts to cut soaring levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gasses.

Figures released in 2015 revealed that more than 28,000 people die as a result of poor air quality each year, with an estimated 700 dying in the Leeds area alone.

The Government has lost two court cases in the last two years over its failure to meet European targets on clean air, including in November when judges ruled its current strategy was ”illegal”.

Mr Parish reminded ministers of this today, when he declared it was “inconceivable... that the Government should lose in the courts on this issue for a third time”.

“The Government have been in court twice, and twice they have lost their case,” he said.

“This is a matter of urgency for the quality of life of all people in this country, but especially for those who live in our inner cities in hotspots of air pollution.

“Poor air quality contributes to around 40,000 to 50,000 early deaths every year in the UK. This is 20 to 30 times the number of people who die on our roads in traffic accidents every year.

“In any other area of policy, the Government would be moving heaven and earth to get it sorted out as quickly as possible, and that is what we now need to do.”

The Tiverton and Honiton MP went on to point out that ministers have until July of next year to produce a new strategy that meets legal requirements.

He suggested this should include efforts to tackle pollution in agriculture, and measures to give low emission vehicles “the priority they deserve”.

Mr Parish was also asked whether he had concerns that ministers will seek to abandon legally enforceable air quality limits as a result of Brexit.

He replied that the Government “would be very unwise and careless to try to water down legislation... when people are becoming much more aware of the situation”.

However, the point was picked by Labour Shadow Environment Secretary Rachael Maskell, who said questions remain over “exactly what form of regulation we will have over our air quality in the future”.

The York Central MP proposed writing environmental measures into all future trade deals in order to drive up international standards.

“The Government have consistently lacked ambition and tried to avoid their obligations to address this serious health concern,” she added. “We say to the Government: clean up your act and clean up our air.”