Council leaders in Yorkshire have stated they are treating the issue of high air pollution rates in the region “very seriously”, as EU officials threaten to take the UK Government to court over repeated breaches of legal limits.
Leeds City Councillor Lucinda Yeadon said the local authority is implementing a “range of measures” designed to improve air quality in the city, and is determined to tackle the problem “head-on”.
The assurances folllow a warning by the European Commission that it is willing to launch legal action against the UK unless it takes immediate steps to drive down levels of potentially harmful emissions.
The British Government has already lost a case in the High Court over its failure to reduce pollution rates in its major cities, with London, Birmingham Manchester and Leeds among 16 areas that have particularly high levels of nitrogen dioxide gas (NO2).
According to official estimates, air pollution is responsible for around 50,000 early deaths in the UK each year and costs the country’s economy £27.5 billion.
It has been described as a “public health emergency” by members of the influential Efra select committee, while Friends of the Earth has warned that it poses a health risk to “an entire generation of children”.
Under EU regulations, the UK is obliged to take action to keep levels of pollutants, including NO2 and sulphur dioxide, below set limits. However, a number of regions and cities have seen repeated breaches of these targets, and today the Commission issued a final warning to the country to clean up its act or face being taken to the European Court of Justice.
The Government responded to the threat by stressing that it is “firmly committed” to improving the UK’s air quality and is due to publish its new strategy in the spring.
It added that it has invested £2bn since 2011 to increase the uptake of low emissions vehicles and support greener transport schemes, while announcing a further £290 million in the Autumn Statement.
But critics have expressed concern that Britain’s pending exit from the EU could see a “watering down” of air quality targets.
The Wakefield MP and chairman of Parliament’s Environmental Audit committee, Mary Creagh, is among those calling for a new Environmental Protection Act to ensure standards are maintained.
“Last year the High Court found that the Government’s plan to tackle air pollution was illegal. Now the European Commission have issued a final warning to the U.K. for failing to clean up Britain’s filthy air,” she told the Yorkshire Post.
“We won’t be able to rely on European standards to kick the UK government into action when we leave the EU... This cannot go on.”
Last week, Leeds City Council joined five other local authorities in pollution hot-spots across the UK in writing to the Prime Minister calling for “urgent” action to tackle the problem.
Leeds is among a handful of cities that have been selected to pilot new Clean Air Zones designed to discourage the use of older,heavily polluting vehicles in town centres.
Responding to the Commission statement, councillor Yeadon, who is executive member for the environment, said air quality is an issue the council is “taking very seriously”.
“We have developed a strategy which includes a range of measures being implemented in the city to improve air quality and reduce emissions,” she said.
“Together with several other major UK cities, Leeds signed a letter last week which called on the Prime Minister and the government to do much more on this issue... so we can tackle this together head-on.”