Bad air days: MPs demand action on air pollution

By Tony Hudson

The government should take drastic action to improve Britain's air quality in order to reduce the numbers of pollution-related deaths, MPs have said.

The Commons' environmental audit committee (EAC), publishing a report on the issue today, said the number of health problems and deaths is a "national scandal".

MPs accused ministers of focusing too much of their attention on lobbying EU officials to dilute safety standards in order to dodge fines, rather than tackling the problem.

"It is often the poorest people in our cities who live near the busiest roads and breath in diesel fumes, dangerous chemicals and bits of tyre every day", committee chair Joan Walley said.

"If you have heart disease, asthma or other respiratory illnesses then living near a congested road like this can literally take years off your life."

The UK's current record on air pollution under EU law is not good.

Of the 43 air quality monitoring zones that make up the UK, 40 of them have already breached the safety limit for nitrogen dioxide.

According to the Campaign for Clean Air London had already registered 35 days of dangerous pollution levels by mid-April, exceeding its calendar-year limit.

MPs were dismayed that business plans produced by the Department of Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) do not mention air quality despite the fact that in 2008 there were 30,000 deaths in the UK linked to air pollution.

Green party leader Caroline Lucas, a member of the committee, commented: "Ministers must take urgent action to improve air quality across the UK – and step up efforts towards a greener transport policy to encourage people out of their cars and onto public transport".

These sentiments were echoed by Friends of the Earth London campaigner Jenny Bates, who said more funding was needed for better public transport and schemes to boost walking and cycling.

These "would make everyone healthier and tackle the threat of dangerous climate change", she added.

The government will be able to pass EU fines for air pollution breaches on to local authorities.

The committee's report expressed serious doubts in the ability of councils to make measurable improvements to air quality without help from central government.

The committee is pushing for the establishment of a national framework of low emissions zones in order to assist local authorities in reducing traffic pollution.

Ms Walley added: "The government should help local authorities remove the most polluting vehicles from our streets by introducing a national framework for low-emissions zones."