Environmental Audit Committee publishes report on air quality

14 November 2011

The Government is putting thousands of lives at risk by trying to water down EU air quality rules instead of prioritising action to cut pollution on UK roads – according to Parliament's green watchdog (the Commons Environmental Audit Committee).

Dangerous levels of particulate matter (PM2.5 or PM10) and chemicals (such as NO2 ) in the air are contributing to tens of thousands of early deaths every year in UK cities. Yet an Environmental Audit Committee inquiry has found that Ministers appear to be actively trying to dilute safety standards to avoid EU fines.

Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said:

"It is a national scandal that thousands of people are still dying from air pollution in the UK in 2011 – and the government is taking no responsibility for this

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.

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.

Despite a coalition pledge to meet European safety standards on air pollution the Government appears to be lobbying behind the scenes to water these rules down."


30,000 deaths in the UK were linked to air pollution in 2008 - with 4,000 in London alone. But business plans produced by the Department for Transport and Defra do not even mention air quality – despite a commitment in the Coalition agreement to work towards full compliance with EU air quality standards.

The Government will be able to pass EU fines for air pollution breaches to local authorities, subject to new procedures in the Localism Bill, and claims that councils have the tools available to improve air quality. However, the report raises a number of concerns about the ability of councils to tackle this problem without coordination and assistance from central Government and points out that the causes of poor air quality are often beyond an individual authority's control.

Joan Walley MP added:

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

The committee is calling on the Government to establish a national framework of low emissions zones to help local authorities reduce traffic pollution. It is also urging Ministers to launch a public awareness campaign to drive air quality up the political agenda.

Caroline Lucas MP, a member of the committee, said:

"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".

Joan Walley MP concluded:

"Ministers must clear the air in our cities – not lobby the EU to dilute pollution safety standards."

Background Information 

Under European Union air quality laws the daily pollution levels of PM10 must not be above the legal limit on more than 35 days in a year. By the 21 April 2011 London had already exceeded this year’s target, according to the Campaign for Clean Air in London.

  • The UK is divided up into 43 zones for air quality monitoring. 40 out of 43 of the zones breached the annual NO2 safety limit value in 2010
  • Defra consulted on plans to meet European NO2 targets this summer. These plans have now been submitted to the European Commission as an application to extend the deadline for complying with NO2 targets until 2015.

Further Information

Image: iStockphoto

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