Last week was a bad week for pollution

Austerity, deregulation and government law-breaking mean there is little chance of reducing the annual death toll from pollution in the near future argues Will McMahon

By: 
Will McMahon
Date: 
Monday, 13 June, 2016

It began on Monday, 6 June, with reports that Rosamund Kissi-Debrah is planning to sue the Greater London Authority following the death of her nine-year-old daughter Ella as a result of an asthma attack. Rosamund has called on the Attorney General to set up an independent inquiry into the impact of pollution on Ella’s death. The family lives near the heavily congested South Circular Road, that combined with its North Circular Road partner, is more or less a ring-road around London.  

It ended on Friday, 10 June with most newspapers reporting research findings published in The Lancet Neurology suggesting up to one-third of the 110,000 strokes in Britain may be caused by polluted air in cities and homes. 

This finding adds to a recent landmark report Every breath we take: the lifelong impact air pollution from the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) estimated 40,000 UK deaths a year are linked to air pollution.

In April, Geraint Davies MP said during Prime Minister’s Questions, 'The air in our cities is both toxic and illegal, with diesel fumes contributing to 800 deaths a week. That's 40,000 killings a year', and asked ‘why is the Prime Minister, instead of removing the most heavily polluting diesel vehicles from our streets, lobbying the EU in Brussels with the Mayor of London to weaken plans to improve our air quality and save lives?’

This has not just been a case of Conservative neglect. In January 2009, the Centre published Crime is in the air: air pollution and regulation in the UK. The author, Professor Reece Walters, reported the European Union was preparing a legal action against the UK 'for repeatedly breaching air pollution laws with more than 20 UK towns and cities found to be emitting air pollution at more than twice the levels specified in World Health Organization standards, including particles from diesel engines.'  

Half a decade later, in 2014, during a case at the European Court of Justice on European Commission, lawyers described British authorities’ failure to tackle the UK’s high nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels as 'the longest running infringement of EU law in history' when it became clear that London, Birmingham, and Leeds would not meet the limits set by the EU until 2030. 

While national government has failed to take effective preventive action over decades, local authority policy has actually been moving backward in recent years. One of the key recommendations of the RCP report was that local authorities ‘need to act to protect public health when air pollution levels are high, and when these limits are exceeded, local authorities must have the power to close or divert roads to reduce the volume of traffic, especially near schools.’

In 'Better Regulation': Better for whom?, published by the Centre in May, Professor Steve Tombs argues a combination of a long-term deregulation resulting from New Labour’s Hampton Review into ‘better regulation’ (i.e.deregulation), and the local government cuts resulting from austerity, have led to local authorities withdrawing from enforcement of pollution control. The impact of both deregulation and austerity can be seen in Merseyside where the number of local government Environmental Health Officers, with pollution control as their prime responsibility, has fallen by half, from 47 to 23 between 2010 and 2015.

Despite a wealth of the evidence to hand, the UK government has not only failed to deal with the problem, but over two decades has set an economic and regulatory framework that ensures that the serial killer in our midst, pollution, will continue to shorten the lives of tens of thousands of people. So Rosamund Kissi-Debrah cannot be the only one to have lost a loved one and wondering whether living by a major road played a significant role.