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We cannot allow another generation to grow up breathing filthy air

(Alamy)

4 min read

Thousands of people in Bath are now breathing cleaner air thanks to ambitious action to tackle air pollution and the devastating impact it can have on our health.

The invisible threat posed by air pollution is nothing short of a crisis. Air pollution is a silent killer, and people do not realise how damaging and deadly dirty air is. In a recent survey by Asthma + Lung UK, half the people questioned said air pollution triggered life-threatening asthma attacks and flare-ups of other serious lung conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The grim reality is that every year, up to 36,000 people die prematurely in the United Kingdom because of the toxic air they are breathing in.

While air pollution comes from many sources, road traffic pumps out half (50 per cent) of NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) emissions in the UK. Car travel remains king across much of the country.

The fight for clean air has been reduced to a game of political football

More than five years ago now, the government was obligated to mandate 60 local authorities to clean up their air. Not all local authorities were told to introduce Clean Air Zones (CAZ) specifically, but it was made clear these zones are the most effective way to get the most polluting vehicles, as identified by Defra, off of the roads and significantly reduce NO2 emissions, fast. In my constituency, since introducing our CAZ in 2021, annual NO2 concentrations have decreased more than 20 per cent when compared to the pre-Covid baseline of 2019. This means thousands of Bath’s residents are now breathing cleaner, healthier air.

Local authorities need more support from the government to tackle air pollution. In Asthma + Lung UK’s new analysis, Zoning In on Clean Air, only 20 per cent of local authorities have completed all the actions ordered by the government more than five years ago. The quality of the air we breathe is now a patchwork, with some cities and regions introducing ambitious clean air proposals and others lagging far behind.

If we are going to make meaningful progress to address air pollution, then we need to be supporting bold action that will make a difference, including CAZs.

Unfortunately, it seems the fight for clean air has been reduced to a game of political football. Given the seriousness of this problem, this really is a crying shame. 

One of the main challenges is the limited public awareness of the dangers dirty air can pose. If people don’t understand the extent of the problem, then they will not support the solution.

If I can give any advice to local politicians, it is to take the health impacts of air pollution seriously and communicate this seriousness to constituents. This has been a big focus of the Liberal Democrat-led council in Bath and North East Somerset. Over the years that the CAZ has been in operation, and throughout their time in control of the council, they have done an excellent job in providing information about its benefits. On the council’s website is a large section dedicated to the CAZ and its purpose. It lays out clearly the health impacts of exposure to high levels of NO2 such as the potential for it to affect children's lung development and the increased risk of heart attacks and dementia. Air pollution is a killer, we must start treating it like one. Educating people on its seriousness can only lead to a better quality of life for us all.

When compared to other cities, “the higher levels of support in Bath were attributed to greater awareness of the health benefits of cleaner air, in part thanks to messaging from the local authority”.

CAZs alone are not a silver bullet, and it is important that they are supported by investment in public transport and active travel, in scrappage schemes to help people transition to cleaner forms of transport, and that exemptions are made for people that need it. This may sound ambitious, but ambition is desperately needed in the fight for cleaner air.

The government needs to take urgent action on air pollution before we condemn a new generation to grow up breathing air so toxic and dirty it could set them up for a lifetime of poor lung health.

 

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath

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