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Public opinion now 'waking up' to air quality risks

3 min read

Former MEP and Lib Dem peer Baroness Ludford writes about how public attitude on air quality is finally changing

A period of anniversaries - from the First World War to Magna Carta to the Beatles in the US (only the last of which was in my lifetime!) - makes me reflect on changing social attitudes.  

When I was young, people smoked not only in homes, pubs and restaurants but in offices and trains, even hospitals. I celebrated an anniversary of my own last November, marking 25 years since I gave up smoking. Like most of us, I regard smoking now as anti-social.

The popular TV series Mr Selfridge reminds us that in 1918 women employees - earning in any case only half their male counterparts - were sacked to make way for returning war heroes. Sex discrimination, like racial and homophobic prejudice, has not vanished, but its grosser manifestations have become unacceptable.  

Attitudes have hardened to drunk driving and are arguably becoming less tolerant of (sober) dangerous or careless driving, including that which kills cyclists.

The law and social evolution seem to work in tandem, reinforcing each other in squeezing out harmful behaviour. Attitudes start to alter, then the law comes in to crystalise and back the change and itself helps generate more progressive views.

On air pollution, we are at a surprisingly low point on this evolutionary scale, apart from on coal-generated smog which the almost 60-year-old Clean Air Act was designed to eliminate.  There has been UK law on (invisible) air pollution for 40 years, in the form of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 - on the drafting of which, incidentally, I worked as a junior civil servant.  

The first EU law on air quality dates back almost 2 decades but as my LibDem colleague Catherine Bearder MEP urges, tougher EU-wide action is needed. The UK is massively in breach of dirty air limits it should have met by 2010 and the resultant damage to health and loss of life has not caused anything like the volume of public outrage that other social and environmental wrongs provoke.

I did campaign on the issue for all the 15 years I was an MEP up to 2014 but this was not as a result of pressure from constituents. My education came principally from the splendid Simon Birkett at the NGO Clean Air in London( @CleanAirLondon); he and his counterparts at Client Earth ( @ClientEarth) as well as some academics have done a huge amount to alert parliamentarians and the courts to the appalling breaches of air pollution limits in the UK, especially in London.

Now public opinion is finally starting to wake up. The reportlast December of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee sounded the alert about the ‘deadly public health crisis’ killing almost 30,000 Britons prematurely every year. Pressure on local, national and EU authorities to act is surely set to mount, and good thing too. Diesel vehicles in particular may come to be seen as just as anti-social as ‘tar sticks’.

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Ludford - We must end restrictive rules on family reunion for refugees