MPs have called for a change in planning rules to stop schools, hospitals and care homes from being built close to air pollution hotspots in a report published today (December 8) by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).
The EAC report – its third on air quality within five years – follows an inquiry launched by the Committee earlier this year into air quality in the UK and makes a number of recommendations to reduce both emissions and exposure to emissions as well as boosting public awareness of the issue.
As well as modifying transport infrastructure and building planning rules to include air quality obligations, the EAC is urging Defra to update its 2007 Air Quality Strategy to include a ‘clear demarcation of responsibilities between departments and between central and local government’.
Defra said it would “respond to the report fully in due course” but emphasised that it had increased spending in air quality measures in recent decades.
The Department has also previously said it will publish revised Air Quality Action Plans by December 2015, which will set out actions at local and national level to improve air quality.
The EAC is also calling for ‘legal loopholes’ to be closed in order to end the practice of removing emissions filter systems from vehicles and for Defra to introduce a national framework for low emission zones (LEZs) to assist local authorities.
Germany is cited in the report as a positive example for its national framework of more than 70 LEZs, while the UK currently has only three.
In addition, the report outlines the need for Defra to engage with local authorities to establish best practice in tackling air pollution, as well as at applying pressure at European level to ensure effective EU legislation and emission standards are backed up by a ‘robust testing regime’.
Elsewhere, the EAC suggests ‘fiscal and other measures’ – such as a scrappage scheme – to gradually encourage a move away from diesel vehicles towards low emission options and to institute a national public awareness campaign to increase understanding of health impacts of air pollution.
A number of air quality experts, policy makers, scientists and campaigners provided both oral and written evidence during the EAC air quality inquiry since it was launched in May 2014, including the London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Chair of the EAC, Joan Walley MP, said: “It is unacceptable that another generation of young people growing up in our towns and cities could have their health seriously impaired by illegal air pollution before the government brings this public health crisis under control. Children growing up near busy roads with high NO2 and particle emissions have stunted and impaired lung development. There is also emerging evidence that air pollution can increase infant mortality rates, prompt pre-term births and affect cognitive performance.
“Well over a thousand schools around the country are 150 metres away from major roads. Protecting children and vulnerable people in the worst affected areas must be made a priority by government and local authorities. Ministers must pluck up the political courage to take the potentially unpopular decisions necessary to get the most polluting vehicles off the road and encourage more people to walk, cycle or take public transport.”
Commenting on EAC’s report, a spokesperson for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “Clean air is vital for people’s health and while air quality has improved significantly in recent decades we are investing heavily in measures across government to continue this, committing £2 billion since 2011 in green transport initiatives.
“We continue to support local authorities in identifying the best solutions for their area and sharing best practice. Government further supports these efforts through our Air Quality Grant Scheme. We will be responding to the report fully in due course.”