Country wide low emission zones needed to save lives says air quality report

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has taken up the call for a national framework for low emission zones being championed by the Environmental Industries Commission.

In a report out today the committee says a National Framework of Low Emission Zones (LEZ) needs to be urgently set-up to enable LEZs, like the one in London, to be rolled out across the country to reduce inner city pollution.

And it says new schools, hospitals and care homes must not be built next to air pollution hotspots to help reduce the tens of thousands of deaths currently being caused by nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate pollution (PM 2.5 & PM 10) every year in cities. Existing schools next to busy roads should also be fitted with air filtration systems it 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."

EIC supported the national framework for LEZs in written and oral evicence to the committee’s enquiry.

“Its good to see the Committee get the bit between its teeth on this vital issue and really hold the Government to account,” said EIC executive director Matthew Farrow. " Many of our priorities are reflected in the report, such as creating a national framework of Low Emission Zones and proper enforcement of vehicle retrofit regulations.  I also strongly support the Committee’s recommendation that schools and hospitals should not be sited near pollution hotspots, indeed I would like to see real time air pollution displays outside such buildings,”  he added.

The UK is facing legal action from Europe over its failure to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels by 1 January 2010. Air pollution regularly exceeds the limits of the European Ambient Air Quality Directive in 16 zones across the UK and the main cause is road traffic with the biggest polluter being diesel engine exhaust fumes.

Speaking at EIC’s annual conference last week Labour shadow environment minister Barry Gardiner said: ““Air pollution is an issue of inequality and of poverty. It’s a disgrace. A National Framework of low emission zones must devolve power not just responsibility to Local Authorities.”

His Conservative opposite number  environment minister Lord de Mauley said: the Governemnt “was committed to changes to local air quality management…with better targeting and simpler reporting.” Guidance documents would be published shortly he said.

 Diesel engines are another focus for the EAC report and it suggests introducing taxes to encourage a switch from diesel and a scrappage scheme for diesel vehicles. The recommendations are:

       Include legal air quality obligations in new infrastructure and road building plans;

       Close legal loopholes that allow mechanics firms to remove engine filter from HGVs; 

       Examine fiscal measures to gradually encourage a move away from diesel vehicles;

       Consider introducing a diesel scrappage scheme to help drivers switch to cleaner vehicles;

       Launch an independent public inquiry to look at the required action on air pollution;

       Apply pressure at European level to ensure effective EU legislation and 5 emission standards backed up by a robust testing regime.

LEZs are one of the most powerful tools that local authorities have for controlling vehicle emissions, according to the report, but few have introduced them. London has operated a low emission zone since 2008 and plans to introduce a limited Ultra Low Emission Zone in 2020, but elsewhere in the UK few have been set up. Those that have been (in Norwich, for example) are limited in scope. In contrast, Germany has a national framework of over 70 LEZs.

EAC committee chair Joan Walley 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.”

 “New figures suggest air pollution from heavy traffic could be killing almost the same amount of people as smoking in the UK, yet the Government seems unwilling to put saving lives before economic growth.”

“Low emission zones in cities could save lives, but diesel drivers who face extra charges deserve to be compensated so they can switch to less polluting vehicles. A national framework for low emission zones could save councils from having to reinvent the wheel each time by providing a template with common core features, such as a national certification scheme for vehicle emissions.”

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