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Michael Gove unveils government’s new Clean Air Strategy

Environment secretary Michael Gove publishes the government’s Clean Air Strategy today, which aims to cut air pollution and save lives, backed up through new primary legislation.

Air pollution is the fourth biggest threat to public health after cancer, obesity and heart disease and the government claims that the new strategy sets out how the UK plans to go further and faster than the EU in reducing human exposure to particulate matter pollution. The proposals to be launched by Michael Gove today are in addition to the government’s £3.5 billion plan to reduce air pollution from road transport and diesel vehicles, set out in July last year.

The government estimates that the strategy will reduce the costs of air pollution to society by an estimated £1bn every year by 2020, rising to £2.5bn every year from 2030. The new strategy, which is now out for consultation, is a key part of the government’s 25-year plan to improve the environment. Key areas outlined in the plan are as follows: 

  • By 2025, the UK will halve the number of people living in locations where concentrations of particulate matter are above the WHO guideline limit of 10 ug/m3.
  • New primarly legislation will be introduced, which will give local government new powers to improve air quality.
  • The government will legislate to ensure only the cleanest domestic fuels will be available for sale, preventing 8,000 tonnes of harmful particulate matter from entering the atmosphere each year.
  • For the first time the government will take concerted action to tackle ammonia from farming - which is responsible for 88% of ammonia emissions - by requiring farmers to invest in the infrastructure and equipment that will reduce emissions. Farmers will be supported to achieve this through a new system of public money for public goods.
  • The UK will work with international partners to research and develop new standards for tyres and brakes to to address toxic non-exhaust emissions of micro plastics from vehicles which can pollute air and water.
  • A personal air quality messaging system will be set up to inform the public, particularly those who are vulnerable to air pollution, about the air quality forecast, providing clearer information on air pollution episodes and accessible health advice.
  • The government will put new investment into scientific research and innovation strengthening the UK’s position as a world leader in clean technology and secure further emissions reductions.

Commenting on the new strategy, environment secretary Michael Gove said: “Air quality has improved significantly since 2010 but sixty years on from the historic Clean Air Act a clear truth remains - air pollution is making people ill, shortening lives and damaging our economy and environment.

“This is why today we are launching this clean air strategy, backed up with new primary legislation. It sets out the comprehensive action required across all parts of government to improve air quality. The strategy also sets out how we will work with media outlets to improve public access to the air quality forecast and help individuals and organisations reduce their contribution to air pollution; showing how this can help them protect their families, colleagues and neighbours.”

Of particular concern, said Gove, is burning wood and coal to heat a home which contributes 38% of UK emissions of damaging particulate matter. “Cleaner fuels and stoves produce less smoke, less soot and more heat. In future only the cleanest domestic fuels will be available for sale,” he said.

Responding to the launch of the strategy, Matthew Farrow, executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), said: “The draft strategy is right to focus on protecting public health and the target of halving the number of people exposed to PM levels above WHO guidelines is an important step in the right direction, though this must be supplemented by a ‘continuous improvement’ approach as used in Canada, given that there is no known safe limit for particulates.”

Farrow said that the EIC also welcomed the desire to support the creation of a world-leading air pollution control technology sector. “The UK has many existing strengths in this field and we look forward to working with the government to develop this,” he said. The EIC also welcomed the proposals to move beyond minimum standards for industrial emissions and the intention to bring in new enforcement powers to tackle air pollution.

New enforcement powers however will need proper resourcing if they are to be effective and the new strategy has been criticised for placing much of the responsibility for policing it onto hard-pressed and under-resourced local authorities. 

Sue Hayman, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said: “It’s hugely disappointing that despite being dragged through the courts time and again on its inadequate air quality plans, the government is dragging its feet by announcing yet another consultation. Michael Gove has become the secretary of state for consultations - with over 25 consultations published by his department since the general election and not a single piece of primary legislation brought forward.

“Demanding more from local authorities without any clarity on extra funding or resources simply shunts the problem onto cash-strapped councils that are already woefully underfunded. Labour has been calling for a new Clean Air Act for some time so it is unclear why the government has waited this long to begin talk of better legislation to protect the public.”