Comment and analysis by Leicester Green Party, and its fellow-travellers
It’s been said several times recently that before we joined the EU, the UK was known as ‘the dirty man of Europe’ because our beaches were strewn with sewage – it was only EU legislation that forced our government to stop pumping raw sewage into the sea. Our attitude to air pollution wasn’t much better. A UK government had introduced the Clean Air Act to create ‘Smoke Control Areas’ and set standards for chimney heights in 1956 but we had no legislation to tackle the air pollution caused by motor vehicles until a European directive came into force in 1971. Our air pollution legislation still comes from the EU: the 2008 Air Quality Framework Directive provides a statutory framework for controlling the levels of various pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. If we leave the EU, our government could decide to no longer work to these standards, or indeed to abolish pollution limits completely.
Needless to say, we’re not actually meeting the EU targets. Two bodies of doctors recently announced that they think air pollution causes 40,000 premature deaths per year in the UK. Air quality plans for 16 regions and cities (including Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow) are not expected to meet legal limits for pollutants until 2025 and in London it will be after 2030. However, the fact that this legislation is in place does give the government a duty to try and reduce the pollution and it made it possible for Client Earth, a group of environmental lawyers, to take the government to court over the illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide in 2011. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the government was breaking the law through inaction and must produce a new plan to meet the EU limits ‘as soon as possible’. As a campaigner with Healthy Air Leicester and Leicestershire, this was fantastically useful because it backed us up when we were calling for more action to reduce air pollution in Leicester and I think the City Council’s new Air Quality Action Plan, which was adopted after the Supreme Court verdict, was stronger as a result.
Our government has still done its best to avoid or undermine the EU legislation. In 2014, Defra issued a consultation suggesting that, as it was proving very difficult to meet air pollution limits, it would be better to reduce the monitoring requirements for local authorities. Presumably they were hoping that if we knew less about the problem, we’d all forget that it existed. Luckily, the overwhelming response was that we should continue monitoring. Then in September 2015, when Volkswagen were found to have been cheating on their emissions tests, our government lobbied the EU to weaken car emissions targets. This offers a clear indication of how much priority a UK government that wasn’t part of the EU would give to reducing the number of premature deaths from air pollution.
But in the end, the air pollution argument for remaining in the EU comes down to something more fundamental than particular pieces of legislation or the need to protect ourselves from our own irresponsible government. We breathe the same air as people in France and Germany and Poland: if they pollute it, we suffer the consequences and when we fill it with nitrogen dioxide, they get asthma. We have to work together to clean up our air and that is much easier in the EU than it would be outside it.