The UK’s Air Pollution Crisis Hits The Poor Hardest – And Brexit Will Make Things Worse

Geraint Davies

In today’s Britain, breathing clean air is a luxury reserved for the rich. Air pollution is one of the greatest threats to national public health, killing some 40,000 people prematurely each year.[1] But it is also a social justice issue: the UK’s poorest, who tend to live in inner-city areas, are disproportionately hit by our addiction to dirty diesel. Many of these are children who will develop asthma, other respiratory diseases, heart conditions and impaired brain function.  

Today, on National Clean Air Day, the Government remains in the dock of the European Court of Justice because the UK has repeatedly breached the EU’s air quality guidelines. After Brexit, the Government will no longer be accountable to the ECJ and will therefore have even more of an excuse to ignore one of the nation’s largest invisible killers.

Air pollution does not just affect those living in London: I represent constituents in Swansea, one of six Welsh cities where air pollution levels exceed World Health Organisation limits. Lack of central government investment in public transport means that car reliance is high in cities like Swansea, and with financial incentives for diesel cars, many households have unknowingly chosen polluting vehicles.

Our addiction to dirty diesel, alongside lack of regulation and investment in sustainable transport from the government, hits the poorest hardest. A recent study by Imperial College London has found big differences in air pollution across communities in England, with deprived and ethnic minority areas the worst affected. The Government shows few signs of sympathy to these disadvantaged groups. Instead, they have repeatedly chosen to listen to the influential car lobby, which makes so much money from churning out dangerous fumes. This is unlikely to change after Brexit: while the EU and the US have held companies like Volkswagen to account, cash-strapped Britain will be trying to attract big car firms to the UK.

Air pollution’s success is in its invisibility: if we could see it, we would have dealt with it. There would be a public outcry if our children were contracting diseases from dirty water in our taps. Exactly the same thing is happening with air quality, and although the public are beginning to realise this, we are yet to see any concrete Government action.

Air quality adds to the list of the ways in which the poor will be punished by Brexit.  The current court case demonstrates this: after Brexit, there will be no authority with the same sovereign powers as the European Court of Justice to force the Government to meet air quality standards. Since air pollution is a cross-border issue, it requires an international response. Instead, Brexit is likely to trigger a race to the bottom in standards.

Many of us also have doubts about Michael Gove’s proposal for a green watchdog, which is supposed to replicate the enforcement powers currently enjoyed the EU. Last week the Government opposed and defeated a Lords amendment which would have guaranteed the same protections and standards in UK law after Brexit.

Why would they do this? The best explanation is that Gove’s promise of a ‘green Brexit’ is just empty words. The priority for the Government is rapid trade deals which mean curtailing environmental standards to boost trade. This is not only bad for our natural environment and air, but does not make sense economically: air quality costs £20 billion a year to the UK economy, much of this due to extra burden on the NHS. Yet the Tories are choosing short term gains in trade over healthier children and fewer premature deaths. 

Brexit, and the impact of air quality on the country’s poorest, show that we need a new Clean Air Act more than ever. The 1956 Clean Air Act was designed for a different era where industrial smog was the major threat. Particulates and nitrogen oxides from car fumes are the greatest threat today and we need to bring our legislation into the twenty-first century by at least matching the EU’s targets of phasing out diesel engines by 2030 and meeting WHO standards.

This National Clean Air Day is a good moment for us to collectively say that enough is enough. It is not good enough that we are spending £20billion a year on health care for diseases caused by toxic air. It is not good enough that there are 40,000 premature deaths every year. And it is not good enough that it is the most vulnerable who are hit hardest. Brexit must not be allowed to make things worse and so the government must take action now.