George Currie is a Conservative Council Candidate in Brent for the 2018 Local Elections, the Deputy Chairman of Clean Air for Brent, and the Deputy Chairman of the Brent Central Conservative Association.
The fight for better air quality is usually seen as an issue of the left. However, Conservatives should care about cleaning up our air as much as those in any other party. As the joint committee inquiry into improving air quality kicks off, here’s why the Government should take this issue seriously.
The Government claims that its ambition is for ours to be “the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it.” This is a noble ambition and, what’s more, it’s one with a proud Conservative heritage that is grounded on Edmund Burke’s contract for the ages. According to Burke, society is a partnership “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
To be a Conservative is to care about this inter-generational contract and the environment is central to it. And yet, it’s clear that we are not living up to Burke’s standard. The Government has twice been arraigned for failing to meet legal air quality limits and a third set of proceedings is under way. Air pollution is not only a contributing factor to climate change; it is also responsible for a host of other environmental problems, such as acid rain, animal welfare issues, and crop and forest damage. The consequences for human health are no less serious. People of all ages suffer from a diverse range of chronic conditions as a result of air pollution, including cancer, bronchitis, asthma and cardiovascular disease.
The environmental and health problems caused by poor air quality are long-term issues that affect people across the generations. By tackling poor air quality, the Government can help to restore inter-generational fairness.
Just as powerful is the potential to improve the UK’s economic performance through a dedicated focus on air quality improvement. Sir Nicholas Stern highlighted the economic costs of inaction on the issue of climate change in the middle of the last decade. But, air pollution is responsible for a range of costs that act as a drag on the UK economy right now.
For example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that the presence of particulate matter in air across the UK reduces average life expectancy by six months, which costs the UK economy in the region of £16 billion per annum. And recent research by the Royal College of Physicians found that the combined annual cost to UK businesses and health services of air pollution is £20 billion.
These costs are significant. They reduce productivity in the UK and increase government spending. A clear and consistent approach to improving air quality can deliver real economic benefits for the country, as well as the public finances.
At present, the Government lacks a comprehensive strategy for improving air quality. Developing a cohesive approach to cleaning up our air is an essential first step in redressing the economic, environmental and health problems caused by pollution. The Government has committed to delivering a new Clean Air Strategy in 2018. This strategy should identify all of the sources of air pollution and set out a road map for reducing them as quickly as possible.
The Government also needs to put the right legislative framework in place. It was a Conservative Government that passed the first Clean Air Act in 1956 and it was another Conservative administration that passed the last one in 1993. It’s time for this Conservative Government to follow the example of its illustrious predecessors. It’s time for a new Clean Air Act. This should enshrine the right to breathe clean air in law, support the development of clean technologies, and encourage the growth of world leading industries that will help to clean up our air.
As we’ve seen, though, legal air quality limits can be breached with little consequence. That’s why it’s important to ensure that the right structures are in place to support the delivery of a new clean air approach. Reducing air pollution requires the co-operation of a range of government departments and all tiers of the state – national, regional and local.
To deliver this sort of joint initiative, a new cross-ministerial group on air pollution is required that will be able to co-ordinate the diverse strands of government. It should be responsible for implementing the Government’s air quality policy and be fully accountable to Parliament. This will shine a light on all too often forgotten commitments.
With the opening of the joint committee inquiry into improving air quality, the Government has a chance to reset its approach to air pollution. This is an opportunity to steer a new course that works for the economy, the environment, and every single person in this country. In other words, it is an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate that, in the finest traditions of Conservatism, it really does want to create a country that works for everyone.