UK government wants to improve air quality

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 31 August 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:511

The British government aims to eradicate threats to human health from air pollution by the year 2005 by a new system of local air quality management, new vehicle and fuel standards, and a crackdown on vehicle and industrial emissions.

In its consultation document The United Kingdom National Air Quality Strategy, which is largely a restatement of existing policies and legislation, the government has set standards for the main air pollutants—nitrogen dioxide, particles, ozone, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, benzene, and 1,3—butadiene.

For some of the pollutants, such as carbon monoxide and lead, current government policies will achieve the reduction in levels with the planned use of catalytic converters and lead free petrol. For others, such as nitrogen dioxide, particles, ozone, and sulphur dioxide, current policies are, in the government's words, “unlikely to be enough to meet the targets.”

The strategy recognises that traffic is the main cause of the problem and that there must be changes in planning and transport policies to reduce reliance on cars. It does not specify what these changes would be. The environment secretary, John Gummer, called for people to be less reliant on cars. “I want to create a society in which the freedom given by the car does not result in damage to the environment,” he said.

Local authorities will have to produce an air quality strategy entailing measuring pollution levels and developing schemes to bring them below target. They will be given new powers, including the ability to stop and fine drivers of vehicles found to be violating standards. Currently, 20% of vehicles produce 80% of pollution. Five councils will launch a pilot scheme to stop vehicles this year. The power that police have to stop vehicles may be extended to other people, possibly traffic wardens or a specialist environmental force. Drivers could be charged for driving during the rush hour, taxed for parking on the street, and required to hold a licence to enter certain parts of the city.

Authorities will, however, get no extra funds or control over motorways, where much of the pollution is produced. And the government has admitted that the costs of the improvements are likely to fall not just on industry but on motorists and consumers generally. It will cost about £280 ($270) more to produce a family sized car which conforms to the new environmental standards and £1130 more to produce a heavy goods vehicle. The total cost to the motor industry will be about £2.75bn.

The Labour party's environmental protection spokesman, Michael Meacher, commented: “Even the modest air quality targets set out cannot be met without a major shift in policy towards clean, green public transport.”

The National Society for Clean Air said that the strategy would fail without increased taxation of vehicles which caused more than average pollution and tax breaks for cleaner ones.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has urged the government to reconsider the society's proposal for a car scrapping scheme to withdraw cars which were 10 years old and unable to meet environmental standards.—LINDA BEECHAM, BMJ


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