In the 1950s our air was so badly polluted that when the smog came down you couldn’t see from one side of the street to the other, and cinemas had to close because patrons couldn’t not see the screen. Fast forward 65 years, and it’s all too easy to believe that air pollution is a thing of the past - if only that was the case. Over the last few years it’s become increasingly clear that those days of toxic air are not confined to history, as time and again the Government’s plans to meet this major health challenge have been found wanting in the High Court.
In its latest attempt to keep on the right side of the Judges, Defra has instructed those Local Authorities which have high levels of air pollution to come up with a plan; hence the launch of the Greater Manchester Air Quality Action Plan. This plan sets out measures which will help to reduce air pollution, while supporting the sustainability of our city-region - something we at the Growth Company are passionate about. The plan and the judges’ position is a simple one: air pollution is a health and wellbeing issue, and any delays to solving the problem will put more people at risk and end more lives prematurely.
The main cause of air pollution in our town and cities is cars, with Diesel engines the current bete noir because of the nitrogen dioxide they produce. The thing is, air pollution isn’t about a single chemical, it’s a toxic cocktail of gases and particulates; simply reducing one component of that won’t magically make it safe. Failing to recognise this will not only be a missed opportunity but it risks setting back our progress on climate change - the existential threat to us all.
The act of breathing in toxic air is similar to passive smoking in that our health is at risk, and other than avoiding being near a road it can’t be avoided (although walking towards oncoming traffic and as far away from the kerb as you can will help). Unlike passive smoking it’s not visible, its smell is less odorous and it suffers from identify politics, in a way the debate on smoking never did. This can entrench positions, create a polar ‘Us vs. Them’ debate and ignores the urgency and seriousness of the issue. Tackling air pollution in an equitable way is a complex issue. It has complex impacts and requires complex solutions; it’s not drivers bad, pedestrians good, whatever the headiness of the day may say. The reality is, we are all victims with the young, the old and those of us in poor health feeling the impact the most.
First and foremost, this is a public health issue. It’s urgent and people’s lives are being shorted every day. While the arguments against a toxicity charge for the most polluting vehicles is understandable, can we really carry on as we are? There are primary schools in the region which can’t open their windows because the air is too toxic, our hospitals have the highest levels of emergency asthma emissions in England and 3,000 lives are prematurely shorted every year due to the air we all breath.
Creating cleaner air will benefit everyone. It will reduce congestion meaning that those of us who really have to drive will get their quicker and more efficiently, and in better health because the place with the highest level of air pollution is in your car. Or to put it another way, every time you drive you expose yourself and those in the car to the highest possible levels of air pollution.
I’ll be speaking on a panel at the Pro-Manchester Economics Conference, where I’ll be discussing air quality in Greater Manchester alongside others who are just as passionate about the issue as I am. I hope that you can join us in the room or on Twitter.