Opinion

The right to clean air

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The next government must bring back a better environment bill and protect workers’ right to clean air.


When the Queen opened parliament on 14 October, it was never likely that any of the legislative proposals she announced would make the statute book. Most were not even discussed before parliament voted for a general election. However, there was a debate on the new Environment Bill. Should the Conservatives form the next government, then a similar bill will probably be announced, and whatever the outcome of the election, returning and newly-elected MPs must look again at the issues raised in the bill.

The most important measures in the bill relate to air quality. Since the launch of our Time to Breathe campaign in March 2019, we have been working with our members and other campaigners to highlight the issue of air quality and its impact on outside workers. Air pollution affects us all, but for those who work on construction sites, next to busy roads or in areas of high ambient pollution, the health implications are severe. 36,000 deaths a year are caused by air pollution, according to the government’s own figures.

Working with King’s College London we have developed a free app, Canairy, to help outdoor workers reduce their exposure to air pollution by providing data of the pollution levels where they are working. We have established a new industry steering group and we will continue to campaign for air pollution to be recognised by the Health and Safety Executive as an occupational hazard. We have also asked all the political parties to include commitments on air quality in their manifestos. An improved version of the Environment Bill should be introduced after the election as a priority.

Poster from the Time to Breathe campaign (free materials are available to download on our campaign webpage)

In its current form, the Environment Bill includes provisions for Local Air Quality Management Frameworks and gives local authorities more powers around smoke control areas and the recall of vehicles on environmental grounds.

There are encouraging measures on setting a target for annual mean concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in ambient air, but they do not go far enough. There is no specific air pollution target and no target date in the bill. We share the frustration of the environmental law charity ClientEarth and other campaigners, that the Environment Bill does not include a legally binding target or a timeline to achieve it.

In response, we are calling for the adoption of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) target – something the government admits is possible. Current binding targets are set by the European Union’s Clean Air Directive and allow for twice as much particulate matter as the WHO.

In January 2019, the government’s Clean Air Strategy said that given the stringency of the WHO targets, it would follow the WHO’s recommended “step-by-step approach to achieve progressive reductions.” To reflect this, the government committed to “set a bold new goal to progressively cut public exposure to particulate matter pollution”. In May 2019, the government published further evidence in which it conceded “we believe that, whilst challenging, it would be technically feasible to meet the WHO guideline for PM2.5 across the UK in the future.”

The bill had its second reading on 28 October, the first opportunity for MPs to debate the measures in the bill. It was encouraging that MPs from all sides support our position on PM2.5 – including the Conservative chair of the Environment Select Committee, Labour shadow secretary of state for the environment Sue Hayman, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson Layla Moran and former local government minister Sir Bob Neill.

Time to Breathe is ambitious in its goal of ensuring workers’ right to clean air. We know that the WHO’s targets are tough, but also that they are achievable. The next government should adopt those targets and put them on the statute book. A new, better Environment Bill should come back to parliament at the earliest opportunity – and it must have clear, time-limited targets.

Charles Pitt​ is head of policy & influencing at the British Safety Council

Time to Breathe campaign here 

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