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New UK air pollution figures a national embarrassment

New air pollution figures released by the UK government have been branded a national embarrassment by environmental lawyers who won three cases against ministers over the country’s toxic air.

The statistics, which the government must report to the European Commission every year, reveal no progress in reducing the number of zones in the country with illegal levels of air pollution.

Brighton, Worthing and Littlehampton, an area which was declared as legal last year, crept up to just below the legal threshold again.

James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth, the environmental law organisation which took the government to court three times for its failure to deal with illegal levels of air pollution across the country, said the embarrassing statistics were indicative of the government’s failing strategy.

He said: “Each year when these statistics are released we hope for an improvement, we hope they will show fewer people’s lives are being blighted by air pollution and every year we get the same story.

“This is a national embarrassment. The government’s response – to dump the problem on local authorities who do not have the resources to deal with the issue – is not helping. We need bold, national leadership, UK-wide policies like a national network of clean air zones and a diesel scrappage scheme to help people move away from the most polluting cars and vans.”

The latest figures, from 2017, show that 37 out of 43 zones in the country still have illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide, a harmful gas that, where there are illegal levels, comes mostly from diesel vehicles.

ClientEarth is calling for new legislation post-Brexit to set strong standards for air pollution and to include a watchdog with legal powers to hold the government to account.

“Our legal cases have pushed the government from a position of denying there’s a problem to one of seeking solutions and calling the act of tackling air pollution a priority,” Thornton added, “Ministers need to prove this with their actions to help the many people across the country suffering from breathing dirty air on a daily basis.”

In 2015, five English local authorities were required by the government to produce plans for clean air zones and the Greater London Authority was required to improve its plans for the Ultra Low Emission Zone. The latest statistics show that the zones in which those local authorities sit, are still over the limit:

• Greater London is 2.3 times over.
• West Midlands Urban Area (Birmingham) is 1.5 times over.
• West Yorkshire Urban Area (Leeds) 1.4 times over.
• Nottingham 1.2 times over
• Southampton 1.5 times over
• East Midlands (Derby) 1.2 times over

Other areas which cover major cities include:

• Greater Manchester Urban Area 1.5 times over.
• Glasgow Urban Area 1.6 times over.
• Edinburgh Urban Area 1.1 times over.
• Belfast Urban Area 1.3 times over

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Matthew Feeney

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