Poor air quality is one of Britain’s biggest health issues

EU fines for pollution should be welcomed if they force the government to act.

Your report on Britain being given a second and final warning by the European commission to clean up the capital’s air (Clean up! Europe warns Britain, 4 June) quoted a spokesman for the mayor of London saying that his air quality strategy will help to “address the concerns that triggered this legal action”. I am far from convinced.

European Union warnings about fines for air pollution might seem like the last thing we need, but this was a necessary decision. Emission level laws have been in force since 2005. The previous government failed to act, and the mayor, Boris Johnson, is simply not showing the urgency required.

Much attention is rightly given to reducing the 3,000 deaths on our roads, including talk of tough new alcohol limits. Yet because air pollution is largely invisible, both Whitehall and the mayor have been able to dither and delay.

Since the European commission started legal proceedings against the UK some 18 months ago the number of new practical measures to tackle air pollution has been pitiful. In the meantime many children in London have faced stunted development of their lungs, and 690,000 Londoners continue to suffer from asthma.

There was no clearer demonstration of the complacency in tackling air pollution than that of Johnson’s spokesman, who dismissed the EU’s legal threat because “the mayor has published an air quality strategy and the government has resubmitted additional information to the commission”.

However, for the mayor’s strategy to address the EU’s concerns would depend on desperate measures, including hosing down roads and making unannounced road closures in central London on bad days.

Instead of these ragbag measures, the mayor must consider bolder and more effective proposals. My plan for a clean air zone in central London – modelled on Berlin, where only vehicles which comply with emissions standards can be driven – would take the oldest and most polluting diesel engines off our streets and offer help for both retro-fitting filters and scrappage. It would put to good use the existing camera technology in the western extension area that Johnson wants to dismantle.

The threat of EU fines is not the main issue. Yet if they persuade Whitehall and the mayor into taking real action we might one day look back and be grateful that it was these fines, or the threat of them, that finally tackled the killer of air pollution.

This article first appeared in The Guardian

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