The delayed introduction of measures to tackle the UK’s air pollution crisis will exacerbate the glaring health inequalities and entrench the north-south divide, according to a report.
Several local authorities in the north have scrapped or deferred plans to introduce clean air zones, regarded as the best way to tackle toxic air, while cities in other parts of the UK are pressing ahead with the schemes to limit dirty vehicles.
A report published on Wednesday from the Green Alliance thinktank finds that failing to address dangerous levels of air pollution will worsen public health and damage regional economies. Experts have also warned that rising air pollution exacerbates the risk from Covid-19.
“There’s a strong economic case for clean air zones and the north is once again set to lose out,” said Philippa Borrowman from Green Alliance. “Over the next couple of years, as the UK economy recovers from the pandemic, clean air could become yet another factor that divides the country and leads to different life chances.”
Ministers directed 37 local authorities to develop plans for clean air zones, but Wednesday’s report says that while schemes are going ahead in Bristol, Birmingham and London, many northern cities are lagging behind.
Leeds cancelled its planned zone during the pandemic and the report says several other cities including Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester are yet to finalise their schemes.
Borrowman said: “Local authorities must now take action to reduce dangerous air pollution, by consulting with communities and businesses to ensure policies are implemented fairly and effectively.”
The study found that by tackling clean air, cities would benefit from a healthier environment, saving thousands of lives and reducing long-term illness for millions of people. This would have a huge knock-on economic benefit, from reduced hospital admissions and GP visits to more active lifestyles and fewer sick days.
The report highlights findings that show Greater Manchester’s economy would have been boosted by £25m this year if it had committed to its initial plans, while Birmingham expects to gain around £50m.
However, local authorities in the north insist they are still committed to improving air pollution in their regions.
Councillor Andrew Western, from the Greater Manchester authority, said the region had an “unwavering commitment to tackling poor air quality”.
“Following a slight delay last year due to the pandemic, the final clean air plan will be put to decision-makers in the 10 Greater Manchester local authorities this summer. We then expect to introduce a clean air zone from spring 2022.”
A spokesman for Leeds city council said it had already seen big improvements in air quality and questioned whether a clean air zone would make a marked difference.
He added: “Having already reduced air pollution to meet national standards, we’ve since adopted stricter air quality targets aligned with World Health Organization guidelines. An updated air quality strategy with a plan for achieving these ambitious targets will be shared later in the spring.”
Ruth Gelletlie, a clean air campaigner from Leeds, said she welcomed the work the council was doing to tackle air pollution in the city, but urged it to go further.
“As a retired public health doctor I know there are few bigger public health threats than air pollution so we really need the council to be bold.”
Gelletlie, a member of the Leeds Living Streets group, said the city had historically been dominated by cars, with dire consequences for public health.
“Air pollution affects everyone from the moment of conception right through their life, there are no safe limits,” she said. There was widespread support for the council’s draft transport strategy with its vision of a city “where you don’t need a car”, she said, but added: “The vision is great but we’re going to need bold political leadership to translate this into action.”
The report says that alongside clean air zones local authorities need to implement scrappage schemes, cheaper or free public transport and better walking and cycling facilities.
Sarah Woolnough, the chief executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said it was crucial northern cities caught up with those in the south.
“Ambitious action on toxic air will reap major health benefits and help reduce the staggering levels of health inequality between the north and south,” she said. “Evidence shows that introducing clean air zones which include restrictions on private vehicles is the quickest and most effective way to clean up the air.”