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Air pollution features as a primary focus within the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan that was published last year. Yet, government action to tackle it is both contentious and lacking – as reflected in the recent string of successful legal cases against the UK Government over illegal breaches of EU-derived air pollution limits.

Legislation focused on air quality dates back to the Town Improvement Clauses Act in 1847 that regulated the emissions from furnaces in London with the threat of a 40 shilling fine. The ‘Great Smog’, which afflicted London in 1952 and resulted in an estimated 12,000 mortalities, prompted the first Clean Air Act in 1956 that effectively established the first emission exclusion zones.

Such history raises the question of why air pollution is not only a remaining, but growing, area of policy concern. Indeed, air pollution has only but improved in the UK over the last century. But recent stories of a young girl’s death being directly attributable to air pollution in London, and subsequent research linking pollution to conditions like depression and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, shows the problem very much persists.

The problem of dirty air remains, in part, because air is a public good. It is non-excludable, as we cannot stop anyone from breathing the air around them, and it is non-rivalrous, in that the amount of air is in abundance and does not require competition to use. This creates a ‘free-rider problem’, where different actors can contribute to dirty air but escape paying for the negative externalities they generate.

The Government’s way of addressing this is through pursuing a ‘polluter pays’ principle. For instance, this is embodied in policies such as London’s forthcoming Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). And the Government is also investing in ways to better identify polluters, to make them pay a proportionate charge. The latest Clean Air Strategy that was released earlier this year proposes a £10 million investment in the predictive modelling of air pollution on top of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Daily Air Quality Index. Such information can be used to make Clean Air Zones (CAZ) charge different amounts to polluters based on the time of day.

The principle of ‘polluter pays’ can be contentious, however. Southampton has recently scrapped its plans for an emissions charging zone following a public consultation. And London’s 24,000 ‘Black Cabs’, for instance, are exempt from the new ULEZ charge that will come into effect in April this year, whereas Private Hire Vehicles (PHVs) will be charged the full £12.50 a day if their vehicles do not meet the minimum emissions standards.

The Government is also currently evaluating whether to raise the legal limits of different air pollutants post-Brexit, perhaps in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) air quality standards, which are stricter than the current EU limits the UK ascribes to.

While the ambition is welcome, stronger policies will be needed to achieve these new limits, let alone the existing ones. A sensible first step would be to enable more combined and local authorities to establish Clean Air Zones, together with allowing them to collect reasonable profits from the administration of such schemes – as argued for in our recent report – to help fund other transport policies to reduce air pollution such as local diesel scrappage schemes.

William Nicolle is a Researcher at Bright Blue.