Here's what we thought of Michael Gove's speech about air pollution

Zak, from our policy team, explains what we thought about Michael Gove's speech about the environment and air pollution.

I’m Zak, and I work on air quality policy at the BLF. Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to the public’s health in the UK. There is overwhelming evidence showing the devastating effect air pollution has on all our health.

By cutting air pollution, we can make a real difference

Air pollution is linked to a wide range of health problems, including lung and heart disease, stroke and cancer. More than anyone else, it can affect the most vulnerable: babies in the womb, children, people with existing lung or heart conditions and the elderly.

By cutting air pollution levels, we can make a real difference to the quality of lives of people living with a lung condition.

We watched Michael Gove's speech closely

Earlier this week, Michael Gove, the politician in charge of the government department responsible for air quality, gave a speech about the environment. He covered topics like air pollution, waste, water, and nature.

We were watching closely to see what he said. The UK government is currently writing a piece of legislation called the Environment Bill, which will outline how the government will protect the environment as we leave the European Union. This is a major opportunity to clean up our toxic air, so Gove's words earlier this week were significant.

He said there'd be a legal requirement to lower pollution levels

In his speech, Gove said the new bill is being drafted to include a commitment to keep the levels of particulate matter at the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Particulate matter is the complex mixture of solids and liquids in the air. Importantly, this commitment will be legally binding, so it’d be against the law not to fulfil the promise.

This looks like progress to us

At the moment, UK legal limits for fine particulate matter are over double what the WHO recommends. According to the WHO air pollution database, 80% of UK cities measured were on or above the WHO limit for PM2.5 in 2016. This means that millions of people in towns and cities across the UK could be breathing in levels of particulate matter that are harmful for their health. We’ve been calling for the UK government to follow the WHO’s guidelines for a while. So this looks like progress to us. But worryingly, Gove didn’t say when we’d reach this target.

We think that those WHO guidelines can be hit by 2030 through work across government departments that have responsibility for health, transport, energy and innovation. The government needs to be ambitious here. They need to tackle air pollution to improve the lives of people across the UK.

Gove also recognised that the most vulnerable suffer the most from air pollution. He said the government's air quality strategy will be updated to focus on more action for those people. We’ll be working hard to influence what the refreshed strategy includes.

This is a big step forward but we need more detail

Let us be clear. We won’t be happy until these promises are put into law.

This is a big step forward. But we also want to see requirements in law that set out how we’ll reach the target to keep air pollutants low.

That means the government must give detailed plans about the milestones needed to hit the lower levels, and more information about how the most vulnerable people will be protected.

And let us be clear. We won’t be happy until these promises are put into law.

The next prime minister must act

This could be Gove’s final speech in his current role in charge of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (or Defra for short). Britain gets a new prime minister next week, so we don't know whether they'll follow what Gove outlined in his speech.

It’s crucial that the next prime minister recognises that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with now. They need to know how vital those WHO limits are. The next Defra secretary, whether it’s Gove or someone else, needs to continue the progress on tackling air pollution. Without strong leadership and government backing, we risk this losing this once-in-a-generation chance to clean up the UK’s air.

Want to get involved in the campaign for clean air? Find out how to get involved with the Clean Air Parents' Network or sign up for email updates.

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Zak is public affairs and policy officer for our work on air pollution. His background is in policy and politics and he has worked for a number of charities on topics like food poverty and sustainable transport.

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18 July 2019