Executive Leader Cllr Kieran Quinn

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Councillor Kieran Quinn, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

Time To Clean Up Our Air

Friday, 16 June 2017

At the start of the year I described the 1985 Transport Act, which deregulated bus services everywhere in the country outside of London, as one of the worst pieces of legislation that you’ve never heard of. As we mark the first ever National Clear Air Day this week I want to look at the other end of the spectrum and talk about what I think is one of the best pieces of legislation ever passed in Britain, the 1956 Clean Air Act.

Look back on any picture of a major British city, be it Manchester, London, Glasgow or anywhere in between, from a century ago and the first thing you’ll notice are the chimneys and the ever-present grey smog. In London in 1952, four years before the passing of the Act, the so-called “Great Smog” is estimated to have killed over 4,000 people and caused trains, cars and public life to screech to a halt. That we do not face those kinds of health horrors today is largely down to the passage of the Clean Air Act. Among measures like relocating power stations away from urban areas and increasing the height of chimneys, it created “smoke control areas” in cities and towns within which only smokeless fuels could be used, encouraging houses to use cleaner electricity or gas for their power and heating.   

60 years later we may not be choking in pea-soup smog, but the challenge of protecting the cleanliness of the air we all breathe remains as urgent as ever. Instead of factories and fireplaces, the great polluter in the 21st century is the explosion of cars and trucks on our roads. In Greater Manchester the levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant caused by road traffic, has been in violation of EU regulations every year since 2011. What’s worse is that modern air pollution is a silent killer. Very few people die from dirty air itself. They die from the respiratory problems, cancers and other health problems brought about or exacerbated by dirty air. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that up to 40,000 deaths in the UK a year can be blamed on or hastened by air pollution levels.

With a death count that high, you’d think the government would be falling over themselves to take action. You’d be disappointed. Since 2015 they’ve been taken to court repeatedly over their failure to produce a strong enough policy for tackling air pollution. After the latest court case, the government first attempted to use the General Election as an excuse to delay its release and then, when that failed, released a plan so lacking in concrete detail and action that they’re probably going to end up back in front of a judge anyway. Once again, it looks like local government will have to step up to do what they can in the face of apathy and feet-dragging from Westminster.

The good news is that this is one area where devolution could make a real difference, especially by encouraging people in Greater Manchester to cycle or take public transport instead of driving around the region. Tameside’s network of cycle lanes is both extensive and growing, and I’ll keep banging the drum on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority for both a “Metrolink Circular Line” linking up the towns and boroughs orbiting Manchester, and the strongest possible deal for bus franchising and regulation.

If we really want to show the people of Greater Manchester what the new powers they’ve received mean for them, cleaning up our air and revolutionising our transport infrastructure into the bargain seems like a pretty good place to start. We might not be able to get a Clean Air Act for the 21st century, but we can still work together in Greater Manchester to make a reality the improvements that we all want to see.   

Posted by: Executive Leader

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