Imagine if clean air were a legal right, even if you are working in a busy city, or living under an airport flight path. Imagine being the parents of a child whose lungs are underdeveloped because of local traffic and being able to use this legal right to take the local council or the Government to court because of their failure to act. Imagine a Citizen Commission whose job it is to help people with the legal enforcement of their right to healthy air.
This legal right to clean air and a Citizen Commission to enforce it are the core proposals of the draft Clean Air Bill which I intend to put forward in the Lords. It has been drawn up by a legal expert commissioned by the Clean Air London campaign and I hope to gain support from a range of green NGOs in the coming weeks.
There are big debates coming up this year as we must replace the European environmental safeguards with tough UK laws and enforcement. I think this Bill contains some exciting proposals which could make us a world leader for environmental regulation. We have included the key policy foundations from existing European law that must become British law: protecting the rights of future generations, the precautionary principle, polluter pays and prevention is better than cure. These principles would steer policy making in Whitehall and Parliament ensuring that the polluter pays, whether that is VW, or bus manufacturers, will focus minds at the Treasury.
The Clean Air Bill gives the Environment Agency (EA) a legal responsibility and a leading role in achieving and maintaining clean air. There are a lot of concerns about the performance of the EA, its lack of independence from government and its lack of teeth. These weaknesses would have to be urgently addressed and the organisation transformed into an agency capable of telling government departments what they can and can’t do, along with a more robust enforcement of standards and regulations. If this doesn’t happen then the EA will be in court and its failings exposed.
Geraint Davis has done a wonderful job recently in drawing up his Clean Air Bill and getting support from a range of politicians. My Clean Air Bill complements the detailed policies described in his draft by providing firm legal foundations for government actions. I hope that between us we will shake a generation of DEFRA civil servants out of their complacency; push local councillors into action, and get the attention of Ministers who have never seen clean air as a priority.