Last week's decision to expand Heathrow pushed air pollution to the top of the political agenda. Counter-intuitively, poor air quality around Heathrow is mostly caused by traffic accessing the airport, not the actual aircraft. That's why the Government has said that Heathrow vehicles will be covered by an ultra-low emission zone by 2025 and more passengers using the airport will be encouraged to travel there on public transport.
But the problem reaches far beyond Heathrow. Figures obtained by Neil Parish MP, Chair of the House of Commons Environment Committee, found that four in ten local authorities in the UK breached legal limits of nitrogen dioxide last year. Air pollution is a national public health issue, affecting urban residents up and down the country.
This invisible pollution is responsible for around forty thousand premature deaths each year in the UK. It can damage the heart and lungs, as well impair the physical and mental development of children. For this reason, the medical profession is increasingly concerned, with recent interventions made by the Royal College of Physicians and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.
There is a social justice dimension to the problem, too. The worst air pollution is concentrated near major roads. As the most vulnerable people in society tend to live near these busy routes, they suffer from this problem disproportionately. Cleaning up the air in deprived inner cities would boost the life chances of people in these communities.
The Government is currently being prosecuted over its failure to bring the UK into compliance with the legal air pollution limits. The court's verdict is due soon. If Ministers are told by judges to strengthen their air quality plan, what conservative approach to reducing pollution should they take?
They should start by looking at the Conservative Government of 60 years ago. In 1956, Conservative Ministers passed the first Clean Air Act. It created 'smokeless zones' in cities, banning fuels that produced harmful black smoke. A similar approach is required today. As over 95% of the toxic fumes in pollution hotspots come from road transport, policies must focus on cleaning up the vehicle fleet in cities.
The Government has made a good start with its Clean Air Zone framework. Vehicles that do not meet the emissions criteria will be charged to enter the zone. So the most polluting vehicles will be prevented from entering city centres, and drivers will be nudged to switch to low emission alternatives.
But the scheme is not ambitious enough. First, evidence shows zones need to cover all forms of transport to be effective at cutting pollution levels, and government plans currently exclude private cars. For the worst affected areas, private cars must form part of the framework.
Second, Clean Air Zones will only be introduced in five cities. Yet there are many other towns and cities affected. Councils have legal powers to introduce voluntary Clean Air Zones. But in reality they have little incentive from central government to use them.
There are significant costs for councils wanting to set up a Clean Air Zone. They are being invited to bid for funding from a £3 million pot to cover these costs, but this is not sufficient. Eventually these schemes can be financially self-sustaining through the levies they charge. But councils require initial support from government to get them off the ground.
Bright Blue has joined with Neil Parish MP and a range of organisations in calling for all English cities to be enabled to introduce a Clean Air Zone. There is not enough time to wait for older vehicles to be gradually replaced when the public health need is so acute. But a long-term approach, that encourages a transition away from diesel towards alternatives, should complement this.
Electric vehicles have very low emissions. Their cost is falling, and the Government's plug-in car grant reduces the upfront price tag further for consumers. The distance drivers can travel on a single charge is increasing. A recent study showed that almost 90% of travelling days could be done in an electric car. Renault's new electric car, the Zoe, will have a range of 250 miles - a big increase on previous models.
The Government is already introducing policies to boost their uptake in the UK, such as encouraging councils to let them drive in bus lanes and mandating motorway service areas to provide sufficient charging facilities. The Government should go further. Bright Blue has called for the Government to issue loan guarantees to private sector companies that build new charging infrastructure.
The Government has made a positive start in improving air quality and encouraging green alternatives. But it needs to be more ambitious. It should drive forward this agenda whatever the outcome of the court case.