Will Britain now dodge huge EU air pollution fines?

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Will Britain avoid heavy regulatory penalties for local air pollution after it voted to leave the EU?

Britain has for decades failed to clean up its worst-polluted areas and was subject to heavy fines under European air pollution rules, that the country had signed up to and that will not be enforceable outside the EU.

Actions to reduce air pollution to safe levels are likely to be required by future British law, but as the current regulatory framework is European the existing penalties in the pipeline cannot now be levied.

The government had been fighting the pending EU pollution penalties, which it was set to pass down to local authorities with responsibility for air quality, because it believed they were unfair. Air quality is estimated to be a contributing factor to over 30,000 premature British deaths a year, and to no less than €25billion in healthcare costs. Severe regulatory fines were pending, but the British government wanted more time to address the problems.

So entwined are the regulations with EU mechanisms that the outlook is wholly unclear.

The Conservative government’s stance on how it will now write and adopt Britain’s new regulations is not yet known. It will not however be a process led by the current leadership, re-elected just last year, after David Cameron announced his resignation. It may yet be a campaigning point in the snap general election some people are predicting will be called to elect a government tasked with actually managing the enormous task of removing Britain from the EU.

This assumes of course that Britain does leave the EU, which is by no means guaranteed, with almost half the nation wanting to remain, and many more now regretting voting to leave faced with the reality.

However it is clear that the stiff penalties that were coming, after decades of existing regulatory failures to protect people’s health as had been required, will not be levied outside the EU. It is also clear that no timescales to act currently exist. As such, regulatory incentives for anyone to act to actually reduce air pollution and stop unacceptably damaging people’s health appear to be effectively absent.

This ‘by-default’ deregulation of air pollution rules resulting from Brexit will come as a huge boon to many British businesses and parts of the Conservative British government. Not everyone has an appetite for regulation that slows growth, as Britain pursues a national economic strategy to ‘build its way’ to economic growth and mitigate a housing shortage that is both chronic and acute.

Furthermore, any effect this deregulation may have on pollution levels, and thereby related health problems, will not become clear until the medium term at the earliest. Existing data means we know the wider picture well, but absent of specific, live, and enforceable environmental regulations there is no accountability for pollution. Will there be, before it is already too late?

To a certain degree, it is already too late. Decades of failure to control air pollution in Britain have already created a substantial public health hazard in some places, and now the sleepy regulation that did exist under the EU may be even more difficult or impossible to enforce. What comes next is, like all such questions post-EU in the current political climate, unknown. Meanwhile, people’s health suffers as a result of too much pollution being allowed to be emitted into the air.

And with the sheer volume of Brexit related issues to deal with – will anyone be particularly interested in a debate on trading off public health for less regulation of air pollution? Will anyone even notice?

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