Clean Air Act 1956: Landmark Air Quality Legislation

Clean Air Act 1956 was ground-breaking legislation on air pollution, which saved countless life and changed our environment
Clean Air Act 1956 was ground-breaking legislation on air pollution, which saved countless deaths and changed our environment

Today (5th July 2016) is the 60th anniversary of the enactment of ground-breaking legislation on reducing air pollution and improving air quality in the United Kingdom.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 was passed with the aim of tackling the smog and air pollution created by the burning of coal and industrial activities and culminated in the public concerns of the “Great Smog”, which descended on Greater London in 1952.

Many Londoners, the “Great Smog” was an inconvenience. For many, the smog exacerbated the health problems of those with chronic heart and lung conditions, which resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of deaths during the “Great Smog” with over 4,000 additional deaths.

In the aftermath following the great smog, the UK Government set up a committee chaired by Sir Hugh Beaver, which identified the source of the smog as pollution from solid fuels as most factories and homes were heated using coal. The committee made a number of recommendations that formed the basis of the Clean Air Act 1956.

The Act gave local authorities the power to control emissions of smoke, grit, dust and fumes from industrial premises and furnaces and set up smoke control zones. In these smoke control zones, emissions of any of these materials could be banned.

Following the legislation, the death rates for air pollution specific deaths in Greater London fell & air quality improved.

Subsequently, the Clean Air Act 1968 augmented the 1956 Act by bringing in the basic principle for the use of tall chimneys for industries burning coal, liquid or gaseous fuels to mitigate the impacts smoke pollution but recognised that sulphur dioxide control was, at the time, impracticable.

Although the Clean Air Act 1956 and the Clean Air Act 1968 are no longer on the statute book, they were repealed on 27th August 1993, air quality controls live on in their replacement, the current Clean Air Act 1993 and other controls through environmental permits.

With the controls on industrial processes and use of central heating by gas and electricity in our home, the biggest threat to air quality comes not from fixed installations, such as a factories and homes, but the mobile air pollution caused by the use of our cars and transport with increasing trends of cities, such as Greater London, failing to meet EU Air Quality requirements.

In the wake of the Brexit vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, it will be interesting to see whether the UK Parliament will take up this cause in the strong and decisive manner as they did for the original smog problems that were tackled in the 1950s onwards.

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