The Clean Air Act: A Short History
The Clean Air Act was introduced in 1956, following the Great Smog that enveloped London for four days in 1952 that caused thousands of deaths. Above all, the act focused on reducing smoke pollution, phasing out coal from towns and cities by introducing smokeless zones where smokeless fuels had to be burnt. Electricity and gas usage increased as a result (subsidies were provided to householders who converted to cleaner fuels), and power stations were forced to relocate to more rural areas.
A further Clean Air Act, introduced in 1968, targeted industry by bringing in provisions on chimney heights for industries burning coal, liquid or gaseous fuels and setting provisions on the emissions of grit, dust and fumes from industrial premises.
The most recent Clean Air Act, introduced in 1993, presented an updated version of the previous Acts, taking modern pollution concerns into account. It included legislation concerning the composition of motor fuels, and also outlined the power to give effect to international agreements.
From this point onwards, it has above all been the EU’s directives on emissions that have had an effect on air quality in the UK. A 2012 report from DEFRA based on informal meetings undertaken with local authority environmental health professionals concluded ‘that the [1993 Clean Air] Act was completely outdated and needed a full overhaul. All the terminology needed clarifying or modernising; there are problems with enforceability and proportionality.’ 
A new Clean Air Act?
The general consensus between the internal Government committees on improving air quality and clean air activists has been that a new Clean Air Act must be introduced to both improve exiting legislation and ensure that the right to clean air is enshrined in UK law. EU law has given forms of legal protection to clean air, including a series of directives setting limits on emissions and concentrations of air pollutants. With Brexit fast approaching, it is now crucial that legal protections against harmful emissions are safeguarded and that a set of standards by which the government can be held to account are ensured.
The Clean Air Bills 17-19
Two Clean Air Bills are currently passing through Parliament, upping the already mounting pressure on the government to enact new clean air legislation. The bills are being brought separately and propose different legislation concerning clean air, with one being introduced in the House of Commons and the other in the House of Lords. This means that we could be seeing changes to existing legislation or even new laws concerning clean air in the not too distant future. The current Clean Air Act dates from 1993 and does not include legislation on transport emissions, sources of modern pollution (e.g. diesel) or the right to breathe clean air.
What is a Bill and an Act and how do they relate to one another?
An Act of Parliament is a law, enforced in all areas of the UK where it is applicable. It is the responsibility of the relevant department – in this case primarily DEFRA – to then implement the law. A Bill can become an Act of Parliament if it is approved by both the House of Commons and House of Lords. It then needs to be given the Royal Assent, by which the Queen officially agrees to make the bill into an Act of Parliament (law).
What stage is it in the process?
The Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill 17-19, introduced by Baronness Jones of Moulsecoomb, was heard in the House of Lords on 5th July, the 62nd anniversary of the first Clean Air Act. It is yet to be scheduled for a second reading. The Clean Air Bill 17-19, introduced by Geraint Davies MP, has been heard in the House of Commons and is scheduled for a second reading on 26th October when MPs will be given the first opportunity to debate the main principles of the Bill.
Following the second reading a Bill goes to committee stage where it is examined line by line by any members who choose to take part. At this stage any changes to clauses in the bill can be suggested and voted upon, following which it is opened up to all members of the house (Lords/MPs) for further changes. The third reading allows for further debate and the Bill is voted on. This determines the Bill can then be passed on to the House of Lords or House of Commons respectively, where a similar process is carried out.
What is the Bill in the House of Lords proposing? What is the Bill in the House of Commons proposing? Where do they differ?
The Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill presented to the House of Lords takes a human rights based approach, arguing that the right to breathe clean air should be read as such. The Bill then uses this proposal as grounds to argue for changes in the way air pollution is measured, reported and dealt with by the government. This bill proposes the creation of a Citizens’ Commission for Clean Air, independent of government, which would report to Parliament. This approach is similar to the current set-up of the Climate Change Committee and also underlines the need for greater public involvement. The right to clean air is not currently acknowledged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whilst in the European Court of Justice citizens have rights to certain procedures concerning air quality law without an explicit right to breathing clean air.
Meanwhile, the Clean Air Bill presented to the House of Commons focuses on specific sources of and solutions to air pollution. These include setting, measuring, enforcing and reporting on air quality targets, the use of clean air zones, vehicle emissions testing and restriction on the sale of vehicles with certain engine types.
How do the Clean Air Bills relate to government’s recently published Clean Air Strategy?
The government’s Clean Air Strategy has been developed in response to the EU’s National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive that sets legally binding emission reduction targets for five pollutants. The strategy outlines the actions proposed by the government to reduce air pollution and its effects. These actions are ‘ambitions’ as opposed to legal requirements. A new Clean Air Act would force the government to adapt their strategy to fit the requirements outlined by the Act.
DEFRA, The Future of the Clean Air Act, 2012 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/183192/201203-cleanairact-scoping.pdf
 ClientEarth, The Clean Air Handbook: a practical guide to EU air quality Law, 2015 https://www.documents.clientearth.org/media/library/2015-11-30-clean-air-handbook-version-two-ce-en.pdf