Clean Air Act 1956

The Clean Air Act 1956 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom enacted principally in response to London‘s Great Smog of 1952. It was sponsored by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in England and the Department of Health for Scotland, and was in effect until 1993.

Clean Air Act 1956
Parliament of the United Kingdom
  • An Act to make provision for abating the pollution of the air
Introduced by Gerald Nabarro
Related legislation
Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Acts 1853, 1856, Public Health (London) Act 1891, Clean Air Act 1993, Clean Air Act 1968
Introduced a number of measures to reduce air pollution, especially by introducing ‘smoke control areas’ in some towns and cities in which only smokeless fuels could be burned

The Act introduced a number of measures to reduce air pollution. Primary among them was mandated movement toward smokeless fuels, especially in high-population ‘smoke control areas’ to reduce smoke pollution and sulphur dioxide from household fires. The Act also included measures that reduced the emission of gases, grit, and dust from chimneys and smoke-stacks.

The Act was a significant milestone in the development of a legal framework to protect the environment.[1] It was modified by later enactments, including the Clean Air Act 1968.[2]

The Act was repealed by the Clean Air Act 1993.[2]

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London had long been noted for its pea soup fog.[3] In 1880, meteorologist Rollo Russell wrote an influential pamphlet, London Fogs, noting that “numerous deaths occur in the course of the year from smoke-fogs, not unusually thick, producing or increasing diseases of the lungs”.[4]

London had seen a succession of acts and rules over the centuries to improve its air—such as the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Acts 1853 and 1856 and the Public Health (London) Act 1891. However, despite the link between air pollution and health being well understood by the late 19th century, such efforts had not proven to be effective public health measures.[5]

When the “Great Smog” fell over the city in December 1952 the effects were unprecedented: More than 4,000 people are thought to have died in the immediate aftermath,[6] raising public concern, with fog so thick it stopped trains, cars, and public events.[7][8] A further 8,000 died in following weeks and months. Today, the total death toll is believed to be around 12,000.[9]

It was apparent that pollution was a real and deadly problem, and the smog’s effects were a notable milestone in the modern environmental movement.

The government appointed a Committee on Air Pollution chaired by the civil engineer Sir Hugh Beaver to investigate the problem in London.[10] It reported in 1954[11] on the social and economic costs of air pollution and stated that clean air was then as important as clean water had been in the mid-nineteenth century. The committee proposed that domestic coal should be replaced by coke, and that greater reliance should be placed on other ‘smokeless’ fuels such as electricity and gas. Yet, each of the industries that produced smokeless fuels – coke and gas works and electricity generating stations – burned coal to produce the ‘smokeless’ fuel. For example, the six million tons of coal a year that were converted to coke in North-East England in the late nineteenth century emitted some two million tons of volatile matter such as carbonic and sulphurous acid.[12] Therefore, air pollution was not being reduced so much as transferred from the area of consumption to the area of production.

The electricity generating industry was a major consumer of coal and contributor to atmospheric pollution. The Beaver committee used the example of the recently commissioned Bankside power station in London to recommend the widespread adoption of flue-gas desulfurisation for all new power stations in urban areas.[13] It claimed that this would be practicable and cost effective if it added no more than 0.06 d. to 0.07 d. to the cost of a unit of electricity (1 kWh).

The British Electricity Authority was sceptical about the benefits of desulfurisation and challenged the committee’s recommendations. The Authority stated that this recommendation ‘strikes a damaging blow against the economy of electricity development in this country’ and that the financial implications ‘are potentially more serious than those of any previous restrictions or control imposed upon the Authority’s activities’.[13] The Authority claimed that installing scrubbers in all power stations would entail an annual capital investment of £10 million and would increase the cost of electricity by 0.1 d. per kWh, therefore exceeding the cost-effectiveness criterion suggested in the draft Beaver report. The British Electricity Authority was also critical that the Beaver committee had made no serious attempt to assess the relative economics of different ways of reducing atmospheric pollution. It claimed that burning coal in modern power station boilers that were equipped with efficient grit collectors and into tall chimneys was ‘an extremely efficient method of controlling pollution in terms […] of capital outlay’.[13]

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