Air pollution: the impact of the 1956 Clean Air Act

Stephen Mosley

16 February 2017

Smog caused by cars, factories, and coal fires is shortening lives. So what lessons can we learn from the Clean Air Act of 1956?

Air pollution caused around 7 million premature deaths in 2012, according to the World Health Organisation.

Tens of thousands of people are dying early in the UK every year because of toxic fumes. Furthermore, air pollution is linked to terrible health effects, including asthma and impaired lung development in children. 

If left unaddressed, by 2050 it will overtake poor sanitation and polluted drinking water to become the leading environmental cause of death worldwide.

Say no to air pollution - sign now

Most air pollution hotspots are found in the cities of China and India, where industrialisation – based on supplies of cheap coal – is happening at breakneck speed.

A look back at how Britain, the world’s first industrial nation, tackled its air pollution problems is timely.

Smog in Britain  – causes and effects

When Britain was the workshop of the world its coal consumption increased from around 10 million tons per annum in 1800 to almost 200 million tons in 1950.

A permanent smoke haze enveloped cities like Glasgow, Leeds, London and Manchester. It blocked out the sun, blackening buildings, increasing the severity of fog episodes and damaging people’s health.

Lack of exposure to sunlight meant that rickets – a disease that affects healthy bone development in children – was endemic in industrial towns.

Coal smoke was linked to very high death rates from respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, killing between 800,000 and 1.4 million people in the period 1840-1900.

Leeds pictured in 1896

Unlike climate change, the smoke of Britain’s great cities was difficult to ignore. Until the mid-20th century, however, anti-smoke legislation offered little protection to people or the environment.

There were fundamental flaws in early smoke control laws like the local acts of the 1840s, the Public Health Act of 1875, and the Public Health (Smoke Abatement) Act of 1926. Flaws included:

  • An ambiguous "best practicable means" clause for smoke abatement, which did not mean "the best available means" using the latest technology. It meant the apparatus that industrialists were prepared to part cash for.
  • Insignificant fines. Legislation only imposed low fines on offenders, effectively providing Britain’s industrialists with a licence to pollute.
  • Exemptions. The failure to regulate emissions from domestic fireplaces, major polluters of city air, was perhaps the biggest flaw. They could have reduced smoke significantly by burning fossil fuels in closed stoves.

Attitudes to air pollution

One reason why laws were so lax was that smoke pollution was not viewed in a wholly negative light.

The production of smoke was commonly understood as a sign that Britain’s industrial cities were flourishing, as this early 20th-century postcard helps to illustrate.

An early 20th-century postcard

The British public’s affection for the traditional blazing hearth was also a major obstacle to smoke control.

In the mid-20th century, the open coal fire was still the hub around which family life revolved. 

Governments were unwilling to upset the electorate by passing legislation that interfered with a citizen’s freedom to enjoy this hugely popular British institution. This was despite growing awareness of the problems associated with low-level smoke emissions from the open fireplace.

There were no votes to be had in clearing the skies (just as there are no votes today in curbing the use of the car).

Lessons from the Great Smog and Clean Air Acts

The 1952 London smog disaster – now thought to have claimed as many as 12,000 lives – was the catalyst for the development of comprehensive air pollution controls in Britain.

Following this tragedy, the government passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, which for the first time regulated both domestic and industrial smoke emissions.

Historians widely considered it to be an important milestone in environmental protection. The legislation included powers to establish smokeless zones, and provided generous subsidies to householders to convert to cleaner fuels (smokeless solid fuel, gas and electricity).

But this energy transition did not happen overnight. It took around three decades, and another Clean Air Act in 1968 (to deal with slow-moving local authorities), before smoke control programmes were finally completed.

By the 1980s the skies had cleared; improving health and quality of life in the cities of the first industrial nation (although the problem is not yet eradicated).  

If there are any lessons to be learned from Britain’s Age of Smoke, they are:

  1. Stronger political leadership is required on environmental issues (tough legislation on smoke was long overdue in 1956)
  2. Overcoming cultural obstacles to environmental change will not be an easy task
  3. Energy transitions can take a long time to complete
  4. Organising and legislating to mitigate or adapt to slow onset disasters such as climate change – whose effects are not as obvious to the public – will be challenging.

Dr Stephen Mosley teaches at Leeds Beckett University. This is an edited version of a blog first published on 14 Janaury 2014

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