The London smog and 1956 Clean Air Act

The 1952 London smog disaster spurred air pollution controls in Britain. But we need new laws for the 21st century.
  Published:  26 Apr 2017    |      3 minute read

In developed and developing countries, air pollution – caused by cars, factories and coal fires – is shortening lives. 

Globally, indoor and outdoor air pollution caused around 7 million premature deaths in 2012, according to the World Health Organisation. 

In the UK air pollution causes the equivalent of up to 36,000 early deaths every year. It is linked to terrible health effects, including lung cancer and impaired lung development in children.  

Britain put in some controls against air pollution after London's killer smog of 1952. The result was the landmark 1956 Clean Air Act. 

Origins of UK's Clean Air Acts 

With the Industrial Revolution Britain became the workshop of the world. UK coal consumption increased from around 10 million tons a year in 1800 to almost 200 million tons in 1950. A smoke haze enveloped cities like Glasgow, Leeds, London and Manchester. It blocked out the sun, blackening buildings, increasing the severity of fog, and damaging people’s health. 

Health problems from London smog 

Lack of 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. 

Problems with UK smoke control laws 

There were 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. This did not encourage use of the latest technology - but simply the apparatus industrialists were prepared pay for. 
  • Insignificant fines. Legislation imposed low fines on offenders, effectively providing Britain’s industrialists with a licence to pollute. 
  • Exemptions. Failure to regulate emissions from fireplaces in homes, major polluters of city air, was perhaps the biggest flaw. They could have reduced smoke significantly by burning fossil fuels in closed stoves. 

Smoke pollution was not viewed in a wholly negative light. There were no votes to be had in clearing the skies  

One reason laws were so lax was that smoke pollution was not viewed in a wholly negative light. The public’s affection for the traditional blazing hearth was a major obstacle to smoke control. Governments were unwilling to upset the electorate by passing legislation that interfered with freedom to enjoy this popular British institution. There were no votes to be had in clearing the skies.

Aftermath of the London fog of 1952 

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

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

Historians widely considered the Clean Air Act a milestone in environmental protection. The legislation included powers to establish smokeless zones, and provided 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 3 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 world's first industrial nation. 

But the problem is not eradicated. Today our filthy air is the cause of  up to 36,000 early deaths in the UK each year.  

London shopping street

New Clean Air Act 

We need a Clean Air Act for the 21st century. Parliament needs to tackle the modern sources of air pollution and improve on existing legislation to ensure that we enshrine the right to breathe clean air in law. 

Friends of the Earth is campaigning for laws that will clean up air pollution across the UK. We're working with the Clean Air Act Coalition for laws that will clean up air pollution across the UK. Friends of the Earth believes a Clean Air Act fit for the 21st century must include measures to phase out diesel vehicles by 2025. 

Based on an article by Dr Stephen Mosley, of Leeds Beckett University, first published on 14 January 2014.