Air pollution - the big picture

Local authority action is only part of the solution to air pollution, says Debbie Wood

Air pollution - the big picture

It’s been in the news constantly over the past couple of years, so why has air pollution suddenly appeared on the national agenda? It used to be a more visible problem in the UK, with extensive domestic and industrial combustion of fossil fuels emitting large amounts of smoke and oxides of sulphur. Today, the air we breathe is visibly cleaner, thanks to legislation and the work of environmental health professionals.

However, significant but much less visible problems still persist, and it’s calculated that poor outdoor air quality results in around 40,000 premature deaths annually in the UK. There is also evidence that poor air quality contributes to cancer, strokes, asthma and heart disease, and there are associations with obesity, dementia and diabetes. The cost to UK businesses and healthcare services amounts to more than £20bn a year.

We are standing on the cliff edge of a public health emergency, and yet the government has persistently failed to understand this precarious situation. Following legal battles and lacklustre strategies in response, the government recently published its latest plans to tackle air pollution. Much of the focus in government announcements and the media has concentrated on proposals to end sales of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. 

While this is a positive step, the 2040 deadline is far too late. The government needs to incentivise the removal of these polluting vehicles from the road as soon as possible, given that they are the main contributor to poor air quality. 
But, at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, what really concerns us is that, once again, government has failed to recognise that poor air quality is a national issue and continues to unfairly offload responsibility onto local authorities to sort out the problem. 

Clearly, local authorities are where the expertise lies, and our members have an important role – they are on the frontline in monitoring air quality and instigating measures to make positive changes.  

One example where environmental health professionals have taken such action is York. Housing developments, in the historical town’s former industrial areas, have increased levels of vehicles and pollution. In addition, with streets dating from Roman times, much of the city centre is a conservation area, with narrow streets limiting how traffic can move around and what mitigation measures can be adopted.

In 2012, York Council devised an overarching low-emission strategy looking at transport, energy and planning, as well as at procurement and the way people lived in the city. Among several other measures, the council has introduced financial incentives to encourage taxi drivers to switch their cars to low-emission vehicles, while electric buses are now used on the western route into town.  

Relying on councils to take the lead will lead to positive results at the local level, as we have seen in York. But doing so risks regional inconsistencies when the problem is considered on the national stage.

It also unfairly shifts the burden from central government. With only £250m to sort out the problem and only eight months to submit their plans, local authorities are being set up for failure before they have even started. 

In our consultation response to the government’s proposals, we suggested:  

Appropriate levels of government financial support to target areas where air pollution is highest and where the largest number of people are exposed

Reduction of the number of vehicles on the road or action to remove vehicles that do not comply with EuroVI/6 or petrol Euro 3 standards as a minimum

Removal of tax incentives on diesel and transferral of these incentives to infrastructure development for ultra-low emission vehicles and zero emission vehicles

Better provision and incentives for sustainable travels plans incorporating public transport, cycling and walking.

Air pollution does not recognise boundaries. We need the government to take the lead and make provisions for a new Clean Air Act, incorporating a national solution that is consistent, shares responsibility and ensures better funding – before it’s too late.


Debbie Wood is executive director for policy and external affairs at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health

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