Air Quality - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

4 Reshaping policy

38.  Many different policy actions could be used to improve air quality but the most important are:

  • raising awareness of air quality issues, especially among policy makers, political decision makers and the public;
  • aligning air quality indicators and measures within the local planning framework to reduce air pollution;
  • improving the evidence base so that decisions can be based on an assessment of cost effectiveness and a better estimate of costs and benefits; and
  • improving cross-departmental working.

These actions should bring about measurable improvements in air quality by enabling changes in, for example, transport policy and by encouraging action at the local authority level.

Raising awareness

39.  Often air pollution cannot be detected by the general public and most people do not understand how much it may harm their health.[35] Some policies require significant behavioural change, such as a modal shift away from private vehicle use. Others, like low emission zones, depend on public acceptance but, as the referendum on congestion charging in Manchester showed, this is far from easy to establish.

40.  Defra established a 'Citizen's Jury' in 2006 to explore public views on air quality.[36] The results showed that at the beginning of the exercise there was no understanding of how air quality is measured, of the health impacts, or of how individuals can improve it. At the end of the process the participants agreed that the issue of air quality was more important than originally thought, because of its health impacts. The citizen jurors recommended a public awareness campaign that provided information on the causes and implications of air quality and what individuals could do to make a difference and how they would benefit as a result.

41.  Air alerts established in London[37] and Sussex[38] provide free alerts of expected air pollution incidents and related health advice to those with medical conditions that are exacerbated by air pollution. Innovations such as the low pollution route option available on can also help raise awareness.[39] In Sheffield, public awareness has played a major part in encouraging local action by the public and local authorities to improve air quality by reducing car use and planting trees to abate pollution. The Government has campaigns aimed at eliminating road deaths, reducing exposure to passive smoking and reducing obesity. Better public understanding of air quality issues is critical. The Government must educate the public about the health risk from poor air quality and about how they can limit their exposure and improve air quality. Any campaign on air quality should raise awareness of the actions people can take to reduce emissions of dangerous pollutants and to reduce their exposure.

Cross-departmental working

42.  Defra, Department of Health, Department for Transport, Department for Communities and Local Government, Department of Energy and Climate Change and HM Treasury all have a role in determining air quality policy. There is evidence of occasional joined-up thinking on this issue. For example, the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit included air pollution in its analysis of the wider costs of transport in urban areas. But more co-operation is required. Defra and DfT are held jointly accountable under Public Service Agreement 28 for reducing air pollution. PSA28 aims to "secure a healthy natural environment for today and the future".[40] PSA28's indicator 3, which requires the Government to meet Air Quality Strategy objectives for eight air pollutants, is not being met.

43.  LACORS believed that links between central government departments need to be improved. Defra and DfT appear to be linking up more effectively and undertake quarterly liaison meetings with LACORS officers, but truly consistent joined-up policy across all relevant departments is still lacking. It is essential that DECC, DCLG, DoH and HMT also engage in and prioritise air quality issues, which LACORS argued they have been somewhat reluctant to do.[41] The Institute for Air Quality Management told us that Defra and Department of Health had some understanding of the health effects of air pollution but that other Government departments, like DfT, DCLG, DECC and HMT, appeared to have limited awareness of air quality issues and, often, a total lack of understanding that air quality was a major problem in terms of its health and environmental impacts.[42]

44.  Harmonisation of air quality and climate change policy exposes this lack of a joined up approach. Coordinated policy cuts overall costs. In contrast, uncoordinated policy has unintended consequences, and leads to contradictions within government. Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and improvements in air quality can be achieved by lower energy demand and better energy efficiency. But some technologies that lower carbon dioxide emissions can increase NOX and particulate emissions to the detriment of local air quality.

45.  In a number of cases the climate change agenda has resulted in measures that increase air pollution. For example, diesel vehicles were promoted because of their fuel efficiency despite having higher emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide than petrol vehicles. Another example has been the promotion of biomass boilers in urban areas already suffering poor air quality.

46.  Defra has only very recently published Air Pollution: Action in a Changing Climate, which aims to link air quality and climate change action.[43] Air quality will only improve if all government departments give it priority and raise the profile of the issue. Unless this happens systematically air quality issues will continue to be ignored as departments focus on their primary objectives at the expense of environmental impacts. Departments are expected to address air quality in policy appraisals but lack the guidance to do this effectively.[44] The standard impacts assessment form includes a prompt to assess impacts on greenhouse gases but not air quality. Government must raise the priority attached to air quality in all government departments and provide better guidance on including air quality impacts in policy appraisals. Only Defra and DfT are formally accountable for air quality, under the Public Service Agreements; other departments that contribute to the problem, including DCLG, DoH, DECC and HMT, are not. Minsters must drive this from the top, introduce measures to ensure this becomes routine practice and accept responsibility for policies that conflict with air quality.

Transport and air quality

47.  Air pollution from road transport has fallen by 50% since 1990 but traffic has increased by a fifth and the number of licensed vehicles increased by 77% between 1980 and 2007, from 19 to 34 million.

48.  The European Union plays a key role in regulating pollution from road vehicles by setting European wide fuel standards and emission limits. DfT negotiates these European fuel standards and emission limits on behalf of the UK. Evidence suggests that European vehicle and fuel standards will not achieve air quality targets and the reductions in pollutants expected from these standards have not been observed. Leicester City Council told us that the Government's predictions over the last decade of a fall in traffic-generated nitrogen dioxide have been over-optimistic.[45] This view was echoed by Dr Ian McCrae from the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), who also said that more research was required to understand how transport emissions affected air quality:[46]

What we have since about 2000 is a levelling off of the air quality in response to those emissions improvements. We do not see the same sort of gradients in terms of the improvements in air quality. My feeling is that is probably a weakness in the emission factors that we use in our models and that is a weakness of the understanding of the technologies and how they perform in real service.

49.  Particulates from tyre, road and brake wear is one area that has seen little research. Dr McCrae told us that there was some data on brake and tyre wear, but that it was relatively weak in relation to the exhaust pollutants coming from motor vehicles. In addition more research is required to understand the contribution particulate matter lying on the surface of the road makes. It is thought almost 70% of roadside particulate concentrations come from particulate matter on the road that is swept into the air in the wake of passing vehicles.[47]

50.  Emissions standards for vehicles have been relied on to cut air pollution from road traffic. But, on their own, the Euro standards will not provide the emissions reductions required to meet UK air quality objectives. Transport policy must change dramatically if the UK is to meet future targets and reduce exposure to air pollution. Much of this agenda is already being driven by efforts to tackle climate change (like modal shift and smarter travel choices) although some conflicts exist. In addition to improving existing policies, the Government must explain the role played by brake, tyre and road wear in generating particulate matter and research the impact of road surface particulate matter on air quality.

Assisting local authorities

51.  Under the Environment Act 1995, local authorities have a duty to work towards improved air quality. They are required to carry out regular reviews and assessments of air quality in their area against the objectives in the Air Quality Strategy. Where any of these objectives are not being achieved, authorities must designate air quality management areas and then prepare and implement remedial action plans to tackle the problem. Once an air quality action plan has been set, local authorities must report to Defra or the relevant Devolved Administration on delivery against this action plan. In 90% of local authorities with air quality issues, local air quality management areas have been set up to tackle transport-related pollution, although evidence on discernible improvement in many of these is limited.

52.  Local authorities are responsible for other functions that may affect air quality and local air quality problems are often an indirect result of measures driven by congestion, road safety or employment. Good cooperation between transport, air quality, climate change, public health and spatial planning departments, as well as with partner organisations, is essential to improving local air quality. Many local authorities lack the resources to develop such strategic thinking by themselves. TRL and Environmental Protection UK told us that in many cases local authorities had limited knowledge and skills with which to tackle air quality issues and had little control over the pollutants and processes causing the problem. Local authorities need help and advice to raise the profile of air quality within their environment departments, where it might lose out to competing demands including climate change, and across other areas of local authority responsibility where awareness of the issue is limited.[48]

53.  To assist local authorities DfT has published guidance on Local Transport Plans, which will be applicable from April 2011. This strongly encourages local authorities to integrate air quality action plans with the local transport planning process.

54.  The planning process also offers an important opportunity for local and regional authorities to influence air quality. Oral evidence set out that local authorities and the Environment Agency do not adequately consider air quality in the planning process. The Government must urgently explore how planning guidance can be strengthened and applied to reduce air pollution. [49]

55.  The Government's core policies and principles for planning and pollution control are set out in Planning Policy Statement 23 (PPS23). Planning Authorities must take this into account when preparing Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks. DCLG provides guidance on pollution control in PPS23 and Defra has provided guidance on using the planning system to develop low emission strategies and improve air quality.[50] Despite this guidance, not all local authorities are developing the required links between the air quality professionals, transport planners, climate change officers and development control planners.[51] There is scope for sharing best practice on developing these links though the Low Emissions Strategies Partnership that provides a forum for examining local authority air quality issues.[52]

56.  Local authorities are key to improving air quality. The Government must raise the profile of air quality with all local authorities, encourage the sharing of best practice and ensure that the issue is given sufficient attention across all areas of local authority responsibility, not just within their environmental departments.

57.  Though costly to implement, low emissions zones can be used by local authorities to improve air quality. In Germany a national framework for low emission zones (to which vehicular access can be restricted according to vehicle emissions) has contributed to meeting EU targets. There is no such national legislative framework in the UK. A national framework for low emission zones would establish a nationally recognised standard for emissions and vehicle identification, supported by a national certification scheme of retrofit technologies. This would make it much easier and less expensive for a local authority to establish low emissions zones and to prescribe what standard of vehicles would be allowed to enter them.

58.  The London low emission zone has been effective in reducing emissions of particulate matter.[53] Nitrogen dioxide pollution in London is more widespread than particulate matter and the Greater London Authority (GLA) plan to extend the low emission zone to cover this.[54] The GLA argued that it would be easier to do this if a national certification scheme for low emission zones was established.[55] DfT recognised that the London low emissions zone would provide an important part of the evidence needed to assess the effectiveness of such schemes. They noted that the London scheme was more costly and technologically complex than many on the continent.[56]

59.  The Environmental Industries Commission believe that a national framework for low emission zones would help create many new jobs in the UK's environment industry. Approximately 3,500 people are currently employed in the UK in the retrofit market. Furthermore, an estimated 80% of the UK's retrofit market is supplied by UK owned companies. The UK's share of this market could increase further through effective Government support for the introduction of low emission zones across the UK.[57] DfT officials told us that this option is being considered.

60.  Developing a national framework for low emissions zones would raise the profile of the air quality challenge and help drive down emissions in our cities. The Government must ensure that research into the options for such a framework is completed and published at the earliest opportunity. Low emissions zones are costly and are only likely to be effectively implemented on a longer timescale. They will not be necessary in each local authority. What is needed is for all local authorities to develop wide ranging strategies that reduce emissions and drive down concentrations of key pollutants. Local authorities must develop effective policies, closely linked to planning and coupled with existing monitoring activities.

35   Ev 106 Back

36   Defra, Report on the Citizens' Jury on Air Quality, July 2006,  Back

37   See  Back

38   See  Back

39   Ev 106 Back

40   HM Government, PSA Delivery Agreement 28: Secure a healthy natural environment for today and the future, October 2007 Back

41   Ev 105 Back

42   Ev 72 Back

43   Defra, Air Pollution: Action in a Changing Climate, March 2010 Back

44   NAO, Air Quality, January 2010 Back

45   Ev 74 Back

46   Q 36 Back

47   Q 40 Back

48   Ev 16 Back

49   Q 49-50 Back

50   Defra, Low Emissions Strategies-using the planning system to reduce transport emissions, January 2010 Back

51   Ev 67 Back

52   Ev 84 Back

53   Ev 12 Back

54   Q 3 Back

55   Ev 13 Back

56   Q 134 Back

57   Ev 126 Back

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