Time to go into emergency mode?

As the quality of the air we breathe climbs the agenda as a public health concern – a “public health emergency”, no less, in the words of a group of MPs in April – there remains confusion and disunity over the best way to go about tackling it, and some puzzlement as to why so little progress has been made with it in recent decades. Envirotec reports.

A June, pre-referendum poll of members of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) found that 48% believed UK air quality standards would worsen if the UK left the EU, with 4% expecting them to improve and 42% believing they would remain the same. ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews, at an early September meeting of the recently formed All Party Parliamentary Group for air pollution (APPG), said it would be foolish to expect that Brexit won’t have an impact since “it’s under EU law that we have a legal right to clean air”, he said, in a report in Air Quality News.

Transport planners have neglected air quality, according to the UWE’s Tim Chatterton.

One group attempting to assess what measures the UK might put in place to protect environmental legislation in a post-Brexit UK is the Environmental Audit Committee. At a meeting in early September, the chair Mary Creagh noted that it was only court action that had prompted Defra to raise its game on air pollution, referring to ClientEarth’s successful 2015 action brought against the Government in the Supreme Court.

Defra parliamentary undersecretary Therese Coffey appeared before the Committee and was called upon repeatedly to give a “commitment” that air quality standards would be protected and enforced. While refusing to commit to such a measure she said the government would not be trying to make the laws worse. She also reiterated the view that such action has to be driven at a local authority level.

Under the LAQM regime, local authorities are expected to monitor air quality and implement appropriate action plans to rectify problems. It’s an approach that has identified large numbers of pollution hotspots, but seems to have had little success in tackling them.

One region where there is currently a focus on improving the LAQM regime is in Wales, where a public consultation has been launched by the Welsh Government to appraise a number of proposals to streamline the LAQM system and improve the procedure for following up overdue progress reports and action plans. Cabinet secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, said in August they would be looking at “how these important regulations can be replicated and where possible, adapted and strengthened to meet specific Welsh needs.” The proposals have been put together with the help of experts in air quality and noise in local authorities and groups like Natural Resources Wales.

In April a group of MPs called upon the Government to recognise the scale of the emergency presented by air quality in many UK towns and cities, and to introduce measures such as a diesel scrappage scheme, as well as greater numbers of clean air zones. Government officials have so far refused to consider a diesel scrappage scheme, deeming it neither “appropriate” nor “proportionate”.

At the APPG meeting in early September Andrews of ClientEarth repeated calls for a new Clean Air Act, referring to the 1956 legislation that might be considered the Daddy of subsequent efforts. He expressed a wish for a more “coherent and holistic” legislative system. He also said the current EU limits do not go far enough, pointing to an opportunity with Brexit to draw up legislation that accurately reflected the scale of the problem.

The vexing question of why so little progress has been made in recent decades was addressed in a report from the University of the West of England’s Dr Tim Chatterton and Professor Graham Parkhurst in August. It concludes that transport planning has prioritised safety and economic growth, with there being inadequate support for local authorities to implement measures such as low emission zones. Existing approaches that focus on individual, voluntary, behaviour change and technological innovations are not sufficient, said Dr Chatterton, speaking to The Guardian. He called for politicians to acknowledge the limitations of current technological fixes and treat the issue as a public health priority.