DEFRA Air Quality Strategy: Health, environment and transport groups urge Government to re-think

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Dozens of health, environment and transport businesses and charities are calling for the government to change course on its Air Quality Strategy. This comes as a result of organisations and local authorities being prevented from submitting views on the strategy because the public consultation closed after just ten days.

Members of the Healthy Air Coalition, a collective which campaigns for a UK free from toxic air, are urging the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to pursue additional routes for consultation to allow these organisations to have their say. Members of the coalition include Asthma and Lung UK, Impact on Urban Health and Campaign for Better Transport.

The Air Quality Strategy sets out the actions the government expects local authorities to take in support of achieving its air quality goals. The Government’s own Consultations Principles state that timeframes for public consultation on the strategy should be “proportionate and realistic to allow stakeholders sufficient time to provide a considered response”. Yet this guidance has been ignored, leaving many authorities unable to contribute at all.

The group’s intervention comes as new data shows that, although Nitrogen Dioxide concentrations decreased marginally between 2021 and 2022, air pollution remains at illegal and unsafe levels in areas across the country.  Post-pandemic progress on air pollution reduction nationally is now plateauing.

The Healthy Air Coalition has also undertaken analysis on the number of Local Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) still in force across the UK, demonstrating the scale of failure to tackle air pollution over decades.

AQMAs are required in areas where local authorities find air quality objectives are not likely to be achieved. AQMAs can only be revoked once air pollution goals are met, and as of August 2022, 68.5% of UK local authorities have one or more still in place. The first UK AQMA introduced, in the London Borough of Westminster, still exists after 24 years.

Anna Garrod, Policy and Influencing Director at Impact on Urban Health, said:
“Air pollution is, right now, devastating people’s health across the country. It’s a public health crisis that costs the economy billions of pounds every year.

“Not only that, but time and time again, research shows air pollution is a social justice issue, which disproportionately affects people who often contribute the least, like children.
“The good news is we know how to improve air quality. We just need the political will to protect people from this health crisis.

“That’s why it’s so frustrating that experts and organisations haven’t been given time to respond to the Government’s consultation. How can Government expect to protect people from toxic air pollution if they don’t listen to the people who are most affected and to the experts who know how to improve air quality?”

“The government provided just nine working days to respond to a strategy that, in its own words seeks to address the biggest environmental risk to public health, with children, the elderly and the already vulnerable most affected by poor air quality. The Air Quality Strategy also makes clear the essential role that local government has in delivering cleaner air for communities across England. And yet, in the time provided to develop an informed response to such a key document, there has been no recognition of the need for local government to assess potential impacts on a significant number of service areas.

“I would urge reassurance from the Secretary of State that this critical issue is given due consideration and the time needed to develop a meaningful response.”

Birmingham City Council is a member of UK100, the UK’s only cross-party network of local authorities committed to ambitious action on clean air and Net Zero.

UK100’s Interim Chief Executive, Jason Torrance, said:

“The latest statistics reveal the worrying scale of the Government’s air quality failures. But there is the ambition up and down the country to take this issue seriously. Local authorities across the UK100 network have, for example, already committed to meeting WHO legal limits in their region and offered to work with Defra to ensure their residents can breathe more easily.

“Hard-working councillors will be left gasping for breath as the government is asking them to take on all the political risk for traffic reduction and wood burning, without offering necessary policy support or funding. DEFRA officials have done well in the circumstances, and we welcome the commitment to help councils with air quality communication, but it’s hard to see this strategy delivering clean air without putting in place significant improvements to a national and local government partnership.”