UK Government’s Air Quality Plan shows lack of leadership

By Rachel White,
cyclists on quiet way with less traffic and less air pollution

There is still some hope for cycling and walking as part of the solution to our air quality crisis but local authorities will need to lead.

Rachel White, our Senior Policy and Political Advisor, reflects on the publication of the UK Government’s Air Quality Plan. 

Too little, too late

If you have been following the protracted unfolding of the UK Government’s Air Quality Plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide - the final version was published on Wednesday 26 July - you can be forgiven for being somewhat exasperated at this point.

Last week’s headlines were dominated by the Government’s plans to ban all conventional car and van sales by 2040 - this was perplexing given the Government first announced this intention in 2011. Deliberate vagueness around what a “conventional vehicle” is may well come in useful in future years and the bottom line: it’s 23 years away. It’s hard to see how this is going to help us reduce our air pollution in the “quickest time possible”.

The plan itself appears to be a plan for lots of other plans, seemingly ignoring the urgency and speed of action needed to address the fact that 40,000 people are dying prematurely in the UK every year from this public health crisis – that’s nearly a million (920,000) premature deaths over 23 years. Road transport is responsible for 80% of NOX where legal limits are being broken with the majority of that pollution from diesel.

The obvious solution

Shifting as many short journeys as possible to walking and cycling while investing in public transport and electric vehicles for longer trips, is the obvious solution, but the UK Government is reluctant to lead. The private car is so engrained in our way of life the Government is scared to challenge the perceived wisdom that car is king and that more roads will lead to more growth. In reality, building more roads leads to more congestion which increases air pollution. Despite this, the Government is investing in its biggest road building programme since the 1970s.

While the Government’s own technical report shows that charging Clean Air Zones (CAZ) for the most polluting vehicles are the best way to reduce air pollution in the shortest time possible, the plan encourages local authorities to look into other means of meeting air quality targets first and to avoid this measure wherever possible. Furthermore, revenue from CAZs could be spent on improving public transport and cycling and walking infrastructure.

The “tense” problem

A lack of leadership permeates the entire plan. It states: “we also recognise the need for strong national leadership. We will set a clear national framework for the steps that local authorities need to take.”

Here lies the crux of the issue: “we will”. Rather than providing local authorities with the framework and funding they need to take action on air quality now, there are promises of a future framework.

The plan also promises a number of other plans for the future:

  • A wider UK Clean Air Strategy to be published in 2018. In our response to the draft plan we criticised the Government for only tackling nitrogen dioxide in a myopic way in this plan. By omitting particulate matter - of which there are no healthy levels - the Government risks causing adverse effects later, in the same way the promotion of diesel vehicles since the 80s to tackle climate change has increased air pollution. Particulate matter, caused by tyre and brake wear, will not be tackled by a shift to electric vehicles.
  • A future consultation on a possible scrappage scheme and tackling the other adverse effects of air quality policy.
  • A future Clean Air Fund in England, which will allow local authorities to bid for additional money to support the implementation of measures to improve air quality. This fund could support more sustainable methods of transport such as cycling, but until the Government announces the size of the fund, it is difficult to know what sort of impact this will have.

Shifting responsibility to local authorities

The plan not only shows a lack of leadership and urgency, it also shifts responsibility onto local authorities. While local authorities are best placed to make local decisions, this is a UK-wide issue which requires leadership, investment and action from the top.

In England, 29 local authorities are identified as needing to produce draft air quality plans by March 2018, with final plans due by December 2018. There is a £255 million implementation fund to support local authorities to prepare their plans and to deliver targeted action to improve air quality, with £40 million made available immediately for local authorities to take action. A lack of a framework and indication from UK Government on the size of the Clean Air Fund, however, makes it hard for local authorities to commit to large projects when their budgets are already stretched.

Hope at the local level

There is still hope for more liveable, healthy towns and cities in the future; ones with great air quality, physically active communities and vibrant economies. If the Clean Air Fund is sufficiently large then it will offer local authorities in England a real chance to invest in measures to tackle air pollution including projects aimed at boosting cycling and walking.

This is an opportunity for joined-up and properly funded Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans to give people the infrastructure they need to make cycling and walking a real alternative to the car for short journeys in England and tackle physical inactivity and obesity at the same time. Scotland and Wales are also looking at their own versions of clean or low emission zones and Northern Ireland will devise its own ‘Air Quality Action Plan’.

The leadership in England will need to come from the new Metro Mayors and local authorities. They will need to decide what type of towns and cities they want their communities to live in - ones which will improve their health and wellbeing rather than slowly choke them.