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Government backing and more money are needed if areas are to improve air quality

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High in new environment secretary Michael Gove’s in-tray will be how to resolve a legal quagmire of the government’s own making around controlling nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution from, chiefly, diesel vehicles.

Since his predecessor Andrea Leadsom’s preferred solution was to devise duties for councils without any extra funds, how he resolves this will matter in town halls.

Transport pollution is an old problem. Councillors in late 19th century cities were afraid the rapid spread of the hansom cab and horse-drawn bus would see streets submerged beneath manure. That problem was eventually solved by the invention of the internal combustion engine, which in turn brought pollution from exhaust fumes.

Increases in NO2 pollution exacerbates pre-existing health conditions, and contributes to an annual 23,500 premature deaths in the UK according to statistics from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

Councils are responsible for local air quality and 40 areas have been identified by the government as being at risk of repeatedly exceeding their NO2 pollution limits.

Forty areas have been identified by the government as being at risk of repeatedly exceeding NO2 pollution limits

air quality map key

Government backing and more money are needed if areas are to improve air quality


One of those is Leicester. Writing for LGC this week Leicester City Council’s assistant mayor for energy and sustainability Adam Clarke (Lab) says the city is committed to improving air quality but adds: “We can’t do this alone.”

Places like Leicester are being given a maximum of three years to develop and implement plans using their powers to create clean air zones (CAZs), although the government has indicated it would prefer to see action taken more quickly than that.

A clean air zone is an area where targeted action is taken to improve air quality in a way that delivers improved health benefits and supports economic growth.

This call to action is based on a trial in five cities – Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton – but the concept has barely begun, let alone produced results.

Chartered Institute of Environmental Health policy head Tony Lewis says: “There has been no evaluation of their success and CIEH members involved in their implementation indicate CAZs merely move the pollution hotspots around.”

Local authorities have a disparate collection of powers bearing on air quality, which go beyond NO2 to control of other sources of pollution, such as petrol vehicles and industrial processes.

Some directly concern air, such as control of pollutants emitted by factories, restricting vehicles from idling and installing charging points to encourage use of electric vehicles.

Others may help air quality while delivering objectives such as relieving traffic congestion, banning heavier (or in some cases all) vehicles from certain streets and discouraging ‘school run’ traffic.

Councils can also contribute through their own buying power by using cleaner fuel vehicles instead of diesel and energy efficient measures in their buildings.

There can be both financial and political costs to attempts to reduce pollution.

Motoring lobbies are loudly active against restrictions on cars, and controlling commercial vehicles and industrial processes can invite opposition from affected industries that may be important to the local economy. And it’s a brave councillor who tells local parents their children should not go to school by car. Balancing public health against jobs will always be an awkward exercise.

Cllr Clarke says it will require “political will at the highest level” to achieve anything more than marginal gains.

“We need binding legislation that recognises the threat of dirty air to human health,” he says.

Lord Porter (Con), chair of the Local Government Association, has also said “any new burdens for councils must be fully funded by the new government”.

However, there has been no mention from Whitehall of any new money being forthcoming to assist with this work. Mr Lewis has called the government’s plan to place responsibility on councils to “develop novel and innovative solutions to a national problem … an abdication of responsibility”.

Graphic with vehicles suggesting air quality

Government backing and more money are needed if areas are to improve air quality

Forty areas have been identified by the government as being at risk of repeatedly exceeding its NO2 pollution limits

Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group, which represents the transport interests of Britain’s largest urban areas, says the government’s botched approach to improving air quality so far has been “compounded by the mixed messages in the strategy”, especially in relation to “vague and general references to the need not to impede economic growth, without any clear definition of what the latter might mean”.

He says: “In short the government’s overall approach could be summarised as delegating responsibility for tackling the problem to local government while delaying key decisions on the national funding, taxation and policy framework which necessarily create the context for any effective local government air quality strategy.”

An ingenious invention – the internal combustion engine – solved the Victorians’ manure problem. Electric vehicles might in the medium to long term solve the contemporary air pollution one.

Until they do, councils are using their powers as best they can, but they will need the government’s backing and financial resources if they are to deliver.

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