A lack of urgency is damaging attempts to tackle UK's air quality crisis

Strong leadership with clear thinking and collaboration is the only way the UK is going to find a solution to its air quality epidemic, argues Lucy Wood, but policymakers need to ensure a planning system is implemented to deliver ambitious targets set out earlier this year.

The publication of the UK’s first ever National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) this year marked a turning point in how we approach infrastructure, particularly in terms of how we improve air quality through transport and infrastructure. 

The NIA makes clear what we should be striving for:  low carbon heating solutions for 10,000 homes by 2023, 50% renewable electricity by 2030 and ready for electric vehicles by 2030, to name a few. However, how the current system can deliver on these targets – and particularly those aimed at improving air quality - is less apparent. 

We already know that poor air quality contributes to respiratory problems, cancers and other very serious illnesses.  Recent studies have shown that it can contribute to type 2 diabetes and perhaps even contribute to the onset of dementia, with further health implications likely.  

Currently, air quality effects from new development are assessed through air quality assessments, which, when appropriate, form part of the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) process for developments coming through the local planning system.  

"A national problem needs a national solution. Sustainable transport infrastructure cannot be planned at project and local level."
Lucy Wood, Barton Willmore.

However, the most significant contributor to poor air quality is road traffic and this issue rarely derives from the local level, individual buildings or schemes, but rather from a macro-scale, so cannot be easily tackled at the project level.  By ‘macro’ we’re talking about design of infrastructure, its function and connectivity, and the policies that govern them. 

For example, we can assess how many motor vehicles would be generated by a development and what this would mean in terms of air quality through project-level assessment. But it can’t tell us so easily how mitigation might affect levels of pollution and give the confidence that the air we breathe would not be damaging even with the mitigation in place. 

At Barton Willmore, in addition to EIAs, we are increasingly being asked to undertake Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) for our clients to create developments that enable healthy lifestyle choices and promote wellbeing.  

The EIA and HIA processes have enabled air quality issues to be designed-out, through measures such as mechanical ventilation which ensures better air quality inside buildings. But this again is dealing with air quality on a building by building basis and doesn’t tackle the actual issue.  

What we end up with is responsibility for mitigating poor air quality being divided between the secretary of state and Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) and this relationship is seeing the issue is falling between the gaps of governance.  

To effectively address air quality issues head on and achieve the NIA’s target, we need strong leadership with clear direction and an energetic plan that is capable of delivering truly sustainable and healthy infrastructure.  This can only be achieved by looking at the macro-scale – the national picture – and join up current initiatives.  Central Government must take a step forward and lead efforts from the front. 

But, there appears to be a lack urgency on the subject, setting targets for well into the future rather than ones achievable now.  The ban on the sale of all diesel and petrol cars announced in the Clean Air Plan back in July, for example, will not come into force for another 22 years.  

This is despite an understanding of the detrimental impact particulate pollution is having on the health of the population.    

The government has tackled other health issues proactively, such as the obesity crisis.  Arguably, its reactive stance to air quality will begin to undermine the proactive approaches to health.  Initiatives such as ‘trim trails’, cycle routes and public realm proactively tackle obesity and mental health, but those benefits will be undermined if air quality is poor.  The issues must be tackled simultaneously to be effective.

Some Local Authorities are acting faster.  London’s T- Charge comes into force on 8 April 2019 and Leeds City Council is to launch the first Clean Air Zone outside the capital in January 2020.  But these measures are still determined by local boundaries and are unable to address the national issue. 

A national problem needs a national solution. Sustainable transport infrastructure and cleaner vehicle technology cannot be planned at project and local level. We know there is a real health issue, but the solution towards lower polluting infrastructure relies on a joined-up approach led by government. 

Lucy Wood is environmental planning director at Barton Willmore.