Our Comment: Air quality -passive choking or time to change?

“Air quality is this generations Passive Choking” Dr Alison Cook, British Lung Foundation.

If you want a reminder about how quickly difficult issues can be solved and our quality of life improved – ask a recent graduate if they remember smoking in pubs and restaurants? You will be greeted with horror and subconsciously put in the box marked ‘alive during Victorian times’. Yet the public smoking ban in England is less than 10 years old.

Today we face the public health crisis of air quality, with a debate about how difficult it is, and a raft of initiatives launched this month. In 10 years time as we cycle to work, order our electric taxi, work flexibly, book a seat on public transport, and pick our children up from school and walk back via new linear parks – will we look back and wonder what the fuss was about?

The nature of the problem

The good news on air quality is that if we wait long enough it will solve itself. The main cause of air pollution in urban areas is road traffic. As manufacturers race to produce low emission and low running cost vehicles which are better all round, over time these will dominate road traffic and pollution will fall to acceptable levels.

The bad news on air quality is the costs of waiting for these changes are too high. At the National Clean Air Summit last week, the Mayor of Greater Manchester stated that air quality was costing on average six months off everyone’s life who lives in an urban area, and £1 billion annually to the Greater Manchester Economy. This would be higher still for Birmingham and the West Midlands Combined Authority area.

Air quality is also not fair. It has a disproportionate impact on the weak and vulnerable members of our communities – expectant mothers, children with developing lungs, and the elderly. It is attracted to poverty – the poorest people living near busy roads, while the wealthier sit in idling cars in traffic jams outside local schools commuting from areas of good air quality to air-conditioned boxes in the city centre. Many of the solutions are not fair. The cost of public transport can be higher than driving. Those with an older vehicle, small business, or requirement for a heavy goods vehicle often cannot afford the cleaner option.

Air quality is largely invisible, odd, and increasing in impact. Exposure can vary from simple behaviours such as your distance from the kerb when walking, where you sit on a bus, the route you chose to cycle on, how you ventilate your house and office, and how much exercise you do where and when. Is air quality only an issue when it is near human populations? Are greenhouse gases also defined as air quality – given they have a significant indirect impact on health through increased extreme weather events? The lack of comprehensive air quality monitoring in many areas also doesn’t help. Also, as medical research helps our knowledge in this area, our understanding of the impact grows. For example, the World Health Organisation regularly updates the ‘safe level’ based on scientific evidence, with the next set of guidelines in 2020 expected to set even stricter limits.

Solutions on the way?

Solutions will require strong leadership and coordination at national, regional and local level. Recent polling data for the National Clean Air Summit by Bright Blue revealed that 71% of the UK population thought air quality was an important issue to tackle while 40% felt it was the Government’s responsibility, 4% local councils and 2% metro mayors.

National Government

The UK Government is widely perceived as being slow on addressing air quality with the highly publicised court cases by Client Earth forcing the Government to accelerate action or face fines from the EU. As a result the Government has published a National Draft Clean Air Quality Strategy (open for comments until 14 August) and responded to recommendations by the Joint Select Committee review into air quality policy.

Part of the national response is requiring initially Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton to establish Clean Air Zones (CAZ) by 2020 to charge the most polluting vehicles and therefore improve air quality in these national pollution hotspots. London already has a scheme in place which it is looking to extend over time in scope of vehicles and geography.

At the National Clean Air Summit mayors and city leaders from 14 of the largest cities in England and Wales representing over 20 million people, made a set of clean air asks on national Government This included Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Mayor Andy Street. The demands included bringing forward the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 10 years to 2030, a targeted national scrappage scheme to remove older vehicles and help those on low-incomes and smaller businesses, and a devolved and larger clean air fund to help with the local innovation and transition required.

The Mayor and West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA)

The Mayor has been supportive of Birmingham introducing a Clean Air Zone and ensuring the WMCA, through its transport arm, helps with the implementation of improved public transport. At the same time he has called for the development of a broader regional coalition to create a clean air revolution, improve health, congestion and attract greener vehicle manufacturing jobs. JLR is already reconfiguring a local factory to begin electric car production, Warwick University is the new national centre for battery technology, Coventry is producing the new London electric cabs – but could we stimulate more companies and jobs in the growth sector of the future?

Birmingham and the Clean Air Zone

This summer Birmingham City Council is launching a consultation on their Clean Air Zone. After the six-week consultation period with residents and businesses, the council will submit a proposal to Government in September. Implementation leading to improved air quality, will reduce the 900 premature deaths a year in the city, and the potential risk of a £60m fine. The BBC have a useful summary of the proposals, boundaries, charging, vehicles covered, and potential discounts. The Birmingham Post and Mail has gathered the initial local reaction from political, business and community leaders.

How is SWM helping?

Since 2010, SWM has annually monitored the West Midlands 2020 Roadmap, where “by 2020 businesses and communities are thriving in a West Midlands that is environmentally sustainable and socially just.” Air quality impacts our headline social indicator of the life expectancy gap between the best and worst areas.

We helped set and monitor the air quality target for the WMCA Strategic Economic Plan and Performance Management Framework, provided annual monitoring updates and compared performance with other combined authority areas.

Through our local networks and research we have identified and promoted good practice within combined authorities, higher education, the NHS, councils and businesses. We have used this knowledge and worked with our members such as Cenex, Ecuity, and our Public Sector Sustainability and Energy Network to help develop a regional approach for the WMCA where it can ‘add value’. As a result is likely that the current WMCA Environment Board will be strengthened with local authority members, to help oversee the development and implementation of a new strategic approach. This could include:

  • Keeping a strategic approach to improving air quality by continuing to measure an overall basket of air quality indicators and greenhouse gases, not just Nitrogen Dioxide.
  • Develop a grand challenge to address clean growth and mobility as part of the WMCA Local Industrial Strategy and bid for Government funding.
  • Develop a Low Emissions Strategy to help coordinate monitoring, grand challenge actions, and scale up local good practice.
  • Create a Low Emissions Unit to support the WMCA, Transport for West Midlands and local authority partners deliver the Low Emissions Strategy.
  • WMCA to use Environment Board Delivery Plan to lead by example – for example by integrating air quality standards into new buildings, procurement, and transport contracts.

All the ingredients are there at national, regional and local level to help make air pollution, like smoking in public places – a thing of a past. All we need is consistent leadership and the willingness to work through and implement the detailed solutions. I am looking forward to 10 years time, when I talk to a new disbelieving graduate and explain how we use to sit in metal boxes going no-where while they were silently killing us and our neighbours.

Dr. Simon Slater, on behalf of the SWM team.

These are the views of SWM and not necessarily those of the WMCA or its members.