The European Environment Agency has highlighted the effects of poor air quality on human health. David Alexander examines a survey by the Institution of Environmental Sciences on the current position of air quality and planning within UK local authorities.

Background

Action to manage and improve air quality is largely driven by EU legislation, with the Ambient Air Quality Directive (2008) setting legally binding limits for outdoor air concentrations of major pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. The local air quality management (LAQM) regime requires every district and unitary authority to review and assess air quality. These reviews identify whether national objectives have been or will be achieved at relevant locations by an applicable date. If such objectives are not met or are at risk of not being met, the local authority concerned must declare an air quality management area and prepare an action plan. Air quality may also impact on biodiversity under the Habitats Directive.

Local plans can affect air quality, through the type and location of development and the degree of sustainable transport. Local plans must take into account air quality management areas and may need to consider particular issues set out in current Planning Practice Guidance (PPG), as follows.

  • The potential cumulative impact of smaller as well as substantial developments.

  • The impact of specific places from which pollution originates.

  • The appropriateness of new development where air quality is or may become a concern.

  • The measures that might be employed to offset the impact from new development.

Planners must be aware when air quality could be relevant to a planning decision. The current PPG outlines potential questions that local planning authorities might ask.

  • Does resulting traffic affect air quality?

  • Does development involve a bus station, coach or lorry park, a large car park or the generation of heavy goods vehicle flows?

  • Does development introduce new sources of air pollution such as furnaces, extraction systems, biomass boilers, or combined heat and power plant?

  • Does building new homes, workplaces or other development expose people to existing sources of air pollution?

  • Does development give rise to potentially unacceptable impacts, such as construction dust for nearby sensitive locations?

  • How far might wildlife be affected, particularly EU designated sites?

IES survey and its findings

The Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES) Air Quality and Planning survey showed that there are concerns over the availability of local authority resources and expertise in assessing air quality and planning considerations. Not only have such considerations been largely overridden in favour of growing the economy and providing employment, eg over the construction of some roads and motorway links, but there has been consternation that government wished to remove these duties from local authorities, with possible knock-on effects that would put more strain on the National Health Service.

In 2013, the IES surveyed local authorities across the UK and identified six highlights, which were:

  • 50% have no defined air quality and planning budget

  • 90% look to central government for guidance

  • 46% find it very challenging to meet air quality targets

  • fewer than 30% think that air quality and planning are considered very important at local or national levels

  • 59% would like to see existing guidance clarified or updated

  • 45% find that air quality responsibilities conflict with other planning priorities.

Guidance

The IES found that resources are key in considering air quality, with 10% of local authorities having no access to any resources, financial or otherwise. Overall, the majority of decisions on air quality and planning are made in the Environmental Health Department, with staff looking to central government (90%) and professional bodies (60%) for guidance. There was a strong emphasis on highlighting the importance of air quality within the planning community and providing salient best practice examples. When asked about the role of guidance from government, professional bodies and local authorities, the survey suggested the following.

  • Government guidance should interpret good examples of policy and legislation. In total, 27% of responses stressed the importance of air quality in knowing when planning permission should be refused and identifying improvements to set air quality targets and measurable outcomes.

  • Professional guidance should be technical and include significant, science-based criteria, cumulative impacts and action thresholds, and mitigation measures (11%).

  • Local authority guidance must have sufficient weight to allow officers to delay developments where necessary, and to ensure air quality is given the weight it demands. The largest proportion of responses favoured closer, explained policy working between air quality, planning, highways and environmental health (12%) alongside guidance that had “teeth” as a material consideration and demonstrated to planners the importance of air quality, with a requirement for them to follow the guidance (11%).

Meeting air quality objectives and challenges

The most important challenges are:

  • lack of available financial and human resources (35% of respondents)

  • pollution sources outside local authority control (eg roads under Highways Agency control, whose guidance predates the 2008 EU Directive on Air Quality) (17%)

  • balancing air quality with infrastructure, transport and growth (17%); guidance, evidence and good practice need to be available to planners

  • lack of recognition of air quality as a serious concern, especially for health (11%)

  • lack of government interest (9%)

  • lack of local authority knowledge, expertise and enforcement powers (6%)

  • inability to change behaviour over such matters as travel (2%)

  • cumulative impact of small-scale emission sources (2%).

The survey identified that local authorities needed:

  • clearer or updated guidance (59% of responses)

  • additional staff time (51%)

  • more or better training (50%)

  • networking with other local authorities (32%)

  • additional guidance (25%).

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Recommendations

The IES survey identified the ill effects of air quality, including respiratory diseases such as asthma. IES intends to create a short briefing document for local authority staff that will demonstrate the importance of air quality in planning decisions. The EEA report indicated that health effects can occur at air pollution levels lower than those used to establish the 2005 (World Health Organisation) guidelines.

Government

The main recommendations are as follows.

  • Devolved powers to local authorities to stop development with negative air quality effects.

  • Clearer and updated air quality guidance for planners.

  • Best practice policy examples for local authorities.

  • Acknowledgement of the importance of poor air quality for health.

  • Acknowledgement of the importance of poor air quality for health.

Local authorities

The main recommendations are as follows.

  • Effective officer guidance needed.

  • Demonstration of the importance of air quality in planning issues.

  • Promotion of closer working between air quality, planning, environmental health and the Highways Agency.

  • Clarification for developers of what is required when considering air quality.

  • Clarification of issues between air quality and low-carbon energy.

Conclusion

The IES survey illustrated what others have long intimated. Anyone walking in central London, for example, and especially during the tube strikes earlier this year can “taste” the poor air quality. PPG for air quality was produced in March and it would be helpful to assess and build on this. Most important, with a general election pending, are the costly implications of air quality affecting people’s health, and the need to see the bigger picture and act in an integrated rather than a piecemeal way. Several high profile cases where air quality considerations are seen to override development in planning applications would concentrate the minds of those still taking risks with the health of the nation.

Last reviewed 8 December 2014