Local authorities in England have not been given the funding or powers to fulfil the government’s strategy on air pollution, and air quality in English towns and cities is likely to suffer as a result, local governments and charities have said.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published its latest plan late on 28 April. It followed a consultation earlier that month that was only days long, which local authorities said was not enough time for them to contribute properly, according to a Guardian report.
The strategy requires local authorities in England to improve air quality, through measures such as traffic restrictions and clamping down on wood-burning stoves. No new funding is on offer, and measures such as traffic calming are often controversial and difficult for local governments to implement, while experts have said regulations on wood burning are inadequate to reduce pollution from this rapidly growing source.
The Healthy Air Coalition, made up of dozens of health and pollution charities and local governments, called for a change of direction from ministers, saying progress on air pollution had “plateaued” since the Covid pandemic, said the Guardian report.
Anna Garrod, policy director at Impact on Urban Health, said: “Air pollution is, right now, devastating people’s health across the country. It’s a public health crisis that costs the economy billions of pounds every year. Not only that, but time and time again, research shows air pollution is a social justice issue which disproportionately affects people who often contribute the least, like children.”
Local governments are especially frustrated that the consultation on the strategy, which opened on 11 April, closed on 21 April, said the Guardian report.
Liz Clements, a councillor and cabinet member for transport in Birmingham, said: “The government provided just nine working days to respond to a strategy that seeks to address the biggest environmental risk to public health. The strategy makes clear the essential role that local government has in delivering cleaner air for communities. Yet in the time provided to develop an informed response to such a key document, there has been no recognition of the need for local government to assess potential impacts on a significant number of service areas.”
She called for Defra to give local authorities more time to respond, and to work with them on the issues.
Some local authorities also fear the government is not speaking with a unified voice. Some of the measures called for in the new air quality strategy are the same ones that a number of Conservative politicians, at local and national level, are campaigning against or complaining about before local elections on 4 May.
These include low emission zones, low traffic neighbourhoods, systems to filter buses from traffic, and other measures often clumped with “15-minute cities” that have become the target of conspiracy theorists, whose messages Conservative politicians often amplify on social media.
Christopher Hammond, a former leader of Southampton city council, said: “A vocal and growing lobby that views any attempt to get people out of their cars as restricting freedom has heightened the sense of controversy and genuine fears over a minority of violent threats, which risk eroding the political will to implement bold but effective measures.”
The Healthy Air Coalition has examined the effect of some existing measures on air quality. Local air quality management areas are supposed to enable local government to take urgent measures to reduce air pollution in hotspots and should be revoked when air pollution goals are met.
The group analysed measures in force across the UK and found that 68.5% of UK local authorities still have one or more such areas. The first one introduced in Westminster 24 years ago is among those still in place.
The group said the persistence of these management areas showed that air pollution was not being solved, said the report.
Jason Torrance, interim chief executive of UK100, a group of local authorities working together on environmental issues, said much more action was needed, and the latest plans for Defra were inadequate.
“The latest statistics reveal the worrying scale of the government’s air quality failures,” he said. “Hard-working councillors will be left gasping for breath, as the government is asking them to take on all the political risk for traffic reduction and wood burning, without offering the necessary policy support or funding.”
He called for a rethink. “Defra officials have done well in the circumstances, and we welcome the commitment to help councils with air quality communication, but it’s hard to see this strategy delivering clean air without putting in place significant improvements to a national and local government partnership,” he said.