Overview

October has been a busy month for those keeping track of air quality law, policy and practice. The UK Government has launched its consultation on its flagship scheme to introduce Clean Air Zones for five English cities: Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton, in addition to the proposed Ultra Low Emission Zone in London.

Within a few days of the launch, the Government and NGO ClientEarth were back in Court on whether the national air quality plan for NO2 emissions – the document that set out the plan for the five Clean Air Zones – meets the Government's legal duty to address poor air quality and meet EU emission limits as soon as possible. ClientEarth argues its ambition is too low and its timescales too slow.

Burges Salmon's Clean Air Zone workshop was therefore a timely opportunity to examine the UK's air quality issues and look at how – and if – Clean Air Zones will work to address these problems. The workshop included some of the UK's top air quality experts and specialists in Central and Local Government, NGO, academia and the private sector. For those who missed it, here are the key learning points in the experts' own words.

William Wilson, Wyeside Consulting

On the government’s own figures, regarded by many as overly conservative, 29,000 premature deaths annually in the UK are attributable to air quality, 80% of these attributable to traffic pollution. The government also accepts, in evidence to the Supreme Court, that Euro emission standards 1-5 have been almost completely ineffective since they were introduced in 1992, in that they fail to reflect real life driving emissions. Therefore, in the 24 years during which the government and European Commission have allowed Euro standards to be ineffective, it might be reasonable to attribute about 556,800 premature deaths in the UK to traffic pollution. That is the context of current debates about the numbers and content of Clean Air Zones.

It is also a fact that the government is subject to infringement proceedings for long running failures to comply with the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive, and has taken no enforcement action against Volkswagen in respect of 1.2 million vehicles placed on the UK market fitted with devices designed to mislead emissions tests.

Against this background, Clean Air Zones needed to be part of a clearer policy on air quality. This needed to restore confidence in the integrity and quality of emissions testing. Potential breaches of the criminal law needed to be investigated and enforced as such. What is needed is a proper comparative study of the relative costs and benefits of diesel against other fuels. Consideration was needed as to what level of protection the public wants, and needs, on air quality following the Brexit vote. Government policies on air quality needed to deliver Prime Minister Thesesa May’s commitment to govern for everyone, not the privileged few. We needed to clear up, once and for all, in primary legislation, the proper responsibilities of the different levels of government. Above all, we needed to re-forge the link between clean air law and public health, in a Clean Air and Public Health Bill.

Sarah Legge, SLH Consulting Ltd

There are currently 208 low emission zones in Europe which might form a model for the UK Clean Air Zones. These are very varied, on geographical scale (whole cities to single roads), vehicle types affected, pollutants considered, and method of implementation and enforcement.

A number of potential issues with Clean Air Zones were identified by Environmental Protection UK, including overly optimistic emission factors, such that in reality the problem would be much greater and would require more ambitious and more widely implemented solutions. There are also concerns from other cities and areas which have identified local air quality problems, not seen in the less detailed national modelling, over potential reduction of funding and focus for action. Local political will, scheme implementation costs, timescales and the effectiveness of Euro standards continue to be an issue for Clean Air Zones.

Environmental Protection UK called for complementary measures to be included in a Clean Air Zone. This includes measures that address non-road mobile machinery, robust planning policies, small scale energy generation in urban areas, local initiatives and measures to promote ULEV and discourage polluting vehicles.

Stephen Moorcroft, Air Quality Consultants Ltd

Clean Air Zones are anticipated to comprise of packages of measures, many of which will focus on introducing cleaner vehicles into the area (as emissions from the road transport sector are largely responsible for the air quality problems we experience). Such measures are predicated on an assumption that newer vehicles will emit lower levels of pollution than older vehicles – if this is not the case, then the entire strategy is undermined.

The expected improvements to vehicle NOx emissions over the past 20 years (associated with the introduction of increasingly more stringent regulations – the “Euro Standards”) have failed to deliver, for either cars or HGVs. This is because the laboratory testing that is carried out to “type approve” vehicle emissions does not reflect “real-world” driving conditions.

The latest Euro Standards have introduced a new test cycle that more closely represents urban driving conditions – and more importantly, emissions tests are to be carried out on the road during “real-world” driving conditions (using Portable Emissions Measurement Systems). The results to date indicate that emissions from these new vehicles will be much lower, but still higher than the standards. Whilst improvements within Clean Air Zones is to be expected, any assessments of the benefits should include suitable sensitivity tests to account for the expected under-performance.

Scott Lo, Burges Salmon

Recent planning decisions reiterate the possibility that planning applications can be rejected, where there are discrepancies with the air quality impact of the proposed development and the local Development Plan. As such, the importance of considering air quality issues when preparing a planning application should not be understated.

The Clean Air Zone guidance encourages the implementation of Clean Air Zones where appropriate, as a way to focus action and combat poor air quality.

In the absence of a local authority adopting Clean Air Zones, there remains the possibility that Neighbourhood Plans could be used to bring a Clean Air Zone into effect in a defined locality. As a consequence, any future development would need to consider the existence of a Clean Air Zone as a material consideration. Planning applications would need to be determined in accordance with the Development Plan (which would take into consideration the existence of the “Clean Air Zone” Neighbourhood Plan).

However, the imposition of Clean Air Zones will likely only be justified where there is evidence which indicates that the relevant air quality limits are at or are near exceedance. In addition, it is expected that the NPPG will be updated at a later date to set out how Clean Air Zones will work. It is also notable that no central government funding has been identified to implement Clean Air Zones in any location other than where it is mandatory.