Defra makes moves to cut air pollution, but councils warn they ‘aren’t ambitious enough’

Lewes in East Sussex (pictured) was classed by IQAir as having the UK's most polluted air outside of Greater London in 2021

In a move announced today (18 August), the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has strengthened air quality improvement guidance for local authorities. The guidance, and other moves announced today, fall under the post-Brexit Environment Act, which passed in October last year after a lengthy process of almost two years.

Defra is making National Highways the first designated ‘Relevant Public Authority’ for air pollution under the act. This means that the agency will now have a statutory requirement to work with local councils throughout the development and implementation of plans for reducing air pollution on roads.

By Defra’s own figures, domestic road transport generates 12% of England’s particulate matter (PM) air pollution, and 35% of its nitrogen oxide emissions, hence the selection of National Highways as the first body to be subject to this new requirement.

Defra stated this week that National Highways already works with councils, but admitted that the new statutory requirement will likely result in a “more consistent approach” to local collaborations.

UK 100, the network for local authorities, has cautiously welcomed the change. Its chief executive Polly Billington said: “Up until now, our members have found effective engagement with National Highways difficult; they have struggled to find out information, get tangible support and secure funds for air quality action.

“We hope this move is a sea change in the relationship between local leaders and National Highways – but we will keep a close eye on developments to ensure National Highways are acting on their new responsibility to work with local authorities to help deliver cleaner air for communities across the country.”

Local plans

Also unveiled by Defra are new technical guidance documents, intended to help local councils produce and implement local Air Quality Action Plans consistent with their legal requirements.

The passing of the Environment Act means that any areas exceeding their air pollution limits will need to declare an ‘Air Quality Management Area’ within 12 months and update their Air Quality Action Plan to bring pollution down within 18 months after that declaration. There are also new requirements on the level of detail in timelines provided in these plans.

Defra has, however, stopped short of proposing a more ambitious national target to reduce air pollution.

The Environment Act gives the UK a chance to set legally binding targets for nature, and Defra proposed targets through to the 2030s for nature, waste and other pollution as well as air pollution this spring. The headline target on air pollution  is to halve the limit on fine particles (PM2.5) in England from an annual average of 20 to 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air. The World Health Organisation last year updated its guidance on PM2.5, stating that nations should target 5 micrograms per cubic metre of air. As such, this new target was poorly received.

UK100 has been calling on Defra to increase the target in line with WHO guidelines. Other groups advocating for this include Global Action Plan, Friends of the Earth and Mums for Lungs. Uk100 has also been advocating for interim population exposure reduction targets.

UK100’s Billington said: “Any moves to strengthen air quality action and make our towns and cities more breathable are welcome, but they don’t go far enough.”

A call to improve the Environment Act’s legally binding targets has also been made by the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – the Government’s post-Brexit watchdog for the natural environment. In a publication released in July, the OEP called the list of targets “unambitious” on the whole and warned that they were not “comprehensive”.

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