Do local results for air quality stack up?

As local air quality management guidance is set to be revised, Richard Maggs casts his eye over the past five years and reviews the regime's progress to date

At the end of this year, the most significant update to local air quality management (LAQM) technical guidance since 2003 will be released in its final version. It seems timely to ask what the regime has delivered to date.

The LAQM regime was introduced in the mid-1990s to complement national efforts to improve air quality in response to the European Framework Directive, EC96/62. The LAQM regime requires that all local authorities in the UK periodically review and assess air quality within their areas to determine whether compliance is achieved with air quality standards.

The process requires LAs to follow a prescriptive process whereby assessment methods move from the application of simple screening tools through to the use of complex dispersion models – validated against monitoring data to assess uncertainty. When a LA identifies that air quality within its areas does not comply with the air-quality standards, then it is required to declare an air quality management area (AQMA), which defines the geographic extent of the non-compliant area.

A plan for action

Having declared the AQMA, the LA is required to draw up an air quality action plan, which sets out the measures to be implemented, alongside time scales, for reducing pollutants to achieve compliance. But an important aspect of implementation of LAQM is that councils must apply measures that are within their control and been seen to move toward attainment of the relevant air quality standards.

Consequently, an authority will not be penalised for not achieving the air quality standards, as long as they have been seen to implement all measures within their control. But this has presented a problem for LAs that have declared on emissions sources not directly under their regulatory framework – such as road traffic on the strategic road network, or industrial sites falling under the regulation of the Environment Agency.

In such instances, measures are required to supplement the efforts of the additional parties. To this end, the LAQM has, at least, had the benefit of forcing the hand of regulators to make statements on their role in LAQM work and measures proposed for improvement. To date, the Highways Agency can be applauded for improving their stance on air quality – something that was not in its initial remit.

Tools for the job

At the start of regime implementation, many LAs asked how they should go about their duties, and requested tools to do so. The provision of help desks by Defra, operated by air quality professionals, and the first of the series of LAQM technical guidance – written by experts and tested by a number of local authorities – provided for a change in assessment methods.

For many, the production of the first electronic version of the Highways Agency’s design manual for roads and bridges was their first exposure to air quality modelling assessment methods. In recent years, assessment tools have been expanded to include: forward-projection calculators for pollutant concentrations; a stack-height calculation tool; assessment of background pollutant concentrations; and a move toward web-based reporting, as outlined in the latest consultation draft of the revised guidance.

To date, the regime has identified 494 AQMAs, spread across 225 local authorities. This represents a significant number since Westminster City Council became the first LA to declare in January 1999. Since then, it seems the number of declarations has increased during each round of LAQM.

By far the largest increase in the number of declarations coincided with the end of the second round and the application of the revised technical guidance in 2003, which paid closer attention to street canyons and housing immediately adjacent to busy junctions. The focus on road traffic was deliberate here, as it was already to forming the mainstay of declarations on AQMAs – and continues to represent 95% of declarations.

Problems in practice

While significant progress has been made on the assessment and identification of problems in air quality by councils, many have found the implementation of measures to improve air quality more problematic. Here, the integration of air quality action planning into local transport plans provided a way of releasing funds and making air quality a shared priority with central government. The extent to which this is successful is still ongoing, and will be established through an evaluation exercise of what the second round of local transport plans has achieved. The immediate achievement is, at least, the integration of environmental policy into transport policy.

Is there a downside? Perhaps. For many LAs, the availability of resources to fulfil the cycle of review and assessment is the biggest challenge. Defra has previously named and shamed those councils that appear to be falling behind in their statutory duties. Whether the strategy works to entice flagging authorities to improve their performance will be determined by the extent to which they play catch-up and negotiate their way around the delivery of the third round.

One thing is clear, with the adoption of the Ambient Directive (2008/50/EC) by the European Commission, and the extended focus on derogation issues for non-compliance, the LAQM regime is likely to run for a long while yet.

Dr Richard Maggs is practice manager of air quality at Bureau Veritas

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