Housing challenges on the horizon for air quality

The Government's housing drive is set to place even more pressure on local authorities to address rising air quality concerns. Richard Maggs asks what can be done to alleviate this burden

The Government forecasts that the number of households will increase on average by 209,000 every year for the next 20 years in the UK. The increasing need for single-occupancy housing will be the main driving force behind this growing demand.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) estimates that 72% (150,000) of new households will be required to meet this social trend. And it acknowledges that regional pressures will inevitably arise with London, the Southeast and the Southwest bearing the brunt.

However, NIMBYism appears to be well and truly entrenched in the UK psyche with recent research confirming that most people are opposed to any development taking place in their area. So what does this mean for local authority officers at the front end of public service?

Look no further than DEFRA’s recent name-and-shame list of local authorities and their duties regarding air quality. Under the local air quality management regime, local authorities are required to review and assess air quality within their area against nationally adopted standards and objectives.

When results of the assessment show that non-compliance with the objectives is likely, the authority must declare an air quality management area (AQMA). Where such declarations are made, the authority must submit an air quality action plan, which sets out how the authority proposes to reduce emissions within the AQMA.

Last January, DEFRA named 39 councils for failure to keep to the statutory process and deadlines. The list included a number of urban areas – which is surprising because urban authorities have historically been better equipped with resources and experienced staff to remain ahead in the programme. So what’s happening?

The release of the list by DEFRA highlights a number of potential issues hidden behind the obvious ‘lack of resources’ often cited by authorities in respect of delays encountered in attainment of statutory deadlines.

Knowledge is power

Firstly, the local air quality management regime inevitably requires experienced staff with a good level of technical ability. Technical guidance has been provided to authorities but this does not provide the in-depth knowledge required for the use of detailed dispersion modelling.

Secondly, the role of an environmental health officer goes way beyond that of local air quality management duties – and this is the real problem that many authorities face. Officers are required to investigate complaints made by the public – typically on matters related to noise, dust and odour.

Statutory nuisance is defined under section 79(1) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and is recognised as being a potentially onerous aspect to an officer’s duties. When complaints are received, the officer will need to ascertain its frequency, duration and severity so that a nuisance can be established. If an abatement notice is to be served, it is likely that the officer will wish to observe the nuisance, which will require time out of the office.

The allocation of resources to the investigation of complaints is one that has, in recent years, even reached the Houses of Parliament with members of the house seeking to ascertain whether appropriate resources are allocated and whether the levels of fines are commensurate with the ‘crime’.

This is best illustrated through reference to the experience of one authority. In 2002-3, Aylesbury Vale District Council investigated 575 complaints of noise nuisance, with three abatement notices served. Of these three notices, two were followed by further action for non-compliance. In the same period, the council investigated 276 complaints of other statutory nuisance such as smoke, dust and odour nuisance, with no abatement notices served.

These numbers increased in 2003-4 to a total of 688 complaints of noise nuisance and 348 complaints of other statutory nuisance being investigated. Detailed statistics of the level of fines imposed for non-compliance to abatement notices are not available.

Under pressure

It seems likely, with increasing pressure on brownfield sites to provide the necessary housing allocation for the current ODPM predictions, that the number of complaints will rise in the future. The statistics for Aylesbury Vale indicate a worrying trend for year-on-year increases in the number of complaints. Tie this in with a population increasingly aware of environmental issues and the outcome seems inevitable, particularly where development takes place on previously vacant sites in areas in which industry has built up over the intervening years.

The events at the Buncefield Depot last December appear to support the notion that further guidance is required on housing allocations in close proximity of industrial areas, although in the case of Buncefield, the existing COMAH (control of major accident hazards) guidance does apply.

The analysis of the data acquired on pollutant levels during the course of the Buncefield disaster is still ongoing. However, we know that the national air quality monitoring network did not register any significant changes in the levels of fine particulates (PM10) across southern England.

This was by good fortune rather than through design. At the time of the event, the air masses across the UK changed from a circulatory pattern to one that was dominated by those coming in from the Atlantic.

This, together with the high buoyancy of the plume – leading to a significant height above the boundary layer being achieved by the release – appears to have avoided what may otherwise have been a major public health disaster. However, for smaller industrial sites, the main issues pertaining to air quality appear to be wrapped up in the issue of complaints.

A question of distance

Should we be asking for further guidance on distances to be applied between land allocated for housing and existing industrial sites? This may counter inevitable increases in complaints that may otherwise occur, although with NIMBYism rife, one suspects that it is only a matter of time before the emphasis changes to views such as: “The site is not nice to look at”.

Playing devil’s advocate, let’s think about the industrial site owner. In many cases, sites have been operating within the remit provided by the competent regulatory body to which it reports. Suddenly, faced with housing allocation on a site immediately adjacent to it, operators find themselves faced with tightening regulation and nuisance investigations.

Some sites will invariably close as a result of increased costs associated with further abatement requirements and changes in operating practices. The economic viability of the site may be compromised. But what does this say about the UK’s opinion of light industrial operators?

Surely, closer scrutiny of the land allocated to housing seems the easier option for avoiding the situation arising in the first instance. It would also avoid increased pressure on the already over-stretched resources of many local authority environmental health departments. At least that would enable officers to focus on important issues including local air quality management duties.

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