Tackling an “urgent public health crisis” - Next steps for improving air quality in Wales

Published 04/12/2017   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

On 5 December, there will be a Welsh Government debate on air quality in Wales. New research on UK pollution published in October by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and Lancet Countdown Collaboration shows that 44 UK cities are in breach of recommended World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for air quality. In Wales, Cardiff, Swansea, Port Talbot, Newport, Chepstow and Wrexham were all over the limit. Public Health Wales has described air pollution as an “urgent public health crisis”, second only to smoking and more of a concern than obesity and alcohol.

Another recent publication by the RCP reported that as many as 1,300 people a year die prematurely in Wales from breathing polluted air. Across the UK the number is estimated at 40,000 and reportedly costs £27 billion a year. The problem is now so severe that the World Health Organisation issued a report suggesting global air pollution poses a bigger threat than HIV and Ebola.Tagfeydd ar yr M4, Cymru Wales has its own sizeable slice of the pollution-pie. A road in Caerphilly reportedly clocks the second highest concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the UK. The road, which is thought to be the most polluted outside London, exceeded NO2 limits on 60 occasions in 2016; 42 times more than allowed under EU law.

NO2 is a pollutant emitted by all combustion engines, although diesel engines are the worst. The gas can cause inflammation of the airways and irritation to the eyes. It exacerbates existing respiratory conditions such as asthma.

UK Air Quality Strategy

Up to now, the UK’s primary assault on air pollution has been the UK Air Quality Strategy. The strategy was published in 2007 and provided objectives to meet and retain certain air quality standards. In recent years, the strategy has come under fire for its ineffectiveness, leading the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee to publish a 40-page review of the measures in 2016. The document criticised DEFRA’s handling of the issue saying that ‘the Local Government Association, considered that DEFRA failed to take a “coherent, cross-government approach”’.

In May DEFRA published a new draft strategy on air quality. The document, which caused stir after the UK Government lost a high court battle to delay its release, set out a more contemporary action plan. Following the draft, the UK Government published its Air quality plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations in late July.

UK Air Quality Plan for nitrogen dioxide

The plan contains actions that are to be rolled out across the UK, focusing on tackling the issue of NO2 concentrations around roads.

Air quality is a devolved competence, and legislation such as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act can provide momentum to address the air pollution problem. The Act, which encourages public bodies to make sustainable choices in line with well-being goals, includes assessments of local well-being and an indicator to measure NO2 pollution in the air.

The Wales-specific section of the UK plan draws directly from the Act’s principles;

Poor air quality has fundamental impacts on human health, affecting both the quality and duration of peoples’ lives, the quality of their lived environments and the resilience of their communities. It also has implications for equality of access to a healthy living environment. Reducing levels of air pollution within legislative limits in the soonest possible time will contribute, either directly or through associated impacts, to the Well-being Goals.

The plan outlined a new Welsh Government consultation. The consultation, which will happen in the next 12 months, will propose a ‘Clean Air Zone Framework for Wales’. One of the proposals outlined in the plan is for a Clean Air Zone, with vehicle access restrictions for Cardiff, which would be implemented during 2021 or earlier.

Existing Measures in Wales

The proposed new ‘Clean Air Zone Framework’ will build on an assortment of measures already implemented in Wales including real time monitoring and reporting on air quality.

These measures are largely executed by local authorities through a system of ‘Local Air Quality Management’ (LAQM). LAQM is supported by Welsh Government-issued guidance documents which provide information on all aspects of LAQM including pollutant concentration targets and action plan formulation.

These are underpinned by the statutory air quality objectives in Air Quality (Wales) Regulations 2000, Amendment Regulations 2002 and Air Quality Standards (Wales) Regulations 2010 which are largely designed around EU air quality objectives.

In order to meet these objectives, local authorities have deployed monitoring sites across Wales to record changes in air quality. All 22 local authorities are members of the Welsh Air Quality Forum (WAQF) and report on their air quality information to be compiled by the WAQF. The forum also offers advice and expertise to help local authorities meet their pollution targets.

2016 Welsh Government Air Quality Consultation

Last year, the Welsh Government held a consultation on local air quality and proposed several measures to streamline the LAQM process, including more frequent reporting on air pollution levels and encouraging collaboration between local authorities to enhance efficiency.

A key part of this consultation was a discussion on ‘Air Quality Management Areas’ (AQMA). These are designated areas where the national air quality standard is not met. In these areas, local authorities must undertake special measures to monitor and manage the pollution problem. This is done with advice and regulation from Natural Resources Wales. The consultation recommended that authorities may be able to declare an AQMA more easily so that measures can be implemented promptly and effectively.

The UK Air Quality Plan for nitrogen dioxide lists a number of actions that the Welsh Government has agreed following the consultation. These include:

  • The streamlining of the AQMA process;
  • Issuing new guidance to local authorities, stressing the greater public health benefits likely to result from actions to reduce air pollution in an integrated way;
  • Amending the Well-being of Future Generations Act to add air quality to the list of things to be taken into account by Public Services Boards when preparing assessments of local well-being;
  • A review of national planning policy and guidance in relation to air quality; and
  • Working with stakeholders to initiate an educational campaign on air quality for health professionals and the general public.

Article by Chloe Corbyn, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image from Flickr by Paul Townsend. Licensed under Creative Commons.