A breath of fresh air? Air quality in Wales: An update

Published 19/06/2018   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Thursday 21 June is Clean Air Day. To mark the day, on 20 June the Assembly will hold a debate on air quality.

Wales has some of the worst air quality in the UK. Cardiff and Port Talbot both have higher particulate matter levels than Birmingham or Manchester, and a road in Caerphilly is the most polluted outside of London. This air pollution contributes to around 2,000 deaths per year in Wales. Public Health Wales have described it as an urgent public health crisis, second only to smoking. Some areas have breached EU Regulations for several years, culminating in the Welsh Government being taken to court for its lack of action. Unlike Scotland, which has its own Air Quality Strategy and lower pollution limits, air quality strategy in Wales has mostly been determined by EU Regulations, and delivered by local authorities.

On 24 April, the Minister for Environment, Hannah Blythyn, made a Plenary statement on air quality. She said that delivering clean air in Wales is one of her key priorities. She outlined a number of actions the Welsh Government is taking to improve air quality. These are summarised below.

Planning Policy Wales

The Minister told the Assembly that Planning Policy Wales (PPW) has recently been rewritten and restructured around the principles of the Well-being of Future Generations Act. The new version of the policy contains a section on air quality and soundscape. The consultation closed on 18 May and the new PPW is expected to be published before the end of the year

Clean Air Wales Programme

The Minister said she will introduce the Clean Air Wales Programme to consider evidence, develop and implement actions required across Welsh Government departments and sectors to ensure clean air . The immediate aim of the programme will be to achieve compliance with existing air quality obligations. She said its wider purpose goes beyond legal compliance, and that it will aim to reduce the burden of poor air quality on human health and the environment.

Clean Air Plan

The Clean Air Plan will be a core component of the Clean Air Wales Programme. The Minister said the plan will be published for consultation by the end of 2018. She said it will:

  • Set out in greater detail how Welsh Government will action improvements in air quality that will make a significant contribution to the well-being goals;
  • Identify cross-Government and sectoral actions required to achieve clean air;
  • Set out the communication, engagement and education measures needed to encourage behavioural change; and
  • Include actions for strengthening the regulation of emissions from different sectors of industry.

Air Quality Monitoring and Assessment Centre

A further component of the Programme will be the establishment of an Air Quality Monitoring and Assessment Centre in 2019. The Minister said the centre is being established to ensure decisions on tackling airborne pollution are evidence-based, and associated actions are prioritised to maximise benefits in public health and well-being.

Clean Air Zone Framework

On 25 April the Welsh Government launched its consultation on a draft Clean Air Zone Framework for Wales. A Clean Air Zone is a defined geographical area where a range of actions can be applied with the purpose of significantly reducing public and environmental exposure to airborne pollutants. The framework sets out the Welsh Government’s principles for the consistent operation of Clear Air Zones (CAZ) , how they should be established and what health improvements they should deliver. The proposed model will require certain vehicles using the roads to meet the latest Euro Emissions Standards in order to be able to travel within a CAZ. The Minister said this could be brought about through the introduction of access restrictions (such as bans or charges) for the most polluting vehicles.

Air Quality in Wales website

Shortly after the statement, the Minister relaunched the Air Quality in Wales website. The website will provide information on air quality including live information on current and forecasted levels of air pollution, as well as historical data.

Roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations

The day after the statement the Welsh Government also published a consultation on its supplemental plan to the UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide (N02) concentrations. The plan sets out how the Welsh Government will reduce concentrations of NO2  around roads where levels are above legal limits. The previous Welsh section of the plan did not satisfy the requirements of the Ambient Air Quality Directive and associated Welsh Regulations. The Minister said that the consultation and accompanying revised plan were published to meet the Welsh Government’s legal obligations. The Welsh Government will publish a final compliant plan by 31 July 2018.

Managing exceedances of NO2 on the motorway and trunk road network is the direct responsibility of the Welsh Government. In her statement, the Minister outlined that a number of 50mph speed limits and road markings to smooth traffic flows would be introduced (by the end of June) where N02 levels exceed Directive limits. These will be implemented at each of the following locations:

  • A494 at Deeside;
  • A483 near Wrexham;
  • M4 between junctions 41 and 42;
  • M4 between junctions 25 and 26 (during the night, using the existing variable speed limit infrastructure); and
  • A470 between Upper Boat and Pontypridd.

Air Quality Fund

The final announcement in the statement was the allocation of over £20 million for an Air Quality Fund through to 2021. The fund is intended to help accelerate compliance with NO2 limits and improve air quality . The Minister also said that the fund will be used to provide ongoing support, guidance and finance to enable local authorities to develop and implement plans and take action to achieve compliance in the shortest possible time.

For further information about air quality, please read the recent Research Service publication: Air Quality in Wales.

Article by Chloe Corbyn, National Assembly for Wales Research Service