he air quality debate is complex and contains many different actors, technical and scientific complexity and uncertainty. Considerations include how different airborne pollutants interact and the impact of various pollutants on different elements of human health across entire populations. We also have a media which sees air pollution as a long-running public interest story with an added tang of corporate corruption, courtesy of Volkswagen, and a public who want the problem solved urgently but by someone else. On top of all that most of us are both victims and perpetrators - our children’s schools are often on polluted roads, but we are driving them there.
Yet the hardest problems need the most political leadership. Otherwise such issues go round in circles as ministers come and go, pressure groups and vested interests nudge policy slightly one way and then the other and newspapers say “something must be done”. But the air quality debate has been sorely lacking in government leadership and the draft air quality plan finally published in early May does nothing to buck the trend.
Behavioural change needed
My personal preference, unsurprisingly given EIC’s role, would be for our political leaders to persuade the public that some sacrifices and behaviour changes are worth making to deliver clean air. But even if the government went the other way and argued that the impact of air pollution was less of an issue than other pressing public health issues and that the social and economic impact of, say, banning all diesels from city centres (as called for by some campaigners), would have serious impacts on employment and business success, at least it would be doing what we elect governments to do - clarifying trade-offs and building support for tough choices.
In truth, the government is still muddling along on air quality. For years, the political view was that since air quality was gradually improving (as coal power plants closed, industrial emissions filter technology improved, regulations toughened), it was not a major public concern. Even if we were struggling to meet EU timescales it was reasonable to balance further progress with the interests of vehicle manufacturers who were big employers and firms owning old vehicles who could not easily replace them. Ministers and their advisers though did not see that the ground was shifting, in three ways.
First, the scientific evidence of health impacts of air pollution has grown. Second, the dominant position of climate change as an issue ebbed after 2010, meaning more air time for other environmental issues to come to the fore. Third, the Volkswagen scandal led to huge media coverage of the topic.
A reluctance to act decisively
Despite the new context, ministers were reluctant to act decisively for fear of alienating motorist groups and business lobbies. Multiple supreme court judgements against the government created the impression that ministers had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards anything resembling a tough Air Quality Plan and the recent farce over whether publication could be delayed until after the election (Defra wanted to delay on the basis that because they hadn’t got round to publishing it, ‘purdah’ now meant they couldn’t - the high court told ministers to publish and be damned) was the icing on the cake.
There are some good elements to the plan. More Clean Air Zones, additional funds for bus retrofitting and recognition of alternative fuels and innovation more widely. But despite Defra analysis showing that only a significant and rapid drop in use of existing diesel vehicles in urban areas will make meaningful cuts to NOx levels, the plan does nothing to build support for the hard decisions that follow from this - charging polluting vehicles, a scrappage scheme, aligning vehicle tax with NOx/PM emissions plus support for retrofitting, low emission fuels and ultra-low emission vehicles.
EIC’s air quality working group is scrutinising the plan (which is out for consultation) and we will be having discussion with officials and ministers post-election. But if ever “strong and stable leadership in the national interest” was needed it’s on this issue.