Public Health England’s (PHE) review of evidence on how to improve air quality is welcome guidance but the Environment Bill will be the real test of the government’s commitment to tackling air pollution, according to health charities and local authorities.
The British Lung Foundation and the British Heart Foundation (BHF) both responded positively to the PHE publication but acknowledged that local authorities need support to implement these recommendations. The BHF’s director of healthcare innovation, Jacob West, said: “This report provides much needed guidance on the best ways to improve air quality across the UK. But change will not be easy. Local authorities need to be given the money, power and support needed to improve air quality in their area.”
The British Lung Foundation's chief executive, Penny Woods, said: “Millions of people are still exposed to illegal and harmful levels of pollution, and we now need the UK government to ensure they support local authorities in adopting driving restrictions and local congestion charging schemes.”
The report adds to rising pressure on councils to act on air pollution. Earlier this month the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence encouraged local authorities to protect residents from traffic-related pollution during the planning stage of developments.
The PHE report’s introduction says that up to 36,000 deaths each year are attributable to human-made air pollution in the UK. It then outlines some key interventions that local authorities can take, including promoting the uptake of low emission vehicles, boosting investment in clean public transport and foot and cycle paths and redesigning cities so people aren’t so close to highly polluting roads.
In the foreword, Professor Paul Cosford, director of health protection and medical director at PHE, said: “In the complex wealth of evidence outlined in the report there remains a simple truth, that the evidence and technology are available to make delivery of cleaner air feasible for all of us. A key challenge to this is the commonly held view that actions to reduce air pollution run counter to economic growth and development. In my view the evidence presented in this report highlights that this is not the case.”
West from the BHF highlighted the upcoming Environment Bill as being the real opportunity for practical change. “This is an unmissable opportunity for government to commit to tackling air pollution by supporting local authorities to improve local air quality,” he said. In particular, he called for the government to adopt tougher WHO limits for particulate matter into UK law ‘to drive bold action and protect the nation’s health’.
Tracy Farrell, team manager of the Air Quality & Environmental Protection team at London Borough of Waltham Forest, said that the report’s message was positive but that it didn’t outline anything that she and her team weren’t already working on in their Air Quality Action Plans. “The more that PHE identifies that air quality is a relevant indicator of health outcomes, the more we can encourage collaborative working with schools, health professionals and businesses,” she said. “But this report is part of a much bigger picture including calls for a new Clean Air Act, the new Environment Bill and a possible new Office for Environmental Protection. That’s where the pressure and lobbying needs to be directed at the moment.”
• PHE has made up to £56 million for research into the biggest challenges facing public health, including climate change and pollution. An open competition will be held to select the most promising research proposals from academics. They will be funded from April 2020 to March 2025. Announcing the funding, health minister Nicola Blackwood said: “We’ve just seen the warmest February day on record and we have a duty to the public to consider the health challenges climate change brings.”