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Clean air – what is not to like!

Dale Edwards, Strategic Consultant – Green Energy, discusses the importance of clean air and the potential implications in securing it, on planning in the future.

Poor air quality affects our health and the environment. It is estimated that 64,000 people die early due to pollution every year in the UK which equates to 98 early deaths per 100,000 people. When compared to Europe and the rest of the world where the early death rate is 120 and 129 per 100,000 people respectively, the situation appears favourable but this is not the complete picture.

Air pollution was brought into sharp focus late last year when South London coroner Philip Barlow made legal history in concluding that it was a cause of the death of a nine-year-old girl, Ella Kissi-Debrah, in February 2013. She died as a result of acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and air pollution exposure, having been exposed to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM) pollution in excess of World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, the principal source of which was traffic emissions.

In the early part of the global COVID-19 pandemic, when ground and air traffic was substantially reduced across the world, there were significant reductions in air pollution globally. Within a week of lockdown, Italy saw a 10% drop in nitrogen dioxide levels and in China, within a couple of months of initial lockdown, carbon emissions dropped by 25%, demonstrating the impact of transportation air quality.

The WHO has ambitious clean air guidelines, which are more stringent than those set in the UK. Currently the UK meets it legal limits on all pollutants except one; nitrogen dioxide. To start tackling this a number of cities in the UK have been mandated to introduce clean air zones (CAZs). In October, this year, Bristol city centre is expected to introduce a small Class D CAZ.

It has been calculated by the Clean Air Fund that a 5% drop in nitrogen dioxide levels in Bristol will bring significant health and economic benefits. There could be 20 early deaths prevented annually and 82,000 additional hours worked due to good health resulting in a £1 million economic benefit to Bristol each year. If this result was replicated UK-wide, the economic benefit from achieving WHO clean air guidelines would deliver a £1.6 billion boost for the UK economy.

Whilst it is good to see a focus on the importance of improving air quality, there are a number of concerns and questions.

  • By creating a specific zone, does this run the risk of neighbourhoods surrounding the zone being negatively impacted with more pollution and traffic congestion?
  • Are businesses and individuals who work and live in the new proposed CAZs ready for this, particularly following a significant period of displacement due to COVID-19?
  • Will the infrastructure be ready including electric charging points and grid capacity?
  • Are there enough public transport vehicles which will comply with the regulations?
  • How will buildings undergoing renovation or new build be impacted?
  • How will the local planning authority react to applications for development in the CAZ?

It will be fascinating to see how these questions, amongst others, will be answered in the coming months. Whilst I agree it is important to tackle the worst polluting areas first, should it not be an opportunity to raise the bar nationally to improve the quality of the air we breathe? CAZs are part of the solution, to improve our environment, but only a part.

Developers are having to respond to clients’ environmental requirements, driven by ESG (environmental, social and governance) considerations and/or employee’s expectations of their workspace. I recently saw a survey commissioned by Morgan Lovell (a workplace fit-out company) which reported that 72% of respondents stated it was important to them to work in a sustainable environment. I believe clean air and other environmental considerations will increase in importance in the building or repurposing of workplaces over the coming years. It will be interesting to see how planning authorities respond and what new enforcement regulations will be adopted.


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