‘Government off track on curbing pollution and informing public on air quality’

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The Government is not on track to cut air pollution and is not effectively informing the public about the issue, the spending watchdog has warned.

The National Audit Office (NAO) warned that existing policy measures will not be enough to meet most of the Government’s air quality targets by 2030.

And people cannot easily find out about air quality problems in their area, while the Government is not communicating effectively on the need for solutions such as charging polluting vehicles to drive in clean air zones, a report from the NAO said.

While levels of air pollution have been falling in recent decades, the UK has been in breach of legal limits for key pollutant nitrogen dioxide since 2010 and the Government does not expect to fully meet the goals until after 2030.

Birmingham Clean Air Zone
The National Audit Office said communications campaigns about bringing in clean air zones do not appear to be fully effective (Jacob King/PA)

There are also concerns about the health impacts of fine particles known as particulate matter (PM2.5), with the Government due to set a new legal target for curbing the pollutant in the autumn.

Air pollution is linked to tens of thousands of early deaths a year in the UK from heart disease and stroke, while it can cause reduced lung growth, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma in children.

The NAO called for the Environment Department (Defra) to make air quality information more accessible to the public.

It also warned that local communications campaigns about bringing in clean air zones – which charge the most polluting vehicles to drive through an area such as a city centre – do not appear to be fully effective.

Clean air zones have faced political and public opposition and some local authorities raised concerns about a lack of a national campaign which could inform road users about the need for clean air measures, the NAO said.

The watchdog called for the Government to review its approach to engaging the public on clean air zones to ensure there is good understanding across the country of what they are for, how they differ and how to check if vehicles are compliant and pay charges if necessary.

The report highlights that bringing in measures such as clean air zones can have a positive impact on air quality, with analysis from Bath and North East Somerset suggesting it is helping to reduce the number of more polluting vehicles, changing travel behaviour and improving air quality.

The NAO found that overall a programme to work with local authorities to tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution, which comes from sources such as traffic fumes, has progressed more slowly than expected.

Of 64 local authorities across England with potential breaches of nitrogen dioxide limits, 16 are already compliant and 14 have implemented all measures expected to bring pollution within legal limits, but seven have yet to agree a full plan with the Government.

Implementing measures is taking longer in many areas than expected, the report warned, and said the pandemic is not the only reason for the delay.

The NAO also said that Defra had told it there are challenges in curbing some pollutants – with a danger that energy prices will increase the use of wood burners and particulate matter pollution, and difficulties changing fertiliser use in farming which causes ammonia emissions.

And there are 17 sections out of 31 in the strategic road network of major roads and motorways in England that are not in line with pollution limits and have no “viable” measures for reducing emissions, and up to four sections will still be in breach in 2030.

The NAO warned the Government that it will need to move quickly with “robust plans” on curbing pollution and engage with the public effectively to ensure it meets its targets and gets value for money for what it is spending on air quality.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Government has made progress with tackling illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution, but not as fast as expected.

“There are also concerns about the health risks from particulate matter, which Government is finding challenging to tackle.

“To meet all its 2030 targets for major air pollutants, Government will need to develop robust solutions quickly.

“The public need clear information to understand why clean air measures are important and what the measures will mean in their area.

“Those living in the worst-affected areas ought to be able to find out when and how their air quality is likely to improve.”

In response to the report, Meg Hillier, Labour chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said: “Government is dragging its feet on tackling air quality and it’s people’s health that will suffer.

“The clock is ticking for the UK to meet its targets, and time to implement the new policy measures needed is rapidly draining away.”

She added: “Proper communication with the public has been sorely lacking. Publishing information that can’t be understood is like serving soup without a spoon – it’s pointless.

“Properly engaging with the public on air quality is vital so they can become part of the solution.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the findings of the NAO report which rightly highlights the progress made by the Government whilst also recognising the challenges we face.

“Air pollution at a national level continues to reduce significantly, with nitrogen oxide levels down by 44% and PM2.5 down 18% since 2010.

“We have committed nearly £900 million to tackle air pollution and improve public health. We have also setting stretching and ambitious targets on air quality through our world leading Environment Act, with a live public consultation showing our ongoing desire to engage with the public on this crucial issue.”

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