Councils urged to act on air pollution

CLEAN AIR ZONES, new efforts to encourage walking and cycling, and using Local Plans to site buildings away from busy roads are some of the measures councils should implement harmful air pollution, according to a new report.

Draft guidance published by the National Institute for Health & Care Excellence (NICE) says air pollution is linked to around 25,000 deaths a year in England and its health costs top £18.6bn annually. Almost two-thirds of air pollution in urban areas is caused by road traffic, mostly from exhaust fumes but also tyre wear, braking and the road.

It calls for air pollution to be included in strategic planning across council departments and different tiers of local government, including county, district and unitary authorities.

The institute recommends that councils set up Clean Air Zones, outside the five areas proposed in the draft National Air Quality Strategy. Congestion charging should be considered within zones where heavy traffic contributes to poor air quality.  

While setting up city-wide zones with restrictions on polluting vehicles can be expensive, NICE said they affect a large pollution, so the cost per head is relatively low, as are the subsequent running costs.

Local Plans should push for new buildings to be set back from busy roads and for developments to reduce the need for motorised travel. In addition, councils should focus on delivering infrastructure to support low-emission travel, such as walking and cycling routes, as well as providing charging points for electric vehicles. Furthermore, cyclists should be screened from traffic by shrubs or plants where they are found to reduce air pollution.

In addition, the guidance calls on transport authorities and businesses to educate drivers of lorries and buses about the importance of driving "smoothly" to reduce emissions. This would include avoiding hard accelerations or decelerations, which leads to inefficient fuel consumption and unnecessary emissions.

The guidance urges local authorities to work together across boundaries to support action and prevent the migration of traffic and emissions to areas where controls are less stringent.

Professor Mark Baker, director of the Centre for Guidelines at NICE, said: "The battle against air pollution has to be one we are all fully committed to. 

"This draft guidance seeks to redesign how we work and live in cities. When finalised, its recommendations will ensure that everyone who has the power to make the changes required can be confident in the action they are taking."

Responding to the report, Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA's environment spokesman, said: "Good air quality is vital for our health and quality of life as well as the environment. Councils are playing a pivotal role in tackling air pollution. These measures include encouraging the use of electric vehicles with recharging points, promoting cycling, managing borough-wide air pollution monitoring networks, pioneering the concept of low-emission zones, planning for new places in ways that improve air quality, and engaging with businesses to increase awareness and reduce their environmental impact.

"Councils should be able to switch their focus from simply monitoring air quality to also devising solutions to tackling poor air quality. This needs to be supported by government policy at a national level."

NICE's draft guidance on tackling air pollution will be open to public consultation until 25 January.