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The air quality plan – where could it go further?


Defra has failed to come up with an acceptable plan to tackle air pollution, in particular through the planning system. Other organisations are now stepping into the breach, says Ben Kite

ClientEarth is taking the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to court for the third time for “major flaws” in the plan to cut air pollution levels. 

The purpose behind the air quality consultation was to address Defra’s legal obligations to the UK population. Here was a chance to provide leadership by setting a proactive objective for planners to improve air quality, and to bring recognition of the impact of air pollution. 

Defra’s primary concern was to tackle areas of high NO2 concentration that affect health. The plan can be praised for setting strategic objectives and introducing methods to reduce air pollution on a national scale, such as tougher emission standards for new vehicles. 

But the plan lacks innovation in addressing air quality through spatial planning. It could have put the benefits of approaching air quality in a truly spatial sense. 

"But there are other unmentioned measures available to tackle air pollution"

It could have referenced the challenges of reconciling human-centric objectives with ecological ones, and been clear that detailed guidance should be forthcoming. But it didn’t.

An example is the continued reliance on ‘clean air zones’ as a tool to reduce vehicle emissions in target areas. Doubtless these can deliver results where gross levels of pollution overlap with highly populated areas. But unless planned carefully, they can displace emissions rather than cut them, having damaging effects in ecosystems elsewhere. 

But there are other unmentioned measures available to tackle air pollution – in particular, green infrastructure. Some studies suggest that street trees, green walls and shelterbelts of vegetation reduce levels of ambient pollution. 

Natural England is a noticeable absentee from the list of those responsible for implementing this latest air quality strategy.

Without a cohesive approach, we risk dividing professionals into disjointed groups; one focused on improving human health and another on ecological harm, as was seen in the Wealden/Lewes High Court case where part of the local plan was quashed for not fully considering its potential impacts on Ashdown Forest, a special area of conservation. 

Conferences between the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and the Institute of Air Quality Management have led to a joint bid to begin to fill the gap left by government. There is also draft guidance for practitioners in Environmental Impact Assessment. The response should not be about compromise between achieving human and ecological objectives, but an optimal solution to bring down total pollution levels quickly.

Ben Kite is managing director at Ecological Planning and Research

Image | iStock


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