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Air quality - moving up the local agenda?

13 June 2018 Author: Sarah Lewis

In January 2017, I was walking with my then nine-year old daughter to school on a route that takes us over the North Circular in London, when she commented that the air smelt funny.

I explained to her what exhaust fumes and pollution are and the effect on her asthma. She became infuriated when the infrequent bus service was further delayed by the long lines of car traffic with people taking their children to school and questioned why they need to do that.

40,000 deaths a year attributable to air pollution

This was during the period when London breached its annual air pollution limits in just five days.

An often quoted report estimated that each year in the UK, around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution. This figure starkly puts into focus the scale of the problem and firmly makes the link between air quality and public health.

My daughter’s reaction certainly made me think about this problem more and more, but it seems that the Government is waking up to its urgency too. A succession of Government reports have been published over the last year or so, including:

Whether this raft of papers (by no means an exhaustive list) will bring any real improvement to the air we breathe remains to be seen.

So far the Government’s response has been viewed by many as inadequate, e.g. their plans for air quality were ruled ‘unlawful’ three times after being repeatedly taken to court by the activist organisation, Client Earth

Hard policies vs reliance on technology

Clean Air With KidsMy own concern is that the Government sees clean air as more of a business opportunity for post-Brexit Britain rather than a vital social and health issue. The Government’s Clean Growth Strategy says: “Thanks to our world leading expertise in technologies such as power electronics for low carbon vehicles and electric motors ….. we are successfully exporting goods and services around the world.”

The Government focus seems to be on long-term technological solutions and less about hard policies. £100 million of funding was swiftly allocated to set up the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, while the proposed ban on the sale of diesel cars by 2040 is still a very long way off.

Electric cars are not the solution

The idea that electric and autonomous vehicles is the solution to the air quality problem is gaining currency. But isn’t this a short sighted approach? Shouldn’t we be encouraging people out of their cars?

One could easily argue that in the longer term, autonomous vehicles will promote more trips by car with people who are unable to drive using them. Getting people out of their cars, helping them to make the behavioural changes that encourage sustainable travel choices and reducing the need to travel by car must be our top priority.

Reducing car travel has so many other benefits beyond improving air quality – promoting active lifestyles which reduce obesity rates and improve mental health, supporting high streets and community cohesion, and giving back people time otherwise lost in traffic jams.

Fundamental changes needed to undo a pro-car legacy

But this requires concerted efforts and making some tough decisions, both on national and local levels. Our recent report Settlement Patterns, Urban Form and Sustainability shows that urban forms that promote sustainable mobility can play a critical role in reducing emissions from the transport sector.

If decades of pro-car transport and land use planning have led to some of our major cities being the most car-dependent in Europe, it is equally possible that the right national policies and concerted efforts on the ground to make our cities more cycling and walking friendly can reverse this trend.

What can be done locally?

Now that air quality is on the national agenda, is it the same at the local level? What policies and guidance do you have? How are they helping your development management decisions and interaction with other professionals? Can local councillors do more?

The RTPI has published an evidence review and written advice with TCPA on Planning for Climate Change. Our next step is to publish practice advice on air quality. We would like to hear from you with your case studies. Can you send me your examples? Contact me at


Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis MRTPI, Planning Practice Officer, Royal Town Planning Institute