COP26 and the impact of air pollution on public health and wellbeing, House of Commons, 2 November 2021

Councils and Directors of Public Health are committed to making their local areas healthier places to live and are already delivering when it comes to tackling air pollution. They have introduced a range of measures such as clean air zones, encouraging the use of electric vehicles with recharging points and promoting cycling and walking.


Key messages

  • Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to the public’s health, contributing to cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases. It is costing the UK economy £20 billion a year and contributes to over 25,000 deaths a year.
  • Councils and Directors of Public Health are committed to making their local areas healthier places to live and are already delivering when it comes to tackling air pollution. They have introduced a range of measures such as clean air zones, encouraging the use of electric vehicles with recharging points and promoting cycling and walking.
  • They are also investing in cleaner buses, managing borough-wide air pollution monitoring networks, planning for new places in ways that improve air quality, and engaging with businesses to increase awareness and reduce their environmental impact.
  • To help inform the health impact of poor air quality in their areas, council public health teams produce Joint Strategic Needs Assessments (JSNA) and many use their statutory annual report to focus on the health impact of poor air quality. Many councils have also signed up to up to an Air Quality Alert System, which is provided to anyone wishing to know about the quality of the air they breathe.
  • To assist councils, the Government needs to develop consistent national public health messaging about the introduction of clean air zones, why they are necessary and the benefits they will deliver to ensure widespread public buy in.
  • Government should also take greater ownership of measures to reduce air pollution. The ultimate responsibility for providing clean air must reside with national government which controls many of the national policy and taxation levers that will lead to an improvement in air quality.
  • It was disappointing that the Budget and Spending Review did not provide any additional public health funding. Local authorities’ public health grant has been cut by 24 per cent on a real-terms per capita basis since 2015/16 (equivalent to a reduction of £1 billion). This in turn has an impact on council’s ability to address the stark health inequalities created by air pollution. Keeping people healthy and well throughout their lives reduces pressure on the NHS, social care, criminal justice, and the benefits system.

Public health

  • Outdoor air pollution is a major public health issue, costing the UK economy £20 billion a year and contributing to over 25,000 deaths a year. It increases the chances of hospital admissions, visits to Emergency Departments and respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms which interfere with everyday life, especially for people who are already vulnerable. The impact of air pollution also reinforces existing health inequalities – research from 2017 found that in England and Wales, households in poverty are more likely to suffer from the effects of traffic than more affluent households.
  • Councils and Directors of Public Health are committed to making their local areas healthier places to live and are already making steps towards tackling air pollution. For instance, many council public health teams produce Joint Strategic Needs Assessments (JSNA) to help inform the health impact of poor air quality in their areas, and many use their statutory Annual report to focus on the health impact of poor air quality.
  • In addition, many councils signed up to an Air Quality Alert System. There are several providers delivering this service, such as airtext. The alert service is provided for anyone wishing to know about the quality of the air they breathe. It is of particular benefit to people with medical conditions that may be affected by pollution, such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.
  • While not routinely used across the UK, councils are learning from other cities across the world and have started using air quality alerts on road gantries and portable display boards to notify the public of smog and poor air quality.
  • To assist Directors of Public Health to tackle air pollution in their local areas, the LGA produced a handbook which provides the information to help them consider the appropriate public health response to air pollution in their area. The handbook includes information on how to engage local decision makers about air pollution, communicating with the public during air pollution episodes and the long-term impact.
  • It was disappointing that the Budget and Spending Review did not provide any additional public health funding. Local authorities’ public health grant has been cut by 24 per cent on a real-terms per capita basis since 2015/16 (equivalent to a reduction of £1 billion). This in turn has an impact on council’s ability to address the stark health inequalities created by air pollution. Keeping people healthy and well throughout their lives reduces pressure on the NHS, social care, criminal justice and the benefits system.

Decarbonisation of Transport

  • Surface transport accounts for 23 per cent of UK GHG emissions. Car journeys alone generate 59 per cent of these emissions. This is both damaging to public health and to achieving Net Zero.
  • Encouraging Electric Vehicle (EV) uptake to replace conventional vehicles is an important tool in reducing these harmful emissions. However, a modal shift towards more sustainable and active travel, such as buses, car sharing, cycling and walking, is critical.
  • There are 10 million more cars on our roads than 20 years ago. Modal shift can reduce car ownership. If councils can provide local sustainable transport networks that are sufficient, this will reduce car ownership. This would result in both more sustainable car journeys and avoid carbon emissions required to construct Electric Vehicles. 
  • The LGA welcomes the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy published in 2020. It provides clear guidance and support for councils, recognising the role only they can play to build new cycle paths and reallocate road space.
  • Only councils have the local knowledge and range of powers as the planning, transport, parking and highways authorities to develop high quality sustainable local transport alternatives to car use.
  • The LGA has published a series of briefings on how local government can decarbonise transport, an important point made in this document is that buses play an important role in reducing carbon emissions as one of the most carbon efficient modes of passenger transport.
  • Councils need long-term funding certainty to help them effectively plan and ensure expert resources are in place to deliver the sort of schemes and investments that will support modal shift to greener forms of travel. The 20211 Spending review/ budget confirmed that the Government is providing £5.7 billion to 8 city regions for integrated transport settlements over 5 years to transform local networks. The LGA welcomed this move but would like the Government to extend this benefit to all areas so that all councils can play a more effective role in reducing carbon and other harmful transport related emissions. 

Energy

  • Grid costs are a major consideration for councils when it comes to unlocking infrastructure development, including rolling out electric vehicle charge points.
  • Grid capacity and curtailment can stagger the roll-out of renewable energy to meet 2050 goal. There is a need to invest in ensuring grid capacity and alternative solutions.
  • To support the local implementation of low carbon solutions and technologies, councils need a resilient and flexible energy system and public-private sector cooperation which is aligned to growth expectations is critical.
  • We welcome Ofgem’s network charging review consultation. It should better support investment in new capacity and develop a more flexible energy system that empowers local and community energy. Any new policies must ensure that the consumer is at the centre.

Housing

  • One of the most effective areas of focus when it comes to addressing carbon emissions is the built environment, with more energy-efficient homes reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
  • In addition to building energy efficient new homes, to achieve net zero by 2050, close to 28 million homes will need to change how they use energy through methods such as zero carbon heating systems.
  • Councils are committed to ensuring new, sustainable homes are built and communities have quality places to live, close to sustainable public transport options. It is vital that these are delivered through a locally-led planning system with public participation at its heart, which gives communities the power to participate and engage in our national shift to a carbon neutral future. 

Waste and recycling

  • Waste avoidance provides a significant opportunity for reducing Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. Avoiding waste in the first place is the best environmental outcome. We made the case for this in our submissions to the Extended Producer Responsibility and Deposit Return Scheme consultations.
  • The right investment in waste and recycling infrastructure will help towards achieving the net zero target and a circular economy for resources. Councils have a strong track record of delivery, diverting millions of tonnes of household waste from landfill. In 2018/19 2.8 million tonnes of household waste was sent to landfill compared to 14 million tonnes in 2012/13.
  • Transitioning to a circular economy is critical to ensuring materials maintain their highest value for as long as possible. Councils can play an important role in facilitating the introduction of circular economy principles through procurement or promotion within their own activities.

Contact

Jonah Munn, Public Affairs and Campaigns Adviser

jonah.munn@local.gov.uk