Look to Europe for answers to air pollution crisis

Following the news that the European Commission is to look at steps being taken by Member States to address nitrogen dioxide air pollution, Matt Davies, UK Managing Principal at international environmental and engineering consultancy Ramboll argues that policy solutions exist to tackle the UK’s air quality issues.

Matt Davies, UK Managing Principal at international environmental and engineering consultancy Ramboll

Poor urban air quality in the UK is not new. The Local Air Quality Management regime, where Local Authorities are required to establish plans to actively manage areas of poor air quality, has been around since 1997. The problem has been that they have been difficult to implement, with most actions centred around rather timid traffic management measures, and some around the use of development control measures such as discouraging new residential development in areas of poor air quality. The air quality issue has also undoubtedly been exacerbated by the government’s policy to encourage diesels.

Fundamentally though, central and local government have failed to grasp the nettle. Too many town centres continue to experience congestion; too many school runs; too many parking places. With no framework for coherent action on improving local public transport, the switch from cars to buses and bikes is barely noticeable.

Of course, there are examples of new thinking – the creation of emission zones and cycle only lanes and initiatives to restrict petrol and diesel vehicles at peak times such as those being introduced in some London boroughs, but these remain exceptions rather than the rule. The promotion of electric and of automated vehicles is of course a positive step, but it will be many years before their use is widespread and there are some big hurdles in creating a charging point infrastructure that can support this uptake.

Evidence of the impacts of poor air quality on health is growing, and action on local air quality is needed now. Local authorities and Highway authorities need to shake up existing policies, many of which perpetuate traffic-centric thinking. Imagination and bravery is needed at the local plan level to facilitate real alternatives to car dependency. While it might not be popular at the moment, we should look to Europe for some of the best examples of urban planning and development and public transport infrastructure which limits car proliferation. And in the meantime, we should continue to commercialise alternatives to the combustion engine.