In pursuit of cleaner air, we should pay as much attention to the design of our built environment as to the design of vehicles and transport services

Proposals intended to streamline the planning process have major implications for sustainable development, including air quality in our towns and cities. The core aim of the Planning for the Future white paper is to create a new modernised planning and development system “that actively encourages sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development”. Proposed changes concern five key objectives: streamlining, digitisation, design and sustainability, a revised approach to infrastructure delivery and mechanisms to increase land availability. But what are the implications of these changes for UK air quality?

As part of a ‘Planning Forward’ series convened by Create Streets in partnership with the UKRI funded TRANSITION Clean Air Network, we convened the Breathe Free webinar on 25th March 2021 to consider the planning white paper in the context of air quality. An expert panel including Professor William Bloss (University of Birmingham), UK Clean Air Champion Dr Gary Fuller (Imperial College London) and David Milner (Create Streets) considered links between the environment, air quality and health. Here we are going to look at key air quality issues arising from the proposals, with a focus upon transport and mobility.

Air pollution in UK towns and cities: what needs fixing? 

It is recognised that air pollution is the largest risk to human health in the UK, responsible for approximately ~36,000 early deaths each year with an average loss in life expectancy of up to 6 months. 44 of 51 UK cities exceed the WHO’s annual health-based mean target for fine particulate matter (PM2.5); a value which is currently under review. The transport sector accounts for approximately 52% and 12% of NO2 and fine Particulate (PM2.5) emissions respectively and generates the largest share of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. At a local level, breaches of legal limits for NO2  have been the main policy focus in recent years. Control strategies, including ‘Clean Air Zones’ and ‘Ultra Low Emissions Zones’ are planned or already under implementation in multiple UK cities.

Although overall pollutant emissions from the transport sector have reduced in recent years – due to more stringent exhaust emissions limits –  achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 remains a major challenge. In this context, as part of the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution the UK Government recently advanced the date for a ban on sale of petrol and diesel vehicles to 2030.

However, this policy will not address transport related non-exhaust PM emissions from brake, tyre and road wear which are likely to increase in future years. This is due to the positive relationship between vehicle weight and non-exhaust emissions and electric vehicles are typically 24% heavier than conventional counterparts. A pure focus on technical solutions, such as electrification, risks overlooking influential upstream policy influences on mobility patterns. The location of homes, workplaces, and amenities, and our need to travel between them, is fundamentally determined by the planning system, which is in turn is shaped by national and local planning policies.

A new focus on planning, design and sustainability?

From a transport perspective, planning for clean air means creating neighbourhoods in which walking and cycling naturally arise as the preferred transport modes, and neighbourhoods that are served internally, and linked together, via sustainable public transport. Better planning and design processes can also reduce or mitigate the health impacts of remaining air pollution – a helpful planning and design framework developed by researchers at the University of Birmingham is ‘Reduce – Extend – Protect’:

  • Reduce the emissions of air pollutants as much as possible.
  • Extend the distance between emission sources and people as far as possible.
  • Protect the most vulnerable: i.e., the very young, the very old and those with pre-existing medical conditions. 

Although the proposed changes could be shaped to deliver major clean air benefits, the planning white paper only includes one mention of air quality – Places affect us from the air we breathe to our ultimate sense of purpose and wellbeing” (paragraph 1.7, page 13).

Plans to categorise land across the whole of England for ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ or ‘protection’ could be utilised to restrict further housing development within areas which exceed WHO air quality guidelines. Revised infrastructure funding mechanisms could promote a transport levy which effectively incentivises the delivery of sustainable site locations, generating protected funding allocated to walking and cycling infrastructure, as well as bus and rail services. Legally binding minimum environmental standards could also be expanded to include air pollutant emissions.

Ultimately, greater certainty is required on how environmental impacts will be assessed within the proposed single ‘sustainable development’ test put forward for Local Plans – which set out planning policies for a local authority area. Compatibility with the Environment Bill’s air quality proposals are also key, to ensure consideration for pollutant dispersion across wider spatial areas than those administered by individual planning authorities.

People’s choices about where to live – how important is air quality?

Housing has traditionally been of lower quality and less costly in industrialised and more heavily polluted areas than the leafy suburbs or countryside. Prevailing westerly winds in many industrialised UK cities mean that pollution is typically dispersed to the east – historically areas of higher deprivation – reflected in urban development patterns in the late 19th century. But to what extent do contemporary environmental considerations influence the choice of where people live and, ultimately, housing demand?

Widespread media coverage has heightened public awareness of air pollution. The tragic death of Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah, who lived near the south circular in Lewisham, London, led to the Coroner’s inquest conclusion that air pollution “made a material contribution” to her death. In a report to prevent future deaths Coroner Phillip Barlow highlighted that there is “no safe level of particulate matter” and called for more information about air pollution to be made available to the public.

Although there is no legal obligation to provide air quality information to potential renters or buyers, online tools are now available to check pollution in specific postcode areas. When we asked Breathe Free webinar attendees whether they considered air quality when buying their last home, just 12% responded “a great deal”. But when asked about their next home, almost three-quarters of participants (74%) indicated it would be a key consideration. These broader public conscience and lifestyle trends may, in time, also influence housing market prices; although those with most control over their location are likely to benefit most.

In pursuit of cleaner air, we should pay as much attention to the design of our built environment as to the design of vehicles and transport services. Planning policies will ultimately have consequences for air quality in our towns and cities for future generations. Following progression of the white paper proposals, and seeking opportunities to shape environmental policy, should be of key interest to the clean air community.

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