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  1. Environment
14 November 2023

The Research Brief: cleaning up England’s lethal air

Your weekly dose of policy thinking.

By Spotlight

Welcome to the Research Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, brings you the pick of recent publications from the government, and the think tank, charity and NGO world. See more editions of the Research Brief here.

What are we talking about this week? This week, we’re looking at Unlocking Local Action on Clean Air, a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The report delves into whether local and national government is doing enough to clean up the air at a local level. Action is urgently needed to address the UK’s terrible air quality, which has been held responsible for illness and death. There are several recommendations for both Whitehall and local councils on how to better go about improving the UK’s air. These include new powers and funding for councils, alongside better messaging from local authorities to residents on the impacts and improvement of poor UK air quality. This report focuses on English local authorities in particular.

Who? The Institute for Public Policy Research, founded in 1988, is a progressive think tank that was initially set up to provide analysis and theory for modernisers in the Labour Party. As well as their London office, the IPPR is also based in Newcastle, Manchester, and Edinburgh. Maya Singer Hobbs, a senior research fellow at IPPR in energy, climate, housing and infrastructure has written the report. The report is accompanied by polling of councillors across England by the polling and market research agency Survation.

What did they find? Air pollution in England needs to be drastically improved, and fast. Poor air quality is associated with up to 43,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and higher numbers of cancer cases, strokes, heart attacks, dementia and asthma. Currently, the UK’s air quality targets – which were set in Whitehall – are not in line with those outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

To bring the country’s air quality in line with WHO standards, the IPPR points out that action will need to be taken, and quickly, across a range of sectors, with local authorities at the helm. This is because, the report says, “local authorities know their communities best”. Under the current system they are faced with several obstacles: namely a lack of funding and resources.

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Interesting! What else? Another challenge to clean air schemes is, you guessed it, political opposition. This year, the General London Assembly’s (GLA) expansion of its Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez) to outer London boroughs caused quite the stir. But it is schemes such as this that will be pivotal to cleaning up England’s lethal air quality.

The report was also accompanied by some shiny polling from Survation which quizzed councillors on their views about tackling air pollution. Their data shows Labour councillors are far more likely (22 per cent) than their Conservative counterparts (1 per cent) to see air pollution as a “very big problem” in their area. And less than one in four Conservative councillors support charging people for using polluting cars, compared with three in four Labour councillors. Seventy per cent of the councillors surveyed said they did not have enough funding or resources from central government to properly tackle poor air quality.

So how do we make that happen? Well, among IPPR’s recommendations is the suggestion that central government must provide more, long-term funding to local authorities for their action on clean air. IPPR points out that this will be aided by greater fiscal devolution. This means councils, combined authorities and metro mayors would be given more power over when, where and how they spend the money given to them by Whitehall. The report says this will support local leadership by giving them more autonomy.

That sounds important. Anything else? Yes. IPPR recommends that all councils adopt tackling air pollution as an urgent priority. They also need to make sure it is embedded in all the work they do locally. IPPR also suggests perhaps each council could appoint its own air quality champion.

But what about residents? Don’t worry! IPPR’s thought of them too. Their suggestion is that local authorities carry out “meaningful” engagement with the public and their local business partners. Councils could do this by setting up a consultation, or a flashy communications campaign. That way, they can make sure any action they do take on clean air has considered the needs of the local community, and is fair and equitable, especially to those on lower incomes.

In a sentence? People are dying prematurely from excess pollution, so councils need more powers and more funding to be able to clean up England’s dirty air.

[See also: "Without Ulez expansion, more children are going to die"]

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