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Air Quality – A National Emergency

27 September 2017

WEHD seminar

Guest blog by William Hatchett, EHN Editor 

(Left to right) Matt Clark, Shropshire EHO, Bridget Fox, Campaign for Better Transport, Prof Jim Longhurst, University of the West of England and Roger Geffen, Cycling UK. Watch the webcast recording here.

Poor air quality is contributing to the deaths of 40,000 people a year in the UK, delegates heard at our World Environmental Health Day seminar. Jim Longhurst of the University of West of England said: ‘This is a public health emergency. WHO estimates that there are 3.7 million deaths a year due to ambient air pollution. Those are real people who have died prematurely because of choices that their society has made.’

He added: ‘More than half of local authorities in the UK have one or more air quality management areas designed to improve air quality, but they were meant to have dealt with the problem everywhere by 2005.

Bridget Fox, of the Campaign for Better Transport, told delegates that the main contributor to poor air quality was traffic, with diesel vehicles responsible for the majority of nitrogen dioxide emissions and particulate pollution. She called for greener buses and transport fleets, better public transport between new housing developments and workplaces, workplace parking levies, more charging points for electric vehicles and cycle and pedestrian-friendly town centres.

Roger Geffen, policy manager of Cycling UK, said that congestion, accidents, poor air quality and physical inactivity, all associated with car use, are estimated to cost the government £10bn a year. ‘We need tackle all four problems. It is utterly unhelpful that the government’s plan does not help local authorities to implement clean air zones. The government needs to step in to provide political and technological innovation. To leave it to local authorities is unacceptable.'

Matt Clark, EHO with Shropshire Council, congratulated the legal firm ClientEarth for successfully challenging the inadequacy of government air quality plans in court and said, ‘everybody is talking about air quality. That can only be a good thing.’

Rounding off the event, Tony Lewis, CIEH head of policy, repeated criticism of the government’s strategy for reducing NO2: ‘It’s inappropriate and ineffectual. The way it passes the buck to local authorities is shameful. This is a national emergency requiring a national response. The government should be held to account on this by all of, as citizens of the UK.'

Participating in the event, which was streamed live online, were experts and campaigners from the fields of cycling, active transport and planning, and the environment. The event formed part of CIEH’s Clean Air for All campaign, which is calling for a Clean Air Act for the UK, a new air quality strategy from DEFRA and better integration of air quality into planning and transport policies.'


Celebrating World Environmental Health Day 2017

26 September 2017


This year, the International Federation of Environmental Health has chosen indoor and outdoor air quality for the theme of its World Environmental Health Day. To celebrate, we’re bringing together an expert panel in tonight’s seminar to share experiences and find positive ways forward. You can watch live by registering here.

The choice of this theme is very relevant, says the IFEH, as on 6 March 2017 Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, launched a worldwide campaign to tackle air pollution as the ‘major public health issue of our generation’. Good air quality is a basic requirement and determinant of health; yet, as WHO states, poor quality air affects more than 80% of the world’s population.

In the UK, poor outdoor air quality results in around 40,000 premature deaths every year. There is evidence that it contributes to illnesses such as cancer, stroke, asthma and heart disease, and there are also strong associations with obesity, dementia and diabetes. The effects are especially evident in vulnerable people such as children, the elderly and those with existing cardio-vascular and respiratory issues.

Whilst higher socio-economic groups are also exposed to poor air quality, the impact is much higher on lower status groups, making air quality a matter of social injustice. The majority of vehicular journeys are undertaken by people in the top 20% of income earners, with the impact of those journeys adversely and disproportionally affecting those in the bottom 20%. It therefore follows that improvements in air quality would also result in narrowing inequalities in health.

The failure of the UK to meet legislative and arguably more importantly WHO standards, has led to increased hospital admissions placing excess burden on the NHS. With air quality spanning a wide range of policy areas it is clear that everyone has a role to play in improving air quality. But what can environmental health do?

The work of environmental health professionals has helped to mitigate the negative effects of poor air quality through a combination of legislation, advice and guidance, lobbying, campaigning and other political engagement. Despite all this, we believe the best way to improve air quality is to bring stakeholders together to develop effective ways forward. Tonight’s seminar is an opportunity to do just that.


Gripping Read Went Unread

15 September 2017


Guest blog by William Hatchett, EHN Editor 

The Cabinet Office’s uninspiringly-titled Regulatory Futures Review published in January won’t have been on many people’s holiday reading lists – a volume laid down at the poolside to be excitedly dipped into. Regulation is a subject that most people, quite understandably, ignore.

It was overlooked, even more than it normally would have been, because of Brexit. But it shouldn’t have been because it may signal a sea-change – not only in regulation but in our taxation and governance.

Its centerpiece is ‘regulated self-assurance’. Businesses that ‘do the right thing’, suggests the report, should be ‘regulated with a very light touch’. The best, most compliant businesses shouldn’t be inspected at all – a principle that is already embodied in the primary authority system.

Who should pay? Currently, half the cost of running regulators, the report argues, is met by government and councils. It suggests that this cost should be passed onto to business, rather than the exchequer, making a net saving (prime minister take note) of £0.5 bn a year. The report argues that ‘there should be a default presumption of full cost recovery where regulated self-assurance is feasible.’

This is a clever linkage. If businesses are paying for inspection, the reasoning goes, there will be a strong motivation for them to exempt themselves from charges by achieving full regulatory compliance. The report talks of other, non-financial, levers to better business – for example the influence of users and consumers (increasingly expressed through social media) and of peer group businesses who are already members of a ‘quality club’. Launched in 2000, Red Tractor is cited as a good existing model of self-assurance.

Regulated self-assurance, suggests the report, is the best model for ‘inspection focused regulators’, such as the Food Standards Agency and the Environment Agency. The report acknowledges that the Health and Safety Executive has already adopted many of its principles, for example through fee for intervention and its reduction of proactive inspections. The Food Standard’s Agency’s proposed new system for food safety and standards in the UK, Regulating our Future, is virtually a carbon copy of the Regulatory Futures Review, adding some interesting embellishments.

A future historian of regulation will observe a smooth progression from New Labour’s Better Regulation Executive, set up 20 years ago and preserved with different names ever since, noting the articulations of regulatory enforcement codes and the colourful milestones of the Hampton, Macrory, Young and Lofstetd reports. They will record the global financial crash of 2008 and huge cuts to the UK public sector (a third of local EHOs have gone since 2010) taking in Brexit and the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

If they are true to history, they will note that the Regulatory Futures Review (the most important regulatory document since the Hampton report) went completely unnoticed by the public and was not debated by MPs. In some ways, Brexit has put the UK onto a war-like, emergency footing. Its ideas need to be closely scrutinised but our normal critical, democratic faculties have apparently been put on hold.


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