It is rare that an issue climbs to the top of the political agenda from almost nowhere in a matter of years, but air pollution is one of those issues.
In the run up to the 2016 Welsh Assembly General Election, I travelled to party conferences promoting 5 manifesto asks that the British Lung Foundation had for political parties. Air pollution was a high priority for us, but in a campaign that was dominated by candidates from all sides wanting to ‘Save Our Steel’, we saw little interest for campaign focussed on reducing pollution from vehicles and industry.
Two years later everything has changed.
Politicians from all parties are talking constructively about measures to tackle air pollution, we have a dedicated Minister for the Environment, Hannah Blythyn AM, and the real possibility for transformational change in Wales.
Is Air pollution a problem in Wales?
Before the last election there was a perception that Wales didn’t have an air pollution problem; but we do. It is just as much a problem here as it is for London and South East England.
Back in 2015 there were 40 air quality management areas (AQMAs) and NO2 (Nitrogen Dioxide) levels illegally exceeded EU limits in 5 towns and cities in Wales (Port Talbot, Chepstow, Cardiff, Newport, and Swansea). These problems remain.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Particulate Matter (PM) are colourless, odourless and incredibly small, so are harder to see that the smog of previous generations.
The latest estimates suggest that across Wales the equivalent of 2,000 lives are cut short each year from air pollution. Air pollution hits hardest people with lung conditions, heart and circulatory diseases, children and older people. For many of the people with a respiratory or circulatory disease air pollution poses a daily risk to their lives – it can worsen their symptoms and in the worst cases force them into hospital. Children’s lungs are also very vulnerable as they are still growing – polluted air can stunt the growth of their lungs and increase the likelihood of asthma. For pregnant women breathing in polluted air can stunt the development of their unborn child. Children with smaller lungs are more likely to face health problems later on in their lives.
Air pollution is also associated with cardiovascular disease: short-term exposure can increase the risk of a heart attack, with long-term exposure linked to coronary events. Emerging evidence also linked air pollution to a decline in cognitive function in older adults, and to type 2 diabetes.
In 2016, Client Earth took the UK Government to court for the second time due to their failure to take action to bring NO2 levels within the EU legal limits. Although it was a UK Government legal battle, Cardiff was named as a city that would need a Clean Air Zone to tackle its high levels of pollution. We started to see local interest from Assembly Members who have pollution hot spots in their constituencies and regions.
In 2017 the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee held a one-day inquiry on air pollution, bringing together environment and health experts to give their views on air pollution in Wales.
We were finally seeing politicians in Wales show interest in cleaning up the air we all breathe.
That led the British Lung Foundation, Sustrans, Friends of the Earth, Living Streets, Royal College of Physicians, British Heart Foundation and Swansea University to come together to form Healthy Air Cymru in April 2017. We are a coalition of organisations committed to raising awareness about air pollution and influencing Welsh Government policy on the issue.
Healthy Air Cymru’s 5 priorities for the Welsh Government
1. A comprehensive cross-governmental air quality strategy that includes:
- Provision for an Independent Monitoring & Assessment Network;
- A National Advisory Board on Air Quality, chaired by the Minister for the Environment which comprises of experts, academia and representatives from NGOs, local authorities and high polluting sectors (like transport and energy).
- A charging Clean Air Zone for Cardiff, with Swansea and Newport councils mandated to undertake feasibility studies on introducing charging CAZ in their areas;
- A review of reporting processed so that every local authority (in conjunction with the LHB/PSB) is required to prepare a Clean Air Plan, based on data from the Independent Monitoring & Assessment Network, with adequate control measures identified and acted upon;
- A commitment is given that Strategic Development Plans, Public Service Board Well-Being plans and regional transport authorities will consider air quality;
- A requirement that every local authority develops a Walking and Cycling strategy with targets to decrease the percentage of journeys by private car
2. A Clean Air Fund that provides targeted funding for those Local Authorities with consistent exceedances or elevated levels of air pollution. Welsh Government should investigate options to part-finance this Fund via measures like traffic charging and Mutual Investment Models.
3. Funding be given to councils to boost pollution monitoring outside schools and health centres/hospitals so the public have the information needed to protect their health.
4. Improve pollution monitoring, awareness campaigns and public health alerts so that people living in every part of Wales are aware of local pollution levels and how to minimise the impact on health.
5. A Welsh Clean Air Act that would:
- Enshrine in a law the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines;
- Mandate Welsh Government to produce a statutory air quality strategy every 5 years;
- Provide a statutory duty on local authorities to appropriately monitor and assess air pollution, and take action against it
- Introduce a ‘right to breathe’ whereby local authorities are obliged to inform vulnerable groups when certain levels are breached.
What has the Welsh Government promised to do?
On 05 December Hannah Blythyn AM, made a statement outlining the Welsh Government’s air pollutions plans. She promised a Clean Air Plan for Wales in 2018, to include a Clean Air Zone Framework; the establishment of a National Air Quality Assessment and Monitoring Centre for Wales; and a re-launch of the Welsh Government’s Air Quality in Wales website with improved air quality forecasting capability, new sections for schools and health advice.
In April 2018 the Welsh Government launched their Clean Air Zone Framework consultation and unveiled a 3 year £20 million Clean Air fund.
The proposals are a great start, but we must be more ambitious. If the government is serious about building charging clean air zones, then this will require huge upfront investment to expand the number of buses and trains, invest in safe walking and cycling routes, and provide the technology to charge people to enter the zone. People are not going to leave their cars at home and create the modal shift we need, if there is no practical alternative to get to work.
These changes won’t be easy, but the gains are huge. If we act now, we can follow the lead of other European cities and take a lead for the rest of the UK. We can tackle air pollution and save lives at the same time. The Welsh Government are going in the right direction, but on Clean Air Day 2018 we call on Hannah Blythyn AM, to go much, much further so we can all breathe clean air.
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