Accelerated review for air quality strategy

The Government has promised to implement the national air quality strategy developed by its predecessor "as a matter of urgency", despite criticising it while in opposition. But Environment Minister Michael Meacher has announced that the strategy is to be reviewed immediately to identify options for speeding up improvements in air quality.

The previous Government published its long-awaited air quality strategy in March. Labour accused the Department of Trade and Industry of sabotaging work on regulations setting out local authorities' duties, and complained that some air quality objectives to be attained by 2005 were too weak or only provisional in nature (ENDS Report 266, pp 33-34 ).

Many local authorities are keen to begin preliminary work on reviewing and assessing air quality. But uncertainty caused by the absence of regulations and final guidance from the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) has been compounded by the prospect that the new Government might amend the strategy before implementing it.

On 17 July, Mr Meacher told a conference that the existing strategy will be implemented "in full" by the end of the year. The strategy, he said, "was an important step and I am not going to throw away all of the hard work which went into it."

However, the Minister added that the Government "will be looking hard at ways in which we can improve matters and wherever we can do so sensibly, deliver benefits more quickly." It has brought forward the first review of the strategy - originally scheduled for 1999 - to start immediately, and will aim to propose formal amendments "by next year".

The review will look at the scientific basis of the strategy - including the adequacy of the air quality objectives - and also the range of policy options available. Mr Meacher commented that the 2005 deadline for compliance is "an awfully long time to wait when things are not even standing still but getting worse. If we can bring [the deadline] forward to an earlier date we will."

Mr Meacher also made a point of stressing that the burden of compliance should be shared evenly across sectors, although this was already clear in the strategy. Quoting almost directly from the document, he said that industrial sources would not be "subject to a burden that is disproportionate, or beyond that which would be expected through the normal operation of the principles of BATNEEC (best available techniques not entailing excessive cost)."

The Government intends to ensure this either by direction to authorising bodies or by amending the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Section 7(2)(c) of the Act currently requires authorising bodies to set conditions so as to achieve compliance with quality objectives or standards set by the Secretary of State independently of BATNEEC considerations.

Meanwhile, local authorities are looking for significant improvements in the DETR's draft guidance on reviewing and assessing local air quality (ENDS Report 263, pp 29-31 ). According to the Association of London Government (ALG), the draft has proved insufficiently detailed to enable satisfactory assessments or the preparation of "coherent action plans".

London is one of the 14 "first phase" areas charged with testing the guidance (ENDS Report 253, p 37 ). The ALG says that data on industrial processes and new developments are incomplete, and that individual councils maintain different information on traffic flows. Furthermore, the guidance's reliance on "proxy indicators...represents a poor means for the possible declaration of air quality management areas."

Modelling by the South East Institute of Public Health indicates that, on existing policies, the strategy's objective for fine particulates (PM10) will still be exceeded by a wide margin across the capital in 2005. Exceedences of the objective for nitrogen dioxide will also be common.

Monitoring by London authorities has added to concern - first identified by International Mining Consultants (ENDS Report 256, pp 11-12 ) - that local PM10 levels may be strongly affected by long-range transport, making it difficult to tackle the pollutant by local measures.

The European Commission is about to propose new air quality standards for PM10 (ENDS Report 268, pp 39-40 ) - but is expected to support a move towards the finer PM2.5 fraction which has been shown to have a stronger association with ill health. Ironically, local sources - and especially traffic - are thought to have a stronger influence on PM2.5 than on PM10.

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