Improving the quality of the air we breathe

UWE Bristol research findings on the management of air quality have informed policy, official guidance and practice at the UK Government level, as well as in its devolved nations and regions. The findings have also directly influenced policy in the EU, South Africa and Nigeria.

Understanding the problem, identifying solutions

Some 30,000 deaths in the UK every year are linked to air pollution, costing society around £20 billion. Local councils and citizens need to understand the risks it poses and how best to manage it. Providing the evidence for this has been the mission of UWE Bristol’s Air Quality Management Resource Centre, founded in 1996.

Research at the Centre has been led by Professor Jim Longhurst, working with Dr Tim Chatterton, Dr Enda Hayes and Jo Barnes. It has shown how actions at the local and national level interrelate in the management of air quality, and what policies and support structures work best.

Back in 1997, when the UK’s first National Air Quality Strategy was laid out, it was expected that only a handful of locations in major cities would exceed the health-based objectives for maximum pollution levels. Wherever that happens, local authorities are required to declare them ‘Air Quality Management Areas’.

The shock came a decade later, when UWE Bristol research showed that, far from there being only isolated cases, 60% of local authorities had declared these areas of air-quality concern. This was much worse than expected. A new spatial pattern – a ‘new geography’ – of air pollution in the UK was laid bare for the first time.

Right from 1996 to the present, Longhurst’s team has scrutinised the processes used to manage local air quality. They have analysed air quality data both from computer models and direct measurements. They have looked at policy, transport planning, public exposure, air quality and carbon management processes within local authorities. They have also considered stakeholder engagement and the behaviours and attitudes of the public.

All of this has led to an unparalleled understanding of the complex interplay between air quality management activities at local and national levels. The research has identified what national government needs to do to best support local authorities and agencies, especially given the unexpected magnitude of the problem.

Influencing policy and practice around the UK

These insights have enabled the UWE Bristol research team to advise UK Government department Defra in its development of policy and guidance.

The research has also been central in informing the local air quality management policies of the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, as well as the Greater London Authority and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland. The UWE Bristol team advised them both on setting their own policies, and on implementing policy set at the UK level. The resulting guidance documents were published in 2009 and are still in force in 2014.

The UWE Bristol team trained practitioners and policy makers in local authorities and the devolved administrations. It gave case-by-case advice, and also provided an online and phone helpdesk.

By tackling poor air quality, UWE Bristol research has contributed directly to improving the quality of life of people in towns and cities around the UK.

Influencing UK national policy

In 2010, the UK Government instigated a review of the overall local air quality management process. Its remit was both how to improve air quality itself, and also how to make best use of resources in doing so. Its conclusions reflected UWE Bristol research findings over the previous decade.

In particular, it took forward the finding that there was considerable mismatch between the roles of central and local government. It endorsed authorities that had collaborated with other organisations and across departments, as identified by UWE Bristol research, in ways that could work better and reduce costs.

The review also reaffirmed UWE Bristol findings by recommending that the Department for Transport develop a more concerted plan for its contribution to improving air quality. In line with UWE Bristol research, it recommended that climate change and air quality policies be more closely aligned, especially at the local level.

The review’s recommendations, echoing the findings of Longhurst and colleagues, have directly influenced policy and practice in central and local government – a continuing influence in further changes are even now coming into effect.

Influencing EU policy

UWE Bristol research has also made a direct input into policy at the EU level. In December 2013 the European Commission’s Directorate General of Environment announced a new air quality policy package. This had been informed by research commissioned from UWE Bristol as part of a consortium. The contribution from UWE Bristol focused particularly on ozone pollution and the likely effects of scenarios for possible future policies.

International influence

UWE Bristol’s air quality research has also proved influential around the world.

In 2007 the team became part of a multinational consultancy to develop a new National Framework for Air Quality Management in South Africa, bringing their insights and experience of similar regulatory change in the UK. Since then, South Africa has seen an improving trend in ambient air quality – guided by the standards set out in the Framework.

Longhurst’s group has also conducted research on air quality in the Niger Delta, influencing practice in Nigeria. Following a research collaboration with the UWE Bristol team, the Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency now has a policy priority to develop satellite sensors to monitor concentrations of pollutants and carbon dioxide. Since February 2013, it now also assesses its existing satellite sensors using the methodology from this research.

UWE Bristol research has directly influenced policy and practice in the management of air quality in the UK, EU, South Africa and Nigeria, with consequent benefits to people living in all of these places.