Questions have been raised as to whether there is sufficient expertise to deliver clean air plans in towns and cities, due to the number of local authorities required to carry out work in the field.
The issue was put to speakers at the Air Quality Forum conference in London last week (1 March) hosted by Waterfront Conference Company and Arup, which looked at how planning and transport solutions can help to deliver improved air quality.
Delegates heard that following the latest court ruling on the government’s air quality plan, 33 local authorities in England will be ordered to investigate whether measures can be implemented to bring them into compliance with air quality limits before 2020 (see airqualitynews.com).
This is on top of an additional 23 authorities which have been mandated to carry out feasibility studies to investigate whether clean air zones could speed up compliance with NO2 limits under an earlier version of the plan (see airqualitynews.com story).
And, as well as these 23 authorities, five city authorities have been tasked with introducing clean air zones before the end of the decade (see airqualitynews.com story).
During a question and answer session at the conference last week Mary Farrar, corporate lead for transportation at Calderdale council, questioned whether consultants would have sufficient capacity to assist all of the councils obligated under the air quality plan.
Calderdale is one of the authorities now required to carry out its own feasibility study as a result of the High Court ruling, and attended a meeting with the government’s Joint Air Quality Unit last Wednesday (28 February) to discuss implementation of the requirements, at which similar concerns were raised.
Ms Farrar said: “At the conference yesterday with the marginal authorities, one thing that came up was these feasibility studies that we are going to be mandated to do.
“We may use consultancy support to solve some of the challenges that we haven’t been able to solve so far, we wondered whether or not there was capacity in the industry to support us because a lot of that has been soaked up by the big cities who are doing clean air zones.â€?
Responding to the question, Michael Bull, global leader of environmental consulting at Arup – the engineering and planning consultancy – said that he had seen no evidence of a lack of available capacity to take on new work from air quality consultants.
He said: “It’s a very contradictory situation because every air quality consultant I know will say they are very busy, they are run off their feet, they can’t recruit staff. And yet, when you get a bid in to do work, you will not find that there is any lack of enthusiasm for people wishing to bid and I wouldn’t say I have noticed an increase in fee rates because people pick and choose their work.
“I think that the capacity element is not coming in on the air quality plans, there is a lot of big infrastructure work that is sucking out capacity, generally not just on air quality. If you go to any consultant and ask if they can do it, they will say of course.â€?
Another of the speakers, Andrea Lee, of the environmental campaign group ClientEarth, which has led the legal challenge against the government’s air quality plans, said that she had been told of concerns over a lack of available resource from within local authorities.
She commented: “From talking to local authorities, I know there is a lack of capacity. For many local authorities air quality work has been under-funded for a very long time, which is why I personally don’t agree with the government’s approach in passing the buck down to local authorities.
“If we were doing this in a more holistic and cross-departmental way, obviously you would have to have the local input because every place is slightly different, but I think they could be taking a much broader approach to tackling this.
“Hopefully with the Clean Air Strategy that is going to be consulted on in a few months’ time we will start seeing a bit more of that. We do need to go beyond the legal limits and we do need to remember this is about people’s health.â€?
During the session delegates also discussed the potential for enforcement of air quality standards once the UK has left the EU, and how the government will be held to account if legal limits are not met and the impact of the planning system on air quality.