Air quality and money, the missing link

The financial implications for air pollution on local economies must be better understood if we are to truly tackle the problem, writes Oliver Harrison.

More and more, we are seeing government turn its attention to a more inclusive ‘place-making’ model of funding and policymaking; a late but much-needed acknowledgement of the certainty that business, housing, recreation, health and accessibility are interlinked beyond the material connection between front door, driveway, road, office and park.

For a lengthy spell, the quality of the air we breathe both in and between each of our chosen destinations was taken for granted under an assumption of safety and misguided ignorance. Now, we have begun to address the silent problem which permeates our place-making agendas.

Right now, it feels as though the air quality policy dialogue is stifled somewhat, with Defra and MHCLG outputting clear considerations and directives regarding proper air quality management, but not quite incorporating it pervasively across every element of placemaking they touch.

For example, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) refers with some detail to Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) and staying below the ‘limit’. This is not a convincing article in a major policy document, to assure residents, local authorities (who carry out planning activity) and other government departments that air quality is a fundamental priority (it is also notably listed as article number 181). This is one case, referring to one document, but there are others to be made which are similar to it.

Defra’s Clean Air Strategy and CAZ Framework offer more comprehensive and considered detail, as is to be expected.

However, there is a stark contrast in how these key policies are being transferred across Whitehall. The Environment Bill will levy charges against local authorities not ensuring that limits remain unbreeched, there will be a small amount of financial support for wider air quality monitoring. This does not reflect the ambition that government has portrayed in its policy and political rhetoric, particularly over the past year.

There is a missing link, between air quality and place profitability which induces this reluctance to take a harder and more committed stance to managing air quality holistically, before fears of exceeded limitations come into thought.

There is one item across the Whitehall agenda which translates between policies, agendas and thought-processes; money. In order for something to become a serious consideration for every piece of work across every government department, and thus across every NGO and business, there needs to be an economic motivation.

This is where our NGOs, think tanks, research labs and commissions often come to an impasse. There is a significant and growing amount of evidence to substantiate the deep concern for public health in relation to poor air quality, but there is not a significant amount of evidence to substantiate a deep concern for the deterioration of our local economies as a consequence of poor air quality.

With air quality quickly becoming recognised as one of the greatest threats to public health in the Western world, we need to be operating in a well-directed and highly motivated unison, which requires a universal language to communicate the impact of inaction.

The fiscal implications of poor air quality transcend political, policy and ideological watersheds which have prevented a prevalent consideration of the issue.

In medicine, there is a wealth of literature which describes the fiscal effect of disease and illness. In 2009, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released an economic impact study on the effect of disease that explains the importance of exploring the economic impacts of illness.

The National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) calculated the cost of illness to be c$455bn in 1980, in the USA alone. Diseases of the respiratory system contributed c$33bn to the total impact on the national economy.

Uncovering the true impact of poor air quality on our economy is essential in bringing fiscally-minded groups into the public health conversation. If there is a clear delineated account of poor air quality being detrimental to our health and bank balances, we can make a concerted argument to make air quality a factor of serious universal consideration in all of Whitehall’s policymaking and our more local place-making.

Currently, we are solidifying the point that we need to take action and Defra is listening. However, if you want to have the ear of the treasury or corporate sector we need a business case to match.

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