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Has air quality got lost in the corridors of power?

Air quality might be high on the agenda for many people, but despite political speeches and demands for action, the fact remains there is no single Whitehall department responsible for pushing the agenda forward. Jamie Hailstone reports.

As anyone familiar with the workings of the corridors of power will tell you, it’s complicated.

Westminster is a difficult beast at the best of times, and the remit for air quality is scattered across SW1.

This means the Department for Transport (DfT) is responsible for matters regarding vehicles and infrastructure, while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has the environment portfolio.

On top of that, policies relating to energy are drawn up by another ministry, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), while local government resides with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. On top of that, the Treasury inevitably holds the purse strings and then there is the question of what role the Department for Health and Public Health England should play.

If air quality is a health issue, then why are those particular departments not playing a bigger part in leading the government’s response to the issue? For the ordinary man in the street, the situation probably sounds ridiculous, but spare a thought for the local authorities, who have been tasked by ministers to introduce Clean Air Zones and have to deal with Whitehall on a daily basis.

In February, Birmingham City Council announced the delay of the introduction of its Clean Air Zone for the second time, blaming Whitehall’s botched introduction of a vehicle checking tool. And Leeds’ Clean Air Zone has also been delayed for the same reason with both now set for further delays due to coronavirus.

‘I think local authorities do get mixed messages from Whitehall,’ says Oxford City Council’s cabinet member for zero-carbon Oxford, Cllr Tom Hayes.

‘In part it’s because the conversation you have with one part of government is not happening with other parts of government, or the outcomes of that conversation are not being shared with other departments.’

‘We have probably the most centralised state apparatus in Western Europe, but it’s unable to communicate clearly with itself,’ adds Cllr Hayes. ‘We also have a prime minister who wants to level up the regions and one way to do that is sending power out to the regions.

But the government is caught between these two things.’ The Green Alliance’s policy analyst, Jonathan Ritson, tells Air Quality News there is also an issue of ‘inaction for a long period’ in Whitehall, followed by ‘extremely short deadlines’, which mean longer-term projects have ‘not been given as much prominence as they should’.

There is some inter-departmental working over air quality in Whitehall in the shape of the Joint Air Quality Unit (Jaqu), which was set up by the DfT and Defra, back in 2016. The original remit of Jaqu was to focus on delivering the UK’s national air quality plans to reduce levels of NO2, including proposals to establish Clean Air Zones in five UK cities (Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton) by 2020.

It was also set up to develop more detailed proposals for the Clean Air Zone framework and legislation to mandate zones in certain cities. Cllr Hayes says while the civil servants who work in Jaqu are ‘fantastic’, there is something structurally in the organisation, which ‘means they are not communicating as well as they ought to’.

‘One big concern is you are seeing Clean Air Zones in different parts of the country having to be delayed because Jaqu has not been able to do all the things it is meant to do,’ he adds. ‘I know concerns have also been voiced by some local authorities that when they put in their outline business cases [to Jaqu] around cleaner air zones, they did not have the speedy and detailed response needed to progress the plans.’

Centre for Cities researcher, Valentine Quinio, says she believes the problem with Jaqu is ‘not necessarily a Whitehall issue’. ‘It’s more about how local councils have been applying the mandate they had received [from central government] to address air pollution, although this transfer of responsibility must come with more funding,’ she tells Air Quality News.

‘There is nothing, legally speaking, which binds local authorities to do something to tackle air pollution. The document produced by Whitehall was first published in 2015, and then revised in 2017.’ ‘In this document, five cities were mandated to have Clean Air Zones by 2020.

They should have been implemented by now and none of them has a Clean Air Zone.’ ‘These cities do not have enough incentives,’ she adds. ‘Beyond monitoring and developing plans, there is a lack of clarity on the responsibilities of local authorities, which have no legal duty to meet the objectives set by the plan, and no punitive system if they don’t.’

‘In addition, in the 2017 plan, local authorities were encouraged to seek alternatives to Clean Air Zones before they implement them. All that explains the sluggish reaction from some local governments.’ Ms Quinio says Jaqu needs more legally binding powers ‘in order to tell local authorities not just what they should do, but also what will happen if they do not implement Clean Air Zones’.

And then there is the issue of whether air quality should be a health issue. After all, pollution leads and exacerbates many health conditions, which cost the NHS millions of pounds to treat every year. But the Green Alliance’s Ritson is not convinced.

‘I’m not sure the Department for Health would have the skills and knowledge to deal with the transport and air pollutant modelling required,’ he comments. Cllr Hayes recalls that he had the ‘privilege’ of spending Valentine’s Day 2019 at a clean air summit, hosted by the London mayor, Sadig Khan, with the-then environment secretary, Michael Gove and health secretary Matt Hancock present.

‘I thought it was a really positive step forward to see the health and environment secretaries discussing air pollution,’ says Cllr Hayes. ‘Health is the thing that causes people to recognise that pollution is a subject which needs to be urgently addressed.’

‘I would want government to recognise that and join up health and environment more, as an approach to achieve air quality. But I’m not sure that we’ve seen any progress since that summit. It felt potentially like it was the start of something great, which has not been developed.’

In the aftermath of Boris Johnson’s general election victory in December, there was a lot of speculation that his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, would take something of a wrecking ball to Whitehall.

There was even talk of the Department of Energy and Climate Change returning, although Air Quality News spoke to several people who were agnostic about the idea of bringing it back. In the end, the wholesale reorganisation did not happen and now the outbreak of the coronavirus has pushed the notion of reform back down the agenda.

But the clock is still ticking for the 2020 Clean Air Zones and councils, more than ever, need a more coherent package of support from Westminster in order to tackle pollution. If Boris Johnson is serious about levelling up the forgotten parts of Britain, then Whitehall will have to make the signposts to support in the corridors of power a lot clearer.

This article first appeared in the May issue of the Air Quality News magazine, which you can read here.

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