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A look back at the first National Air Quality Conference

It is slightly less than three weeks to this year’s National Air Quality Conference which is again being held at Lord’s Cricket Ground, on 8th November. 

It is four years since the inaugural National Air Quality Conference, and since then we have held three Northern Air Quality Conferences in Manchester and this year launched a SW & Wales Conference in Bristol.

As we prepare to return to Lords, we thought we would look back at some of the topics under discussion in 2019 and catch up with what our speakers are doing now.

The most immediately noticeable thing is the volume of industry figures we had enthusiastically hoovered up to speak at the event, in the naïve assumption that nothing would overrun and we’d all go home at the appointed time.

Polly Billington, then director of UK100, was the conference’s first ever speaker and called on local authorities to be bolder in tackling toxic air. She went out of her way to praise Birmingham City Council for being the only local authority to pledge to charge private cars to enter its CAZ, against some vociferous objections. Polly has recently launched her campaign to fight as a Labour candidate in the next general election for the new constituency of East Thanet.

Anna Richardson, then a Glasgow City Councillor, also discussed Clean Air and Low Emission Zones and made the case that EVs shouldn’t be thought of as a direct replacement for ICE cars, saying: ‘There is nothing more sustainable than walking’. Anna is now civil servant and a trustee at Cycling Scotland.’

Catherine Westoby from TfL spoke enthusiastically about the ULEZ, which had been launched in London earlier that year. She was also looking forward to the 2021 expansion of the scheme which she said would bring even more positive outcomes. Catherine is currently Head of Net Zero Business Engagement at Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Christopher Snelling, head of UK Policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA) gave a combative defence of the UK’s freight industry, saying: ‘We’re not all here to agree with everyone.’ He called CAZs ‘overrated’ and called on the government to incentivise truck manufacturers to deliver more zero-emission HGVs and vans on a larger scale. Christopher is currently Policy Director at Airport Operators Association.

The next speaker was Jonathan Werran, chief executive of think tank Localis. Jonathan discussed unbalanced infrastructure funding, which he said was creating a ‘Dickensian tale of two cities’ in many urban areas. He also observed that while many councils had declared climate emergencies, they were meaningless soundbites without a real commitment to change. Jonathan is still in the same post at Localis.

Simon Jeffrey, from the urban policy think tank Centre for Cities, discussed how city centres have been transformed over the past couple of decades into attractive places to live – but warned that we ‘must make more efficient use of our cities’ to improve air quality. The goal for cities, he said, must be reducing its dependence on car use, suggesting that government ramp up spending on transport infrastructure to make this vision a reality. Simon is now Policy Adviser (Transport) at the Local Government Association.

Dr Gary Fuller, who will be returning to speak at next month’s conference, gave us an entertaining run through the history of air pollution in the UK. Beginning in medieval London he moved to the 1850s when smoke was even encouraged as an antidote to tuberculosis and ultimately to 1952 and the ‘Great Smog’ of London.

Larissa Lockwood from Global Action Plan (above) and Nick Martin from Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) gave a joint presentation on the Clean Air Hospital Framework, which is being pioneered at GOSH this year. Larissa blasted the government for ‘passing the buck’ on air pollution and said they must treat it as a public health issue and fund it via the Department for Health and Social Care rather than it being the responsibility of Defra. Larissa remains the driving force behind Global Action Plan and Laura Fatah, the organisation’s Head of Policy and Advocacy, will be on the panel this year.

Nick gave an emotional speech about GOSH’s ‘Play Street’, which reimagined a road outside into a rainbow-themed play area, with a host of activities championing the therapeutic, emotional and psychological benefits of play, in a safe, clean-air environment. Nick is still at Great Ormond Street where he is Head of Sustainability and Environmental Management.

Sarah McFadyen of the British Lung Foundation showed how lung conditions are exacerbated by exposure to air pollution. She said that the air pollution movement can learn a lot from how smoking behaviour has been radically changed: ‘Smoking rates have been slashed so attitudes can change. There is a lot to learn from the anti-smoking movement.’ t Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Partnership.

Dr Dawid Hanak from Cranfield University gave a presentation on carbon capture and storage, much touted as a potential solution to industrial emissions. ‘We’ve run the demo and the tech works,’ he said, ‘but when we want to upscale it, there aren’t the available tools.’ The day after the conference, the government pledged to invest £800m in CCS clusters. Dr Hanak is currently Professor of Decarbonisation of Industrial Clusters at the Net Zero Industry Innovation Centre.

Dr Ben Todd from Arcola Energy gave the final presentation of the day and an energetic one it was too. His mission is to make hydrogen fuel cell technology more mainstream, which he says can solve both the clean air problem as well as harnessing renewable energy. 

Finally, a Clean Air panel took to the stage which included Dr Gary Fuller, Larissa Lockwood, Simon Jeffrey, Freddie Talberg from EMSOL and Rosamund Kissi-Debrah from the Ella Roberta Family Foundation.

If you would like to attend this year’s conference, some tickets are still available. Click here to see this year’s agenda and to book tickets.

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