Four in five urban councillors back tougher action on clean air, but most say government has left them too broke and powerless
We need more stringent air pollution standards in line with WHO, say 81 per cent of town and city councillors in new poll for IPPR
As government doubles down on pro-car rhetoric, 70 per cent say it’s not supporting councils to deliver clean air
Only 13 per cent say they have the funding to tackle problem, and only 29 per cent say they have the powers
IPPR calls on national and local government to step up ambition on air quality or risk embedding poor health and higher costs
The urgent need to address air pollution is being stalled at local level because councillors say they don’t have the budgets, powers or resources to make impactful change, according to a new report from IPPR.
Air pollution is estimated to cause the premature deaths of 43,000 people per year in the UK, and can cause cancer, strokes, heart attacks, dementia and asthma, with the problem particularly acute in more urban areas.
But the government’s recent moves to put the brakes on low-emission zones, coupled with pro-motorist rhetoric and a plan to rein in local authority action across England, are further undermining councils’ efforts to raise air quality, the report says. It also highlights a lack of knowledge of the problems caused by poor quality air among the public, but a desire to understand the issue better.
Polling by Survation of a weighted sample of councillors in English cities and towns revealed high appetite to improve air quality, but a lack of capacity:
While 78 per cent of urban councillors believe local authorities have a duty to tackle air pollution, most say they have neither the necessary powers (52 per cent) or funding (72 per cent)
Only 6 per cent ‘strongly agree’ that the government is doing enough to support local authorities to tackle air pollution
In all, 81 per cent of urban councillors want tougher guidelines on air quality, to match recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO), including majorities of Conservatives (61 per cent) and Labour (91 per cent)
99 per cent of Labour councillors and 88 per cent of Conservative councillors support making public transport more convenient, cheaper and accessible to improve air quality
The report praises councils that have taken steps to raise air quality within their current powers for their ‘strong leadership’ and ‘ambition’, and urges local and national governments to take the same approach.
However, it also flags significant political polarisation on the issue. The polling found:
Labour councillors were far more likely to consider air pollution a ‘very big problem’ in their areas (22 per cent) than their urban Conservative counterparts (1 per cent)
Less than a quarter of Conservative councillors (23 per cent) support charging people for using polluting cars to improve air quality, compared to almost three quarters (73 per cent) of Labour councillors
Most Labour councillors (81 per cent) support converting road space into new green areas or for use by other forms of transport like cycling, compared to 26 per cent of Conservatives
The IPPR report finds that limiting use of polluting cars, creating more green spaces and encouraging public transport options are all crucial to improving air quality. However, local authorities face a double barrier of what they see as insufficient powers and funding.
Following years of austerity, councils no longer have adequate budgets to hire staff to lead on environmental issues, or resources to regulate and enforce environmental rules. Additionally, long-term investment in public transport and active travel – both popular with voters - is lacking, the report says.
Meanwhile, it says public health professionals in local government have limited policy levers available to them, and councils also lack the power to raise and spend money more locally, particularly on transport.
To counter this IPPR is calling on the government to:
Adopt more ambitious air quality targets, aligned with WHO guidelines that would halve the maximum limit for dangerous micro-particles and nitrogen oxide (see Note 3), and outline credible plans to get there
Provide long-term financial support to local authorities for action on clean air, including for scrappage schemes for the most polluting vehicles
Devolve fiscal powers to local authorities, as elsewhere in the world, so they can raise and spend money more locally, particularly on transport
Maya Singer Hobbs, senior research fellow at IPPR, said:
“Local councillors in our cities and towns generally know that air quality is bad and is leading to avoidable illnesses and deaths. But they feel they are too powerless and penniless to make a meaningful difference, and feel they’ve been abandoned by government.
“Local people, like councillors, are best placed to design local solutions to improve air quality where they live. However, without more resources and wider support from national government, they won’t be able to take action at the pace and scale required to match the severity of the problem.”
Stephen Frost, principal research fellow at IPPR, said:
“Recent government announcements have undermined local leadership and ability to act to improve air quality and meet our climate commitments. The UK didn’t need a plan for drivers that locks in dependency on cars.
“The government must drop its polarising rhetoric and listen to people’s demands for urgent action to change how we travel. When engaging with people on low incomes we found great appetite for action to improve air quality, as long as it's seen as effective and fair.
Maya Singer Hobbs, the report’s author, is available for interview
David Wastell, director of news and communications: 07921 403651 [email protected]
Liam Evans, senior digital and media officer: 07419 365334 [email protected]
NOTES TO EDITORS
The IPPR paper, Unlocking local action on clean air, by Maya Singer Hobbs, Louise Marix Evans and Stephen Frost, will be published at 0001 on Thursday, November 9. It will be available for download at: http://www.ippr.org/research/publications/unlocking-local-action-on-clean-air
Advance copies of the report are available under embargo on request.
Meeting WHO guidelines would involve halving the current particulate matter (PM2.5) target (formed from domestic combustion, road transport and from industry), and reducing the annual nitrogen dioxides (NOx) target by three quarters (the largest single contributor is road transport). Full WHO guidelines can be found at: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240034228
On behalf of IPPR, Survation surveyed 500 elected members of local councils in urban England between August 7-31, 2023. Data were weighted to the profile of elected councillors in England. Data were weighted by political party and region. Demographic targets for the weighted data were derived from Open Council Data UK. Urban local authorities were identified using the ONS Local Authority Rural Urban Classification.
IPPR (the Institute for Public Policy Research) is an independent charity working towards a fairer, greener, and more prosperous society. We are researchers, communicators, and policy experts creating tangible progressive change, and turning bold ideas into common sense realities. Working across the UK, IPPR, IPPR North, and IPPR Scotland are deeply connected to the people of our nations and regions, and the issues our communities face. We have helped shape national conversations and progressive policy change for more than 30 years. From making the early case for the minimum wage and tackling regional inequality, to proposing a windfall tax on energy companies, IPPR’s research and policy work has put forward practical solutions for the crises facing society. www.ippr.org