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Public Polling on Air Quality in London

  • By Owain Mortimer

Nearly half of Londoners feel their health has been impacted by poor air quality, according to research commissioned by London Councils. The public polling sought to gauge the public’s understanding of air quality issues, and the impact it has on their lives. This briefing provides an overview of the findings.

Overview

Boroughs have been active in encouraging improvements in air quality, through a number of different projects and approaches across London. We now welcome the fact that Sadiq Khan has made air quality one of his key priorities as Mayor of London and is carrying out a series of surveys and consultations around the issue. This began with a month-long survey in July and its purpose was to shape the focus of the next two, more detailed consultations, and to sound out potential policy solutions. 

London Councils submitted a detailed response to this phase of the consultation and will do the same for the next two phases. These will take the form of more detailed consultations into the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and its boundaries (expected in autumn 2017), as well as introducing the emissions surcharge (t-charge). You can find more information about this, here: http://talklondon.london.gov.uk/homes-spaces/environment/discussions/proposed-emissions-surcharge. The consultation on the emissions surcharge has started today, 10 October 2016. London Councils will be working with the boroughs to submit co-ordinated responses to these consultations. 

Background

Air quality is a rising issue on the political agenda. Recent research from the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that not only are 92% of the world’s population living in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO limits, but that some 16,000 British citizens are killed each year due to poor air quality. 

According to research by King’s College London, the figure of deaths brought on by long term exposure to air pollution in London is nearly 9,500 per year1. But the effects of air pollution vary greatly in severity, ranging from high impacts that are seriously debilitating, such as chronic or obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cardiac events, to those that are less serious individually but which affect a larger number of people, e.g. when people’s activities are restricted, or symptoms flare up (such as coughing and wheezing). The costs of these impacts, for welfare, healthcare and productivity, are considered to be large2.

Current government policy
The UK government’s policies covering air quality are currently in line with EU legislation. Following Brexit, it is unclear whether the government intends to drop the current air quality targets; although the Great Repeal Bill suggests that all laws will be transposed into UK law in the first instance. But there will obviously be the opportunity to scrutinise, amend, improve or drop any aspect of EU law once the bill is passed. The EU Air Quality Ambience Directive currently states that UK limits of PM10 cannot exceed annual mean levels of 40μm (and not exceed a 24 hour mean of 50μm more than 35 times in a year); that background urban levels of PM2.5 must be cut by 15%, and that Nitrogen Dioxide levels must be kept at an annual mean of 40μm (with levels of 200μm not being exceeded more than 18 times a year).

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee have questioned the government’s approach to meeting current air quality targets, and in September the government responded to the Efra Committee’s report on air quality. Responding to the report, the government clarified its position in a number of areas.

The government rejected the need to provide additional specific advice or support (including financial support) for local authorities to address air pollution, stating "Local authorities can take action as and when necessary to improve air quality and we encourage them to do so.” They also dismissed plans for a national diesel scrappage scheme saying “We have considered the use of scrappage schemes [...] and have concluded that this may not be an appropriate and proportionate response”. On the criticism of a lack of cohesion on policy across governmental departments, the government pointed to the new Joint Air Quality Unit between Defra & DfT that has 'recently' been set up. And crucially, the government rejected calls to publish a comprehensive air quality strategy with annual reports, saying they viewed their 'air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide' as being adequate.

Analysis

London Councils Air quality polling
London Councils carried out the first specific air quality polling to find out how much Londoners know about pollution and the impact it has on their lives. 1,000 Londoners took part in its online research. Below are some of the key findings.

Awareness
Three quarters of respondents (76%) said they agreed tackling air quality should be a priority issue, with 38% strongly agreeing. This rises to 84% among those who are newer to London, 85% of those who cycle, 79% of those who use public transport and 83% those whose health is affected by air quality. In general, there were high levels of awareness overall amongst the public, reflecting the growing profile of air quality as an issue in London, and around the world. 

Causes of pollution
Private vehicles, vans and Lorries were seen as some of the main causes of pollution, followed by delivery vehicles and taxis/private hire vehicles. Nearly a quarter of people think air pollution blown in from the continent is another one of the main causes of air pollution. Longer term residents (5+ years) consider road transport to be one of the main causes, more so than newer residents.

Awareness of GLA air quality service
Less than a quarter of respondents had heard of the GLA’s air quality advice service. Of the people who didn’t use the service a third would consider using it, and over half said they would find it useful.

Impact
Nearly half of respondents said poor air quality had had a direct impact on their health, with asthma, breathing difficulties and coughing reported most frequently. People aged 25-34, those who live in inner London, and those who cycle or use public transport and those with children felt most affected. 

39% of people said air quality impacted on decisions they made regarding their health.

Nearly a quarter of people (22%) say air quality affects their choice of school for their children. When asked if their children’s health had been affected by air pollution, 12% of respondents said yes.

Over a third of people say air quality affects where they choose to live in London. People aged 16-44, as well those with children, and those from a BAME background were more likely to say this.

Over a quarter of people said they changed their behaviour on days when air pollution is high. People aged 55+ were more likely to stay indoors.

Nearly half of people questioned said they would change their transport habits in order to improve air quality. Actions people were willing to take included walking/cycling more, followed by using public transport more, and reducing the number of car journeys they make.

Car Ownership by engine type
Less than 0.5% of respondents who owned a private vehicle owned a fully electric model. This is in contrast to 69% owning petrol, 25% owning diesel, and 5% owning a hybrid model.

Transport modes
71% of people in the survey said they didn’t cycle in London. Of the people who did, 12% cycle as part of their commute. These cycle commuters are more likely to be male, younger and living in inner London. Over half of people who cycle say that high air pollution negatively influences their decision to ride, especially those whose health is affected. 

Over half of respondents use public transport as their main commute – this is across all ages apart from those of retirement age. Those from a BAME background are more likely to use it for commuting, as are those who live in inner London. 

Commentary

Alongside the earlier stated aims of this research, London Councils hopes that it will flag concerns of Londoners and ensure air quality gains more attention and traction from key decision makers. 

London Councils and boroughs have a key role in tackling the issue and putting it front and centre of the capital agenda for improvement. London Councils supports a number of measures to tackle air pollution. We support the early implementation of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) (in 2019) to ensure that the benefits of this policy are manifested as soon as possible for London residents. We also support, in principle, plans for an expanded ULEZ beyond the current Congestion Charge Zone, although this would need to be done in coordination with the boroughs to identify the best possible boundary route. We seek assurances from TfL that any surplus income from the ULEZ and emissions surcharge will be ring fenced and used for measures that improve air quality standards in London, for example investment in electric buses, electric taxis, electric charging points or more sustainable modes of transport, especially walking and cycling.

Related to this, we believe the government needs to review financial incentives, such as Vehicle Excise Duty, so as to encourage the take up of the lowest polluting vehicles to reflect concern for both CO2 and NO2 emissions. Linked to this are plans for a diesel scrappage scheme in London, but also nationally, which London Councils support despite recent government rejections of this proposal.

Another key priority of the new Mayor is to encourage modal shift. We believe that plans to increase in modal shift to more active and sustainable modes of transport is key to London reducing air pollution, but also providing a raft of other benefits to its residents. As the polling shows, residents are willing to change their travel behaviour. Additionally, we support increased investment in cycling infrastructure as this will help people feel comfortable to cycle in London, whilst making it more convenient, where this might not have been the case before. We encourage TfL to work with individual boroughs and sub-regional groups to ensure that the best possible solutions can be applied in different contexts across London. 

Nationally we call for the national government to ensure that EU air quality regulations and targets remain in place, or are strengthened, post-Brexit. With this in mind, we support calls for the government to draw up a new overarching Air Quality Strategy for tackling all air pollutants, produced by all sectors from transport and industry to energy and farming, with annual reports on progress.

 

1  Understanding the health impacts of air pollution in London (2015) 

2 Royal College of Physicians (2016) Every breath we take: The lifelong impact of air pollution

Owain Mortimer, Principal Policy Officer - Transport, Infrastructure & Environment