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Government policy ‘fails to deliver’ air quality improvements

UK transport planners are not taking the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account, new research suggests.

Road transport is the principal cause of air pollution in more than 95% of legally designated Air Quality Management Areas, while current estimates suggest that more than 50,000 deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution in the UK.

Yet, despite considerable policy and practice activities at various levels of governance over the two decades since the Environment Act 1995 committed the UK to improve air quality to internationally-accepted standards, measurements in the real environment show little improvement has been achieved.

That’s according to research to be presented at the Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference tomorrow (Wednesday, August 31).

Dr Tim Chatterton and Professor Graham Parkhurst, both of the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol, reviewed the findings of a number of projects they had been involved with to identify the underlying reasons why the air pollution concentrations from UK road transport have shown little-to-no reduction over the last two decades.

The study reviewed collaborative work between two leading research centres at UWE Bristol. The underlying research applied mixed methods, involving: in-depth analysis of local authority approaches to managing air quality; evaluation of data collected by government as part of annual MOT tests; analysis of longitudinal UK air quality data; and analysis of studies undertaken for the Department of Transport into people's attitudes and transport choices.

It found that despite pollution contributing between 15 and 30 times the annual number of deaths associated with road traffic accidents (RTAs) (2000-2015), Road Traffic Collisions (RTC) continue to remain the primary concern of transport planners while, at best, air pollution has been designated a shared priority between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Defra) and the DfT.

“Air pollution is perhaps the grossest manifestation of a general failure of UK transport planning to take the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account," said Parkhurst.

"Currently air pollution is a shared priority between Defra and DfT, but shared priority does not mean equal priority. Environmental managers only identify and monitor the problems. Insufficient relevant priority has been given within the sector responsible for most relevant emissions – transport policy and planning – which has instead prioritised safety and economic growth.”

Alongside a lack of joined-up Government, the study identified a strategic policy ‘tone’ which continues to signal and provide for the private car as central to national transport policy, combined with limited regulatory and financial support for alternative modes of transport and for local authorities seeking to introduce potentially effective air improvement measures such as ‘low emissions zones’.

Further factors identified by the review as frustrating attempts to reduce pollution from UK road transport include:

  • An over-reliance on policy measures to influence individual travel behaviour, whereas in practice transport choices emerge from individuals interacting with a wide range of social actors (employers, businesses, schools, healthcare providers etc.) and are strongly conditioned by factors such as the nature of the built environment and the provision of transport alternatives.
  • Lack of political salience of the problem amongst the wider population, which has limited awareness for example of the morbidity and mortality costs. Therefore limited pressure to change the priorities in the road transport sector.
  • Belief that technological improvement would make a big difference was misplaced, in part due to the emphasis placed on energy efficiency, which encouraged the adoption of diesel technology for private cars and encouraged technological change for heavy diesels, which reduced consumption but increased emissions of key pollutants. Additionally, emissions control technologies have not performed as designed in the ‘hostile’ real-world road environment. It would take a major shift to zero emission vehicles to address this problem.
  • Failure to recognise that, given the existing vehicle fleet is replaced only slowly, reduced vehicle use is the only sure way to bring about changes in measured concentrations. However, there is a corresponding lack of emphasis on ‘push’ behaviour change policies. to encourage walking and cycling in particular. Instead, policies for behaviour change mostly rely on voluntary measures, which are as a result not very effective.

Additionally, there is a strong social equity issue, with households in poorer areas tending to be exposed to much higher levels of air pollution, whilst contributing much less to the problem, principally through driving less, says the report.

Chatterton said: “Air pollution-related morbidity and mortality are at ‘epidemic’ levels and, although less obvious, are more significant than road transport collisions as a cause of death and injury.

“Politicians at local and national levels must treat poor air quality as a public health priority, placing clear emphasis on the severity of the problem and the limitations of technological fixes.

“Existing approaches that focus on individual, voluntary, behaviour change and technological innovations are not sufficient to tackle poor air quality.

“There needs to be a strong political and societal commitment to protecting public health, particularly the health of children, whose life chances can be seriously compromised by exposure to air pollution. This will require not just improvements to transport infrastructure but also changes across society in our expectations of how we, and those we connect with, get around. The ‘nudge’ approach to behaviour change favoured by David Cameron’s Governments will not be adequate to meet this challenge.

“Given recent events, we would like to see the Government making a clear, strong effort to ‘take back control’ of the air pollution problem.”

A key recommendation coming out of the review is the need for key Government departments (DfT, Defra) to look again at the relationship between environmental management and transport management at both the national and local levels.

Specifically, transport agencies, such as Highways England, and local authorities should be required to give higher priority to air quality management, which would involve resource investment.

“A local authority grant funding line is needed to tackle air quality problems through local transport policy measures, this would help ensure that poor air quality receives sufficient priority,” said Parkhurst.

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  • Iain - 30/08/2016 19:48

    Same old same old bleating from non representative 'think tanks' - slower traffic, traffic 'calming measures' and everything else our socialist non competitive, anti car, anti van, anti business numpties can come up with to stifle our economy. Free flowing traffic at engine optimum speeds of 50 - 56 mph, coupled with convenient parking for those who need it will go a long way towards improving air quality. Static and slow moving vehicles are solely caused by government and local council policies which are ambivalence towards societal needs. Get a grip on the root cause of the problem and get traffic flowing smoothly at reasonable speeds i.e. why is the speed limit on many of our ring roads 30 or 40 mph? Why is there no sensible provision of affordable convenient car parking? Why are we constantly herded onto public transport which is overcrowded, inefficient and even more polluting?

  • Air breather - 31/08/2016 01:35

    1. Why have Ecotricity been allowed to charge £6 for every half hour of charging of EVs when central government should permanently own the chargers (as OLEV paid for them)? 2. Why have the diesel emissions scandal manufacturers not been made to pay for their over-poisoning? 3. Why is our public transport system (trains, planes, buses) possibly the worst AND most expensive in Europe, and possibly most of the world? We invented the train! 4. Why aren't employees given the choice to take a bicycle under the "cycle to work" scheme (a large employer at Heathrow and Gatwick doesn't allow employees to be part of the scheme even though there would be no cost to the business.....) 5. Why is it not possible to report the smelliest worst polluting vehicles we see every day on our commute (when is the last time the police had the staff, the time or the competence to stop an unroadworthy vehicle because of excessive emissions)?! Government seem too keen in milking the cash cow that is the private or company vehicle in stead of truly committing to a sustainable future integrated transport system fit for the 21st century and beyond. It's not good enough doing it in slow time if the work force of the U.K. is dying at the wheel because they are all poisoning themselves behind one another, is it?! 6. Is it true that the Netherlands are going electric only vehicle sales from 2021? Can we do this? Haha of course we can't! Oh, but why?!

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