Air pollution poses a serious threat to human health, our built environment and therefore our economy. A number of recent high-profile judgments, policy decisions and pieces of legislation, together with an increasing body of evidence linking air pollution to a range of illnesses, have brought air quality to the forefront of many people's attention, including those calling for stronger and legally binding air quality targets.
In March 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union held that the UK had not complied with the ambient air quality limits of the EU Air Quality Directive, had "systematically and persistently" exceeded the annual limits for nitrogen dioxide in major urban areas since 2010, and had failed to take action to ensure limit values were exceeded for the shortest period possible.
The UK government is therefore under pressure to improve air quality. The Environment Act 2021 introduces a duty on the government to bring forward at least two air quality targets by 2022 for consultation that will be set in secondary legislation. The government has proposed the following targets, both of which have been the subject of a recent consultation, the outcome of which has not been made public yet:
- Concentration of 10µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre) of PM2.5 to be met across England by 2040; and
- A 'Population Exposure Reduction Target' that will see a 35% reduction in population exposure by 2040 (compared to a base year of 2018). This proposal means that by 2040 a set of selected monitoring sites across the country will be, on average, 35% less polluted than they were in 2018.
We have been closely following the progress of the Environment Act and have been involved in providing responses to the consultation and will continue to do so.
Impact of regulatory change
All future development schemes and infrastructure projects will have to be considered against these targets. As a result, projects will need to navigate an increasingly complex web of air quality legislation and policies, which will have to be considered at an early stage. The current momentum around air quality is not likely to dissipate, particularly as the world watches for the outcomes following the recent COP26 in the UK and as solutions are sought to the climate and nature emergencies.
How we can help
Our team of specialist planning and environmental lawyers have extensive experience in advising on air quality issues related to development and have been watching and responding to the changes and consultations on this topic for many years. We are regularly engaged to advise on planning applications where there are air quality constraints on development that need to be overcome. We can assist with navigating issues around air quality throughout the whole lifecycle of a project, including in the project design, assessment of environmental impacts, consideration of mitigation, and correspondence with local authorities and statutory bodies on these issues.