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Cleaning Up Wales' Air

Lara Stace
Lara Stace

Wales has some of the poorest air quality in the UK, with several locations exceeding the World Health Organisation’s recommended limits on PM2.5 pollution and in 2020 the South Wales area was second only to Greater London as having the worst nitrogen dioxide pollution. There is no debate about the need for action on the matter, given both the environmental and health impacts – air pollution exposure is estimated to contribute to between 1,000 and 1,4000 premature deaths a year in Wales. However, the solutions will need to hold up against argument and scrutiny as they begin to impact voters’ lives.

Each of the main political parties – Welsh Labour, the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru – committed in their election manifestos to introduce a Clean Air Act during the Sixth Senedd. Jane Dodds’ Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto also promised to pass a Clean Air Act within its first 100 days if the party had come to power. Shortly after Welsh Labour’s success at the Senedd Election, First Minister Mark Drakeford MS gestured towards cross-party collaboration on matters where there is “common ground” – with the Clean Air Act believed to sit within this remit.

Despite agreement that action is needed, those in the Siambr need to agree what form that action should take. Taxation on drivers, in particular, will be a sticking point for the Welsh Conservatives, while pace of change will be a further point for discussion. As more space is committed to active travel rather than cars and vans, people will need to adjust to new journeys – and potentially more congestion, as was observed in Cardiff when the closure of Castle Street to private vehicles saw significant traffic diverted through residential roads instead. It is easy to sell a message of ‘cleaner air’, but less so to implement the unpopular but effective measures to get us there.

Mark Drakeford MS promised a Clean Air Act during his campaign to be leader and, given that he will likely be stepping down within the next two and half years, the First Minister will be keen to drive it through as part of his legacy work before he leaves Office. The Act is already out to consultation so it won’t be long before we see some draft legislation – although the timeframe may mean it is years before it makes an impact on the lives of the general public.

As part of Welsh Labour’s promise to introduce a Clean Air Act, in its Senedd Election manifesto it said it would put air quality standards into law and extend the provision of monitoring equipment – although we already had a detailed impression of what to expect thanks to work published whilst in government.

Prior to the dissolution of the Fifth Senedd, the former Welsh Government published its ‘Clean Air Plan for Wales: Healthy Air, Healthy Wales’, and a White Paper on its legislative proposals. These proposals encompassed two broad approaches: a strategic approach, which would require a Clean Air Plan or Strategy every five years and powers to set air quality targets; and an air quality management framework. The framework would provide:

  • A clarified and enhanced Local Air Quality Management Scheme
  • Consolidated powers to implement Clean Air Zones or Low Emissions Zones
  • Enhancement if existing powers for smoke control linked to air pollution from domestic burning
  • A duty on workforces to adhere to guidance on tackling air pollution
  • Strengthened powers to address vehicle idling

A Clean Air Plan would be published within a year of the Act being passed, while regulations setting out a target for PM2.5 are expected within two years of the Act being passed. Once the target has been introduced, there would then be a cycle of measurement, assessment and reporting – similar to that used for carbon budgeting. There would also be the opportunity for further targets to be set, with all air pollution targets being reviewed at least every five years.

The White Paper estimates a cost of £10 million a year to act on the changes, but the associated reductions in overall public exposure to air pollution are estimated to save £100m a year. It doesn’t take a great mathematician to recognise the benefits simply in cost, but in the longer term the changes could have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of those living with the greatest disadvantage – who often live in more polluted areas and are more likely to have long-term health conditions.

To those who assume – or perhaps hope – that road user charging may not be the default option in Clean Air and Low Emission Zones, the White Paper describes the need for consolidated powers to better introduce these and other road user charging schemes. Charging schemes could be emissions-based, varying across the range of vehicle categories, but other forms exist – for example, a charge may target congestion times.

The updated Local Air Quality Management Scheme would commence provisions under the Transport Act 2000 to enable local authorities to fully implement charging schemes – at the moment, they must be approved by Welsh Government Ministers. The legislative changes also seek to broaden how the net proceeds from the schemes can be used, as they can currently only pay into local transport schemes. Beyond those local networks, the White Paper discusses establishing a standalone charging regime for trunk roads, supported with a newly-created regulating-making power.

The Welsh Government is separately consulting on how to tackle emissions from domestic burning of solid fuels, which is considered to be the largest single contributing source of the UK’s levels of PM2.5. Measures to tackle the problem could include a ban on the sale of wet wood and traditional house coal, and the introduction of regulations to ensure the installation of only the most efficient appliances by 2022. If its proposals go ahead, the Welsh Government would also establish standards for new manufactured solid fuels entering the market by 2024.

The Welsh Conservatives did not provide much detail in its Senedd Election manifesto, except that the party would introduce an Act to tackle pollution and reduce the incidence of respiratory disease. Following publication of the Welsh Government’s Clean Air Act White Paper, then Shadow Spokesperson for Climate Change, Energy and Rural Affairs, Janet Finch-Saunders MS, highlighted the need for urgent action, but stressed that “all reasonable measures” to increase active travel and public transport, and cut down on high polluting vehicles, need to be taken before charging people for driving in Clean Air Zones.

An additional charge on road users – or specifically, drivers – is not appealing to the party. In Cardiff, which last year saw councillors consider the introduction of a road user charge for drivers entering the city – but not necessarily for residents – Welsh Conservative councillors opposed the plans. Group Leader Adrian Robson echoed the view of Janet Finch-Saunders MS, that a congestion charge should only be considered once all the transport infrastructure is in place. Tom Giffard MS, then Conservative group leader at Bridgend Council, also opposed the plans at the time on the grounds that it would increase costs for commuters from the town.

Plaid Cymru also pledged to introduce a Clean Air Act and in its manifesto set out some of the actions that its Act would deliver. These included Clean Air Zones in pollution hotspots, with targeted action on transport, industry and solid fuel burning, and enabling local authorities to introduce pollution charges. It also set out ambitious plans for active travel and so-called ’20-minute neighbourhoods’, so will likely challenge Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters MS, on the Welsh Government’s active travel commitments. Unlike the Welsh Conservatives, Plaid has not stepped back from charging drivers and if the former party threatens to abstain from voting on any legislation that contains provision for such charges, Plaid will certainly take up the mantle.

Any efforts to tackle air pollution will need to work on two fronts: to incentivise positive behaviour such as active travel or public transport and disincentivise less desired behaviour such as driving in already-polluted inner-city areas, for example by introducing dedicated cycle lanes and charging drivers for entering those zones. There is also a question of timing, or the sequence of change. If driving remains the cheaper, easier option than travelling to work by train, for example, then fares need to become affordable before drivers are charged to enter cities and highly-polluted towns – or else it risks pricing people out their commute. Flexible and remote working will be a further tool to bring down those transport emissions, as people either remain at home or travel locally to a remote hub.

The Welsh Conservatives bolstered their electoral support during the Senedd Election to return as the Opposition. Keeping hold of this role and the responsibility it entails, and having promised to introduce a Clean Air Act for years, the party would need to present a serious argument about how it would deliver cleaner air without some of the more blunt – and less popular – measures such as zonal charging, or else work on a cross-party basis to find some compromise on the ‘sticks’ needed to draw people out of their cars. At the moment, the Welsh Conservatives may be able to shy away from setting out specific policies to tackle air pollution, but the party will soon have to commit to a position and bring its support base along with it.

The Clean Air Act will be a significant milestone on the journey to cleaner air, but it cannot simply stand as a symbol for change. When the Bill appears before the Senedd, it is important that representatives from all sides of the Siambr debate are honest with the public about what is needed to clean up Wales’ air – and save the lives of the thousands impacted each year.

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