A matter of a few years ago, public health officials were obsessed with nudging people into behaving in a way that they considered to be healthy; literally, taking the sweets out of children’s hands. Childhood obesity is a serious issue, but the priority of these civil servants locked away in Whitehall with just their lettuces and celery was to lecture and nag rather than to educate and help.
Now, public health is at the forefront of everyone’s minds – the most critical, immediate and terrifying issues that dominates our day to day existence. It is right that the Health Secretary is ensuring a brand-new organisation meets the challenges of today and those that we might encounter in the future.
Once we can begin to build back better, one area of public health that needs addressing is the ongoing damage being done by dangerously bad air quality.
It is estimated that 24,000 people die prematurely each year in the UK as a result of air pollution. The estimated costs of poor health as a result of air pollution to the NHS have been identified as £20 billion a year. This is a major health issue that is not going away.
The Government has identified the scale of the problem: the 2019 Air Quality Strategy clearly states that air quality is the largest environmental health risk in the UK. But the approach to tackling air quality has often required considerable joint-working between different layers of government. To my mind, it is too fractured, and it falls between to the gaps of the various perplexing tiers of local authority. Across my home county of Oxfordshire, there are numerous places that have dangerous levels of air pollution. What is troubling is that some of these areas have been designated as needing action for a decade or more.
To tackle this problem, we need a blend of the hyper-local and the national. Central government has said that it will hold councils to task over their action on air quality. So too should we, as citizens and voters.
This year, many of us our electing a whole set of our councillors for the upcoming term. It is as good a time as any to ask them to do more to keep our air clean. In the area I live in, the District Councils – who have primary responsibility for this – are run by Liberal Democrats who time and time again have failed to deliver for residents.
So what should they be doing? Well, on a micro level: green walls, increasing traffic flow, development design and awareness campaigns can alleviate some of the problem.
Many of these are very low-cost measures. In fact, in my own area residents have taken matters into their own hands. But fundamentally, it will take a substantial shift. When Michael Gove introduced the ambitious new ‘Clean Air Strategy’ he said that we needed to take strong, urgent action. I completely agree - not the knee-jerk policies and tactics of the political fringe, like climbing on top of a tube train to get in the papers, but instead sensible solutions to improve communities.
Technology will make a considerable difference to this problem. A substantial part of the problem in my area comes from HGVs and standing traffic. In Oxford 68% of air pollution comes from the transport sector. The advent of electric vehicles will dramatically reduce particulates and the damage they cause. As vehicles become smarter so too can we expect routing software to help as well. But road network pinch points will remain.
A few years back a study concluded that living in an area of very bad air quality is comparable to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
To tackle the local hotspots of air pollution that blight our communities will take a concerted effort to pull together. When we begin the process of establishing our new way of working out of the havoc of the coronavirus, I hope that we can take the opportunity to build something positive out of this horrific time. For me, a concerted effort to clean up our air must be one of them.
William Hall is Deputy Chair Political of South Oxfordshire Conservatives, a former Councillor and the Policy Lead for Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. His career has included working for businesses and charities on large, complex infrastructure projects, defence issues and education policy.
This article is written in a personal capacity.