Policy

Protecting and enhancing our urban and natural environment to improve public health and wellbeing

Issue

Air pollution, noise from traffic or neighbours, or litter and mess on the streets can affect people’s quality of life. For example, things like litter and graffiti, left unchecked, can build up and lead to further anti-social behaviour and more serious crime.

The annual cost of road traffic noise in England has been estimated at £7 billion to £10 billion. There is increasing evidence of direct links between road traffic noise and various types of illness, like heart attacks and strokes.

Air pollution, for example from road transport, harms our health and wellbeing. It is estimated to have an effect equivalent to 29,000 deaths each year and is expected to reduce the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by 6 months on average, at a cost of around £16 billion per year. Air pollution also damages biodiversity, reduces crop yields and contributes to climate change.

The chemicals used in clothing, our homes and our food need to be regulated, as do industrial emissions, or they too have the potential to harm people and the environment.

Actions

Improving air quality

We’re working with local and national government, as well as internationally, to improve air quality by controlling:

  • emissions of harmful pollutants
  • concentrations of harmful pollutants in the environment

International and European standards of air quality

To meet our international and European obligations on standards of air quality, we’re:

Like most other member states, the UK is facing difficulties in meeting the EU air quality standards for concentrations of nitrogen dioxide alongside some of our busiest roads. Our air quality plans set out all the measures we’re taking to achieve the air quality standards in the shortest time possible

National strategy on air quality

We published the national air quality strategy in 2007 in 2 volumes: volume 1 contains the strategy, and volume 2 provides information about the evidence the strategy was based on. This strategy set out our national objectives for improving air quality, and how we would achieve them.

We followed this with ‘Air pollution: action in a changing climate’, which explained the benefits of combining work on climate change and air quality.

We’re working on several fronts to improve air quality, including by reducing emissions from transport, industry and energy generation.

We publish daily forecasts of air pollution and health advice so that those with health conditions such as heart or lung problems or asthma can protect their health.

The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants advises government on the health effects of air pollution. The Department of Health has published an indicator for air pollution as part of its Public Health Outcomes Framework.

We have a programme of air quality science and evidence. The programme concentrates on meeting our legal obligations for monitoring and assessment and air quality plans. We also support scientific research into air quality.

Local air quality

Local authorities are responsible for reviewing and assessing air quality, to check they meet national air quality objectives. If they are falling short, they must declare an Air Quality Management Area and produce an action plan showing what they are going to do to meet standards.

We’re supporting local authorities by providing advice and guidance, and through the Air Quality Grants programme.

We’re reviewing local air quality management, to:

  • make sure work is concentrated on EU obligations
  • reduce reporting burdens for local authorities
  • encourage organisations to share good practice

We consulted on the review in July 2013.

The Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act aims to reduce pollution from smoke, grit and dust. It gives local authorities powers to designate Smoke Control Areas, where it’s an offence to emit smoke from a chimney unless using an approved fireplace or fuel.

As part of our commitments under the Red Tape Challenge, we’re:

  • reviewing the Clean Air Act
  • looking at ways to simplify the process for approving fireplaces and fuels for use in Smoke Control Areas

Ozone-depleting substances and F-gases

Ozone-depleting substances (ODS) are gases which damage the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

Fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-gases) are a group of chemicals containing fluorine. F-gases are powerful greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

We’re using international agreements and European and UK regulations to control the use of ODS and F-gases.

Noise and nuisance

Noise and other nuisances have a big impact on our quality of life, our health and the economy. All sorts of factors affect the noise we experience. These can include things like planning decisions about where we put new roads, railways and power stations, licensing for entertainment, or the quality of sound insulation in houses.

We set the policy and legislation to enable local authorities and others to manage noise and nuisance in the local environment, including:

  • ‘environmental noise’, which is noise mainly from transport sources, like road, rail and aviation
  • other noise and nuisances, like neighbour and neighbourhood noise, odours, smoke and artificial light

Our work on noise is set out in more detail in the noise policy statement for England (2010). We work to make sure this statement is reflected in the work of all government departments.

Local environment quality

‘Local environment quality’ covers things like litter, graffiti, abandoned vehicles and fly-posting. These have an effect on quality of life and, if left unchecked, can lead to more serious crime.

Local authorities are responsible for maintaining and improving local environments. We’ve provided guidance on their legal powers and duties.

We also research and advise on the effect of local environmental quality on issues like economic growth and people’s wellbeing.

We give a grant to Keep Britain Tidy to work to reduce litter and improve local environmental quality and management.

Chemicals

We use chemicals in all aspects of our lives - they’re in our clothes, food and homes. We need to make sure that the chemicals we use don’t harm human health or the environment, while getting the most from the benefits they offer. To do this, we:

Industrial emissions

To reduce the risk of harm to the environment and human health, we make and maintain regulations to control industrial emissions. These are largely driven by our obligations under EU legislation, which we’ve negotiated.

These include the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 - the main laws for regulating industrial emissions.

We maintain the UK Pollutant Release and Transfer Register to show what industrial emissions there are, and so that changes can be seen.

Background

The natural environment white paper (2011) sets out our vision for the natural environment over the next 50 years, including for air quality and noise and nuisance.

The national planning policy framework (2012) explains the social and environmental roles the planning system must play, including helping to minimise pollution and improve biodiversity.

The new public health outcomes framework published by the Department of Health in 2012, includes air quality and noise among the main determinants of public health.

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