Change planning rules to protect children from air pollution

08 December 2014

New schools, hospitals and care homes must not be built next to air pollution hotspots to help reduce the tens of thousands of deaths currently being caused by nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate pollution (PM 2.5 & PM 10) every year in our cities, the Environmental Audit Committee has warned. Existing schools next to busy roads should also be fitted with air filtration systems.

Committee Chair, Joan Walley MP:

“It is unacceptable that another generation of young people growing up in our towns and cities could have their health seriously impaired by illegal air pollution before the Government brings this public health crisis under control. Children growing up near busy roads with high NO2 and particle emissions have stunted and impaired lung development. There is also emerging evidence that air pollution can increase infant mortality rates, prompt pre-term births and affect cognitive performance.”

“Well over a thousand schools around the country are 150 metres away from major roads. Protecting children and vulnerable people in the worst affected areas must be made a priority by Government and Local Authorities. Ministers must pluck up the political courage to take the potentially unpopular decisions necessary to get the most polluting vehicles off the road and encourage more people to walk, cycle or take public transport.”

Low Emission Zones

A National Framework of Low Emission Zones (LEZ) needs to be urgently set-up to enable LEZs, like the one in London, to be rolled out across the country to reduce inner city pollution. LEZs are one of the most powerful tools that local authorities have for controlling vehicle emissions, according to the report, but few have introduced them. London has operated a low emission zone since 2008 and plans to introduce a limited Ultra Low Emission Zone in 2020, but elsewhere in the UK few have been set up. Those that have been (in Norwich, for example) are limited in scope. In contrast, Germany has a national framework of over 70 LEZs.

Joan Walley MP concluded:

“New figures suggest air pollution from heavy traffic could be killing almost the same amount of people as smoking in the UK, yet the Government seems unwilling to put saving lives before economic growth.”

“Low emission zones in cities could save lives, but diesel drivers who face extra charges deserve to be compensated so they can switch to less polluting vehicles. A national framework for low emission zones could save councils from having to reinvent the wheel each time by providing a template with common core features, such as a national certification scheme for vehicle emissions.”

Local Authorities

The Government should issue new planning guidance to ensure local authorities prioritise air quality in planning decisions. The Committee is calling on Local Authorities to use the existing air quality provision in the National Planning Policy Framework [1] to ensure that new schools and workplaces have adequate public transport links and be easily reached by bicycle or foot from the surrounding community to reduce the need for car journeys. The Government should help by launching a national public awareness campaign to raise public understanding of the air quality and provide guidance to improving it.

The Committee recommends

The report calls on the Government to take urgent action to comply with legal limits on air pollution and save lives by implementing the following recommendations:

  • Include legal air quality obligations in new infrastructure and road building plans;
  • Close legal loopholes that allow mechanics firms to remove engine filter from HGVs; 
  • Examine fiscal measures to gradually encourage a move away from diesel vehicles;
  • Consider introducing a diesel scrappage scheme to help drivers switch to cleaner vehicles;
  • Launch an independent public inquiry to look at the required action on air pollution;
  • Apply pressure at European level to ensure effective EU legislation and 5 emission standards backed up by a robust testing regime.

[1] The air quality provision in the National Planning Policy Framework provides a basis for local authorities to address air pollution in development applications. Local authorities are able to include air quality provisions in their Local Plans provided they remain consistent with the NPPF. In practice, however, half of authorities have yet to complete their Local Plan, in which case the NPPF itself applies.


The 2008 Ambient Air Quality Directive (2008/50/EC) set legally binding limits for concentrations of major pollutants based on WHO recommendations to minimise acute effects of air pollution. These limits do not protect against the chronic effects associated with long term exposure. The original deadline for meeting NO2 limit values under the Directive was 2010. Other countries had also failed to meet this deadline but the EU Commission agreed extensions for those which had produced “a creditable and workable plan” for meeting the standards by 2015. The UK did not submit plans for the worst areas because Defra deemed it impossible to meet the 2015 extended deadline.

The Environmental Audit Committee warned in two seminal reports in 2010 and 2011 that the Government must take urgent action on air pollution to comply with the Directive and save lives. But the Government has refused to implement the Committee’s main recommendations.

Since our last report, two court cases against the Government have been prompted by a failure to meet EU nitrogen dioxide limit values. The first case, brought by Client Earth, led to a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that the UK was in breach of its obligations under Directive. The Supreme Court referred the case to the European Court of Justice. The ECJ ruled on 19 November 2014 that the UK Government should have prepared plans to achieve compliance with limit values by January 2015, and that UK national courts could order the Government to produce an air quality plan which achieves nitrogen dioxide limits in “as short [a time] as possible”. The UK Supreme Court is expected to make a final ruling in 2015.
Defra's latest annual submission to the European Commission on Air Pollution in the UK, published in September 2014, reported that the EU annual mean limit value for NO2 was exceeded in 38 out of 43 air quality zones.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto


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