Air and noise pollution in Wales – sound advice

Sophie Watson, Browne Jacobson

Consultation

A 12 week public consultation was launched by the cabinet secretary for the Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, on 13 September 2016 titled ‘Local air quality and noise management in Wales’. The consultation seeks views on a number of specific proposals to change how local authorities and other public bodies in Wales manage air and noise pollution.

The proposals, developed in discussion with public bodies including air quality and environmental teams in local authorities, Public Health Wales and Natural Resources Wales, will help to formulate an updated guidance on the Local Air Quality Management (LAQM) regime as established by the Environment Act 1995. The proposals also aim to make better use of new legislation such as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 (WFG Act) and Environment (Wales) Act 2016 introduced to afford better protection to people and the environment.

The Welsh Government aim to implement new LAQM guidance by spring 2017.

Background

The World Health Organization has ranked noise as the second biggest environmental contributor to the burden of disease in Europe after air pollution, and estimates that at least one million healthy life years are lost every year in Western Europe due to traffic noise.

In Wales, around 1,300 deaths and 13,500 lost life-years are attributed annually to air pollution alone, and the financial cost of air pollution in the UK has been estimated at around £20 billion per year. Local air quality and noise management focuses primarily on human exposure. However, air and noise pollution can also adversely affect sensitive forms of wildlife and natural habitats.

Measures to bring down pollution exposure for the population as a whole through reductions in overall emissions are likely to also reduce exposure for sensitive species and habitats. They should also result in less carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere and reduce Wales’ contribution to global climate change.

Legislation

There is a complex legislative framework currently in place to protect the people and environment of Wales from airborne and noise pollution. For example, the Air Quality Standards (Wales) Regulations 2010 require that Wales is divided into air quality zones and the EU Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (known as the CAFÉ Directive) sets mandatory limits and target values for air quality in EU member states.

For noise pollution, the European Environment Noise Directive (2002/49/EC), as implemented by the Environmental Noise (Wales) Regulations 2006, requires the Welsh Government to produce strategic noise maps and action plans on a five-yearly cycle for road, rail and agglomerations, to determine likely population noise exposure scenarios and establish action plans to reduce noise levels where needed. The Welsh noise action plan is not due to be replaced until 2018.

New legislation, such as the WFG Act and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, has recently been introduced to help bolster the current statutory protection afforded to the public. The WFG Act now creates a duty for specific public bodies (including local authorities in Wales) to implement seven wellbeing goals whilst observing the sustainable development principle. Each public body must set well-being objectives and create wellbeing plans to demonstrate how they are maximising their contribution to the goals. There are stringent requirements for reports and accountability mechanisms through, for example, local authority scrutiny boards. Alongside the WFG Act, the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 focuses on sustainable management of natural resources by creating a statutory framework for action on climate change, including setting targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The Act aims to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050.

LAQM regime

The long-standing, UK-wide LAQM regime was established in order to make sure that the national air quality objectives will be achieved throughout the UK. The aim of the LAQM regime is to reduce air pollution by requiring local authorities to monitor air quality to try to predict how it will change in the next few years.

If a local authority finds any areas where the objectives are not likely to be achieved, it must manage those areas by declaring Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs). The local authority will then put together a Local Air Quality Action Plan with the aim of improving air quality in that area.

Around 40 AQMAs have been declared by local authorities in Wales but very few have been revoked even where a Local Air Quality Action Plan has been in place for several years. The current LAQM regime has been successful in identifying a large number of pollution hotspots, however, it has had limited success in eradicating them. A lack of funding and poorly defined roles at a local authority level has been blamed for the lack of implementation of the plans. Although local authorities must monitor air quality across their territory, they must only take action where national air quality objectives are being breached.

The local air quality and noise management in Wales consultation stresses the importance of policy integration and the immediate and long-term health benefits to be gained by reducing pollution exposure across the entire population alongside action on localised pollution hotspots.

Proposals

The Welsh Government is aiming to produce the new LAQM policy guidance in early 2017 to implement the suggested proposals. The proposals were developed through discussions with a number of public bodies such as Natural Resources Wales, Public Health Wales and the Welsh Government. The new guidance is likely to stress the greater public health benefits likely to result from actions to reduce air and noise pollution, over and above those actions which seek only to achieve technical compliance with the national air quality objectives in AQMAs. The guidance is also likely to say that efficiency within the LAQM regime must be improved by focusing on collaborative working and the sharing of expertise between Local Authorities and public bodies such as the Local Health Boards and Natural Resources Wales.

One of the proposals suggests that instead of requiring a three-yearly cycle of updating and screening, with progress reports to be submitted in the intervening two years, there should be a single annual progress report. The Welsh Government would be prepared to accept an annual progress report covering two or more local authorities, helping to encourage collaborative working.

It has been identified that compliance with statutory deadlines for the submission of the local air quality action plans and progress reports also needs improving. In order to help local authorities comply, it is proposed that the template and contents for such reports would be improved. Local authorities would also not be required to report on pollutants that are no longer of national concern. With regards to noise pollution, the Welsh noise action plan is due to be renewed in 2018 and local authorities will be asked to review and update their contributions from the 2013-2018 noise action plan.

Brexit

The Government has stated that it is important that the level of protection afforded to human health and the environment does not decrease as a consequence of leaving the European Union. Lesley Griffiths (cabinet secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs) has stated:

“We didn’t sign up to these EU air quality regulations reluctantly. We did it for a reason – because they aim to have a positive effect on public health…As we prepare to leave the European Union we will be looking at how these important regulations can be replicated and where possible, adapted and strengthened to meet specific Welsh needs.”

With the drive and momentum brought through the WFG Act and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, it is likely that the Welsh Government will seek to replicate and strengthen the legislation implemented by the European Union aimed at improving air quality.

The revised LAQM guidance is likely to focus a renewed spotlight on the importance of Local Authorities roles in helping to lower air and noise pollution for the health and protection of the public, environment and generations to come. This is likely to lead to greater responsibilities for local authorities whilst at the same time many local authorities are facing significant cuts in their budgets. Accordingly it is important that local authorities have their say on the proposed guidance. The consultation continues until 6 December 2016. If you wish to contribute click here.

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