West Midlands Air Quality Improvement Programme

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences


"Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to Public Health in the UK" [DEFRA, 2017]. Air pollution in the West Midlands affects some 2.8 million people, reducing average life expectancy by up to 6 months, and is responsible for economic costs estimated at £860m per year. Air quality is therefore a key priority for local and regional government, and increasingly the general public, with further emphasis arising from the "Diesel-gate" emissions scandal, and ongoing High Court challenges to the Government's Air Quality strategy.

Historically, local air quality policy has been the responsibility of the individual Local Authorities. However, air pollution does not respect political boundaries, and the 2016 formation of the West Midlands Combined Authority will lead to an integrated approach to air pollution, under the Second Devolution Deal for the West Midlands (2017). In parallel, the NHS Sustainability Transformation Trust is bringing an integrated approach to health and social care provision - with air quality a core priority. This gives rise to a unique and timely opportunity to translate environmental science research expertise into regional policy and interventions to reduce air pollution.

The University of Birmingham group has critical mass, international research expertise and NERC track record in air pollution, and its health and economic impacts. We have a history of links with regional partners, ranging from commissioned work and joint research projects to informal collaborations. Accordingly, we have developed the West Midlands Air Quality Improvement Programme (WMAQIP), through a co-design process alongside regional stakeholders including the WMCA / Mayor of the West Midlands, Local Authorities, private companies, industry sector bodies and third sector organisations, to deliver:

-Situational awareness (understanding of air pollution levels and sources), e.g. applied to refinement of the Birmingham Clean Air Zone and design of future intrventions in Coventry, avoiding over £5m annual costs plus benefits to visitors / commuters working in the cities.

-Predictive Capability to evaluate AQ policy options, in comparison with business as usual predictions, for pollution levels, health and economic impacts - identifying interventions to achieve Birmingham City Council's goal of halving AQ-related mortality by 2030 (750 deaths/yr and £170m annual costs avoided); avoiding additional healthcare costs of £600m required under business-as-usual scenarios, and informing allocation of recurrent and one-off intra-city transport investment of £250m.

-Application of the resulting capability to specific policy scenarios - including infrastructure design around the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games to deliver improved air quality, understanding the air quality consequences of future vehicle fleet evolution to electric vehicles, and optimising air quality co-benefits from green infrastructure for HS2 development.

WMAQIP directly addresses the UK Industrial Strategy grand challenge of Clean Growth, which commits the Government to "create a future where our cities benefit from cleaner air", and the Infrastructure foundation of productivity, which identifies a determination to "tackle air pollution and support affected areas, given the significant negative impact it has on public health, the economy and the environment."

WMAQIP combines NERC research expertise with direct inputs from a range of partner organisations. The programme will deliver policy impact from application of environmental science applied to specific policy priorities through a cohort of Impact Fellows, physically embedded within stakeholder organisations to provide knowledge transfer and training, and hence lasting impact. Programme legacy will be maximised by formalising capabilities as tools which may be applied elsewhere, and actions to promote their dissemination.

Planned Impact

Air Pollution is an increasing concern for the general public, a focus of media attention, and is rising to the top of the policy agenda for local and regional authorities, private sector organisations involved in air quality activity, and companies committed to understanding, and mitigating, the environmental impacts of their business, and the regulatory framework they operate within.

There is a demonstrated regional and national interest in the application of the best available science to understand air pollution pressures, and deliver the best policy measures and interventions both to ameliorate pollution; there is also a strong imperative to understand the likely future air quality picture, with and without interventions.

WMAQIPs three interlinked themes will address these needs to deliver transformative regional impact, through costs avoided (fiscal, health and social care); achieving legal compliance with limit values (i.e. statutory obligations); improvements to practice and to policy formulation on near-term and strategic timescales, increased regional attractiveness encouraging inward investment, new business opportunities, and most significantly through improved environmental air quality, and hence population health and wellbeing.

In supporting the WMCA and Local Authorities in achieving their strategic goals of halving air pollution related mortality by 2030, WMAQIP will reduce deaths by 750/yr and release £170m in annual attendant cost. In ensuring clean air zones meet statutory obligations, direct benefits of over £5m annually will accrue just from Birmingham and Coventry - considering only the resident population, i.e. discounting visitors / workers commuting into the area. In enabling the horizon scanning prediction of air quality consequences of policy options, and their comparison with business as usual approaches, alongside explicit consideration of air quality alongside conventional economic indicators, WMQAIP will influence the annual TfWcapital expenditure of £69m, and spend of the £250m Industrial Strategy Transforming Cities fund. In enabling the effective use of green infrastructure to deliver air quality benefit (rather than penalty), WMAQIP will promote city amenity, quality of life and wellbeing - and deliver regional natural capital gain, with scope for national rollout, through HS2. Air quality imposes a 1.4% burden on regional economic output (GVA), equivalent to 19000 jobs; ultimately WMAQIP will contribute to unlocking this pollution penalty on the region's growth.

Without action, present day West Midlands pollution levels and forecast regional population growth would require an additional 430 hospital beds by 2023 - equating to almost a £600m hospital. There is a critical need for concerted action to improve air quality; clear gaps in capability which NERC-derived environmental science can fulfil, and regional political timing uniquely suited to the opportunity.


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