Friday, January 27, 2012

A Healthy Direction for Local Air Quality Management

With climate change hogging the headlines work on air quality in the UK can sometimes feel like a bit of a backwater. Major policy announcements are few and far between, so it's surprising that when a significant shift in air quality policy happens it slips out quietly rather than being shouted from the rooftops.

The policy shift in question was contained in the dry sounding 'Public health outcomes framework for England, 2013-2016’ released by the Department for Health earlier this week. To give a bit of background here the document supports the Government’s earlier decision to hand back public health responsibilities to local authorities. This will take place via the appointment of Directors of Public Health in English county and unitary level authorities, who will be provided with ring-fenced funding to support their work.

The new document sets down the indicators by which public health will be defined and measured. The indicators span 4 categories, and focus on the factors that cause ill health rather than the health ‘outputs’ (cancers, heart disease, etc) that we usually see in Government health targets. Air pollution tops the list in the 3rd category of indicators, those concerned with protecting the public from ‘major incidents and other threats, while reducing health inequalities’.

The definition of the air quality indicator is given as ‘the mortality effect of anthropogenic particulate air pollution (measured as fine particulate matter, PM2.5 ) per 100,000 population’. This will be expressed as both attributable deaths (premature deaths) and years of life lost associated with these attributable deaths. A new body, Public Health England, will crunch the numbers to produce the indicator.

The inclusion of this indicator has two quite fundamental repercussions for how air quality is managed in England. The first and most obvious is the extra resources it will bring to local action on air quality. Local authorities in England currently work on air quality management through the mandatory Local Air Quality Management (LAQM) regime. Based in district/ borough level authorities LAQM has proved very good at identifying areas of high pollution but much less effective at doing anything about them, a situation exacerbated by chronic under-resourcing in many local authorities.

The inclusion of air quality in the new outcomes framework promises to change that. Not only will it bring new financial resources to efforts to improve air quality, but by highlighting the health impacts of air pollution it will end the befuddlement of local authority elected members by talk of micrograms of pollution, sources and receptors. Instead they’ll be provided with hard numbers for the health impacts of air pollution on the public in their area – a far more powerful figure to draw a compelling case for action.

This leads nicely on to the second repercussion of the new indicator. Air quality management in the UK is currently focused on the ‘input’, or the concentration of the pollutants in the air. The system is drawn from EU rules, which instantly alienate the UK’s Eurosceptic majority, and exists in a bubble of scientific language which confuses 90% of the rest. The new indicators suggest a move (at the local level at least) to focusing on the ‘health output’, or the impact of air pollution on people’s health.

There are of course some questions that need to be answered before the new system comes into effect. The obvious one is whether the current system of LAQM continues alongside work on the new health based indicator. Whist a twin track approach is potentially wasteful, the new indicator has a narrow focus on the pollutant PM2.5 only and some system of management for other pollutants is therefore essential.

The other obvious question is how a local air quality management system focused on health outcomes is married to a national system that is still rooted in pollutant concentrations. The national system of air quality management is based on the requirement to meet EU rules, and it is unlikely that these are going to change to a system based on health outcomes anytime soon.

However, whilst there’s still work to do air quality professionals should be celebrating a quiet victory here, one that no doubt involved some significant lobbying of the Department of Health by other branches of Government. We can look forward to a future where not only is there likely to be more local resources dedicated to improving air quality but also one where more people, including our elected representatives, understand that improving the quality of the air we breathe has enormous benefits to our health.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A High Speed Future or an Expensive White Elephant?

So High Speed 2 (HS2) has been approved. Come 2026 we’ll be able to travel from London to Birmingham on fast, punctual services with the promise of high speed extensions to Leeds and Manchester to come. The media is full of contrasting opinions on this development, with some proclaiming the benefits of a sorely needed new line and others deriding the project as an expensive and environmentally damaging white elephant. So who’s right?

If you’re pressed for time the simple answer is ‘who knows?’, but if you’re after a bit more of an analysis read on. The arguments for HS2 rest largely on its abilities to reduce journey times and increase capacity on the UK’s railways. The first of these arguments is the best known due to the impressive 225 mph planned top speed for the line – that’s a good 100 mph faster than current West Coast Main Line (WCML) that HS2 will mirror. But, whilst impressive, speed is not necessarily a benefit in itself.

The first reason why faster may not be necessarily (much) better is the geography of our country. The well respected Eddington Transport Study back in 2006 pointed out that when compared to countries such as France and China (which the UK’s train network are often compared to) the UK’s main cities are much closer together. If you’re travelling long distances in these countries then the time savings produced by high speed rail may be hours, but if you’re travelling from London to Birmingham or beyond the time savings from HS2 will be measured in minutes.

The analysis supporting HS2 suggests though that these saved minutes are highly valuable, mainly through the assumption that people making business journeys are largely unproductive whilst travelling. This is the area where objectors to HS2 have perhaps their strongest argument – if you’ve been of a train of late you’ll have undoubtedly noticed that people tend to work whilst travelling. I regularly make the hour long journey from my home in Brighton to London, a trip just long enough to have a sandwich and make plans for the meeting I’m travelling to. If the train took half the time I’d just need to do some of this planning before I left.

If the time saving case is dubious the capacity argument is far more compelling. Passenger miles on the UK’s rail network have been growing strongly since the mid 1990s. The WCML is one of the UK’s busiest railways and on current rates of passenger growth it will be full to capacity within a matter of years. HS2 addresses this issue and also has spill over capacity benefits for the rest of the network. As most passengers travelling between the major cities on the route will take HS2 the existing WCML will be freed up for local journeys, freight and east-west journeys across the network. These are all currently restricted due to the need to focus on the north-south express services.

However HS2 will be colossally expensive, with construction of the full Y shaped network to Leeds and Manchester estimated to come in at a cool £32.7 billion at today’s prices. Fare revenues are expected to be £34 billion over a 60 year period, and, as that revenue will need to cover operating costs too, there’s clearly a big gap that will need to be covered by the taxpayer. So to prove the project will be beneficial to the UK, and therefore deserve that huge subsidy, the analysis behind HS2 calculates the benefits it will bring us. And here’s where things get a bit silly.

Analysis of HS2 has tried to calculate the costs and benefits of the line over a 60 year period, which, to put it gently, is quite a long time. The chances of a forecaster accurately predicting how many people will want to travel between London and the north and the value of their trip on this time scale are vanishingly small. As the years roll forward correctly forecasting social, technological and economic changes that will impact on the viability of HS2 becomes impossible.

You’d think that officials at the Department for Transport are well aware of the shortcomings of forecasts on this sort of a timescale, but need some hard figures to justify the political decision to press ahead with HS2. There's a lovely story to illustrate this kind of position. When the (future) Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow was a young statistician during the Second World War he discovered that month-long weather forecasts used by the army were completely useless. He warned his superiors against using them and received the response, ‘The Commanding General is well aware the forecasts are no good, however he needs them for planning purposes.’

So who knows if in 60 years time HS2 will be seen as a resounding success or an underused white elephant. On the balance of things it’s probably better for the Government to provide modern infrastructure that the country is seen to need at the present time, rather than sit on their hand due to the risk it won’t be fully utilised in an uncertain future.

What we do know though is that many people, particularly children and politicians, love a train set. I spent last weekend at the Museum of Childhood in London, where a friend’s 2 year old pumped endless 20p coins into a model railway whilst gleefully watching the circulating trains. You rather suspect that they’ll be several former Ministers for Transport with similar looks on their faces when HS2 starts operation in 2026.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Good News is No News for Environmental Campaigns

Today the Mayor of London launched a ‘no idling’ campaign, designed to encourage drivers in the capital to switch of their engines when parked. The campaign features cleverly designed adverts urging drivers to help prevent asthma attacks and other undesirable health impacts by switching off their engines and reducing air pollution.

It’s a great promotion to see up and running, it’s just a shame they ‘key messages’ accompanying it almost immediately shoots the whole campaign in the foot. The briefing accompanying the campaign gives two key messages, the first of which proudly states 'London’s air quality is hugely better than it was 50 years ago but there’s still room for improvement'.

You’d be excused if you didn’t get past the first few words. Whilst the message that air quality is better now than it has been in the past is undoubtedly true it’s hardly a rousing call to action. Faced with a campaign that proclaims things are getting much better most members of the public would wonder what the point was of them paying much attention to this call to cut air pollution.

The ‘air pollution is much better than it was’ message is not just in use by the Mayor of London, and most of the documents that the UK Government releases on air pollution lead with the same message. Crowing about success of air quality management is perhaps only natural - telling people that the air they breathe is less toxic now than it was in the past speaks of Government success, whilst letting people know that the air in our towns and cities is harmful to their health stinks of complacency and failure. But it won’t do much to get the public behind measures to improve air quality.

The Government doesn’t always take this approach. Let’s take something that’s in the news rather a lot these days: public sector debt. If you judged this by media messages emanating from the Government you’d think that the national debt is at crisis point, the worst it’s ever been. The reality in fact is that the UK’s total national debt as a percentage of our economic output (as opposed to the annual budget deficit) is quite low by historical standards. But saying that doesn’t help the Government’s cause: if people weren’t convinced that debt was at crisis point they would be less willing to see cuts to public services.

Finding the correct message for environmental campaigns can be difficult. A softly softly approach can result in public indifference, but on the other hand trying to scare the public into action can just create an aura of helplessness. The doomsday messages pushed by climate campaigns in recent years have often fallen foul of this latter factor – if there’s only a handful of years left to save the world and big emitters such as the USA and China are indifferent then what’s the point of me insulating my loft and driving the car less?

This needn’t be the case with air quality though. Whilst the health impacts are pretty scary the solutions often lie in cutting local emissions through individual action. The Mayor’s anti-idling campaign actually provides a good template of how this can be done, effectively linking individual action on emissions to health improvement. But next time it might be better not to paint air quality as a success story before asking people to take action.