History of Air Quality in the UK - Air Quality Hub

History of Air Quality in the UK

Origins of Air Quality Management

As one of the earliest industrial nations, and as a relatively densely populated country with large urban centres and common private car ownership, the UK has a long history of air quality problems affecting health and the environment. Legislation aimed at tackling air pollution goes all the way back to the 13th century, but the first far-reaching and broad scope legislation was introduced in the 20th century and has been consistently enhanced and strengthened, with increasing frequency towards the end of the previous century up to and including the Clean Air Strategy 2019 and the Environment Bill 2020.

Last 50 Years

In the last 50 years, the emphasis on air quality management has shifted from industrial emissions to vehicle emissions. Air quality management legislation in the UK has its basis in various iterations of the Clean Air Act (1956, 1968) and related legislation, and from the 1970’s onwards various pieces of European wide legislation in the form of a series of EC Directives, brought into UK law by legislation such as the 1989 Air Quality Standards Regulations (amongst others).

Various forms of legislation specifically target vehicle emissions and road use, such as the 1973 Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations, 1981 Motor Fuel legislation and 1991 Road Vehicles.

In 1995 The Environment Act introduced a new statutory framework for local air quality management which was reviewed and updated in 2007. This provides the basic structure and targets for local air quality management, and is aligned to EC standards.

The collective effect of this legislation is to create a progressively more regimented and proactive approach to air quality management in the UK, where there is clear responsibility for anticipating air quality problem areas and taking effective steps to bring levels of pollutants down.

Air Quality Today

While there is significant continued focus on vehicle emissions and certain sources of industrial emissions, the current air quality management field is also characterised by a broadening of focus to cover other sources such as from biomass installations, agriculture and non-combustion road sources.

The regulatory framework still focuses on improving air quality in problem hotspots (particularly those declared as Air Quality Management Areas or AQMAs), but there is increasing interest in exposure-centric assessments, which are based more on the personal exposure of individuals to pollutants.