Bex Bolland, Head of Air Quality at Global Action Plan, writes about the recent government response to the Air Quality Report 

For the past 3 years, GAP has been working out both how to reduce the average Londoner's contribution to air pollution, and empower those most at risk of its health impacts. Using behaviour change programmes, we've reduced air pollution and increased advice to patients. Now we are building a partnership to launch a National Clean Air Day in 2017.

So we've taken a keen interest in what the government has to say about the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee Air Quality report. Will their response mean a step change in investment, monitoring, public engagement and action?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department for Transport (DfT) have recently announced they are coming together in the Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU). We welcome this joined up approach, but we’re worried that there is a critical player missing: the Department of Health.

With the equivalent of 40,000 early deaths each year in the UK from outdoor air pollution, it’s imperative the departments connect the dots and empower the health sector to take a leadership role in the second biggest public health threat.*

DEFRA have spent £2bn over the past 5 years to tackle air pollution, as the biggest global public health problem and the second biggest for the UK. This is an important investment of £400 million each year – but is a fraction of the annual health cost of air pollution, which experts put at £20bn to over £50bn. DEFRA and DfT cannot be alone in this challenge; the health sector needs to address this as a priority.

We’ve been talking to multiple cities around the UK over the past year. The main barriers to local action are that public health teams want to act but don’t know how, and uncertainty of funding. This is why we are creating a way of all the cities working together on National Clean Air Day, so we can show what is possible when we all come together.

At the moment, local authorities have to compete against each other for small pockets of money to tackle air quality issues – which they might not even get. This is in contrast to flooding, where they automatically receive money each year. Limited money hampers the development of the evidence base and business case, and it prevents public awareness, engagement and action.

Unlike smoking, the largest impact is generally not on the polluter. Air pollution can be the highest in the most deprived communities where the poorest residents are less likely to drive. And it literally stunts growth and has lifelong health impacts. Air pollution affects the development of the heart, lungs and brain when babies are in the womb, and continues to damage vital organs during childhood. It also increases the risk of stroke, cancer, heart and breathing problems. Proper investment in this area will have real benefits to the quality of life of UK citizens and pay off economically.

So the final action that the government should lead on is to widen the scope of what harms us. The current focus on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) has too narrow a scope and needs to include Particulate Matter (PM), the smallest of which can cross the lung wall and enter our blood stream.

Current EU standards are 2.5 times higher than the World Health Organisation recommends, so UK cities are not meeting WHO standards. Brexit provides an opportunity for us to create a healthier future for the UK by having more appropriate air quality targets.

While waiting for better targets and more investment, we believe it’s up to us to be the makers of a healthier, happier, more sustainable future. Working with health partners such as the Royal College of Physicians, the British Lung Foundation and Barts Health NHS Trust, Global Action Plan is building the first ever National Clean Air Day. In 2017, we’ll be supporting communities across UK cities to improve the air we breathe, reduce emissions and protect health on a day of practical action. Find out more here.

*Professor Frank Kelly, King's College London, 2015