Skip to main content

Policy Development: Improving Air Quality

The development of the national Air Quality Strategy provides a good example of modern policy-making practices, and further improvements can be made, according to a National Audit Office report.

The NAO used the development of the second Air Quality Strategy (published in January 2000) to examine the policy development processes of the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). Today’s report is a response to the recent emphasis on developing a modern and professional approach to policy-making in government – part of the Government’s aim to modernise public services, as set out in its 1999 White Paper Modernising Government.

When developing and putting forward policy proposals to ministers, officials need to have effective processes to gather evidence, analyse options and consider means of implementation. Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, told Parliament today that the Department’s policy-making processes had developed a Strategy that added value to the government’s air quality policy by:

  • helping improve the evidence base for government action to tackle pollution;
  • providing a catalyst for local authority action to improve air quality;
  • helping the Department focus its work on improving its knowledge of pollution, and of the costs and benefits of improving air quality.

The National Audit Office concluded that the development of the Strategy had provided examples in action of the core competencies required for a fully effective policy-making process, as identified by the Cabinet Office. For example, the Department used forecasting to take a long term view of air quality, took account of factors in the European and international situation, and developed the policy in a joined up way with other departments.

The NAO also found that improvements could be made, however, and that the Department should do the following.

  • Take stock of the gaps in its knowledge of the health effects of air pollution, assess its ability to improve this knowledge and the value of so doing, and draw up a plan and priorities for removing these gaps. For example, the Department was advised in 1998 about the short-term effects of sulphur dioxide, ozone and particle pollution, which it was told might have resulted in up to 24,000 deaths in 1996 being brought forward, generally by a few days or weeks. The Department has now received advice from experts on the long term effects of particles and on 17 September published proposals to strengthen the objectives. However, it does not as yet have estimates of the long term effects of nitrogen dioxide.
  • Do more to recognise and respond to the scope for future air quality to differ from the levels predicted by its forecasts. The Department’s current forecasts suggest that the Strategy’s objectives will be achieved by the planned dates for six of the eight pollutants covered by the Strategy; but the Department needs to assess the scope for achievement of the objectives to be affected by uncertainty in these forecasts, for example, on future levels of car use.
  • Improve its consultation processes by saying how it has responded to comments received, and streamlining its system for consulting stakeholders on air quality issues.

The National Audit Office also recommended that the Department should:

  • widen the membership of the Expert Panel that advises it on air quality standards and review the Panel’s remit (air quality standards are the levels, based on scientific and health evidence, at which pollutants are thought not to pose significant risks to health);
  • establish a timetable for regular reviews of the air quality standards;
  • consider using alternatives to cost-benefit analysis to help inform the assessment of air quality policy proposals;
  • ensure that it monitors and reviews local authorities’ progress in implementing plans to improve local air quality.

On 17 September 2001, the Department published proposals for updating the Strategy, following a review that drew on the preliminary findings of the National Audit Office report.

"The Air Quality Strategy was the outcome of good policy-making processes. But there is scope for the Department to improve these processes as it updates the Strategy in the future."

Sir John Bourn

Notes for Editors

The Secretary of State is required by the Environment Act 1995 to prepare, publish and keep under review statements on air quality strategy in England. The Devolved Administrations have similar responsibilities in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These statements must include standards, defining the levels at which pollutants are thought to avoid significant risks to health, and objectives, specifying the levels below which the Department seeks to reduce the concentration of each pollutant by a particular date. Local authorities are required to review and assess local levels of air pollution and to prepare plans to reduce pollution levels where needed to help achieve these objectives.

A first Strategy was published in 1997 and contained standards and objectives for eight pollutants (benzene, 1,3–butadiene, carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particles and sulphur dioxide). The 2000 Strategy, the subject of this report, was the result of reviewing and updating the 1997 Strategy. The 2000 Strategy was originally developed by the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in conjunction with the Devolved Administrations. On 8 June the air quality responsibilities of the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions were transferred to the new Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The proposals published by the Department on 17 September 2001 included more stringent air quality objectives for particles, benzene and carbon monoxide and a new air quality objective for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.


The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office employing some 750 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

PN: 45/01