The Reactionary Past
For many individuals and businesses, the Clean Air Act of 1956 is seen as the start of a long, occasionally tortuous, series of legislation that has attempted to create a cleaner, greener environment in the UK for everyone. The original Act is often remembered as a reaction to the 'Great Smog' of 1952, which descended on London and stuck around long enough to finish off at least 12,000 Londoners – or the better part of 20, 000 if you count those who died from its effects in the following weeks. There's no arguing with the fact that the original Clean Air Act of 1956 was a much needed response to a very dire situation indeed. However, although considered a early environmental response to the UK's increasingly choked up atmosphere the legislation was also something of an after the fact (or in this case tragic disaster) type of response. Nor was the 1956 Act anything new, but continued a process of legislative history that had been enacted piecemeal in the previous centuries. This history does, in fact, stretch at least as far as 1273, when coal, having been declared injurious to health was banned in London. The 'if it ain't broke' attitude to environmental air quality has not always proved the best approach as the mass deaths in London proved, but having got the idea that air is best in its non-toxic state, the UK has since proved more than willing to enact necessary legislation.
The Proactive Present
Since the 1970s much of the legislation relating to air quality monitoring has been prompted by a range of EU directives and regulations. Businesses, in particular, have borne the brunt of much of the legislation, both in a retroactive and proactive way. For new developments compliance with the latest batch of regulations has traditionally been relatively straightforward, if time consuming and expensive on occasion. For those required to retro fit new equipment to comply with new regulations, however, the burden seems sometimes to be almost, ironically, stifling. In line with promises to reduce the burden on business in the UK, that is imposed by Health and Safety Legislation, the coalition government has issued its Red Tape Challenge, which has been welcomed by business and industry, but received less enthusiasm from environmental campaigners. However it is partly concern about the environment that means the Clean Air Act is now due for something of a clean up itself. The Red Tape Challenge has firmly included both the air quality regulations and environmental aspects of Health and Safety laws; in the consultation on the Environmental section of the challenge, the main issues to emerge were simply that the existing edition of the Clean Air Act (1993), is now the best part of 20 years old and, although it may not yet be broke, is in need of a serious overhaul. The consultation resulted in the promise to streamline the air quality monitoring regulations and in total, of 255, only 70 are to be kept unchanged while 53 will be removed completely and the remaining 132 will be consolidated or simplified.
The Red Tape Challenge is not the last stage of consultation in the process to amend and update air quality monitoring requirements and regulations. In May next year a further consultation will be launched, with a more specific focus on the Clean Air Act. While it's unlikely that the Act will be scrapped completely, the consultation on the changes may well offer firms a chance to voice their concerns in relation to the burden placed upon them by what can seem to be increasingly tight regulatory requirements. Air quality monitoring is likely to remain crucial for many businesses and industrial processes, but the review of the Act is a timely one. For environmentalists the opportunity to participate in the consultation may also be welcomed as the UK moves towards a range of new technologies. It is in part at least the move to greener generating technologies, specifically Biomass, that have highlighted the urgent need for a review of current regulations. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) also has implications for the Clean Air Act, and both the RHI and the moves towards Biomass power generation have been cited as two important factors which the government and businesses may need to take into account in the coming years. The government has already signalled it intends to move to a self-certification procedure for wood burning stoves, ovens and fires. Although such appliances can be exempted under current regulations, the process for manufacturers is complex, lengthy and costly. A new self-certification process should help to reduce both costs to manufacturers and consumers.
On a grander scale, the need to develop new legislative structures for Biomass generation, both large and small scale, is becoming an urgent issue should this, or future governments, wish to meet the UK's overall carbon reduction requirements. While some environmental campaigners may worry that 'streamlining' any air monitoring requirements could lead to more pollution, the reality is that the current legislation is no longer fit for purpose and that as our reliance on renewable energy sources grows, tackling the Clean Air Act before it is broke is a departure in the history of UK environmental legislation, and a very timely one indeed.
Air quality monitoring is crucial for the UK's environment, but much of the legislation is out of date. With renewable energy generation becoming a priority, the proposed updating of the Clean Air Act is likely to be a sensible step.