Poor air quality ‘top concern’ for councils, but most feel ill-equipped to tackle it

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Poor air quality is a ‘top concern’ for councils, but most feel unable to address it, the latest NLGN Leadership Index has found.

In the survey of 140 council chief executives, mayors and leaders, only 18% said they had enough power and resources to tackle harmful air pollution, which knocks an average of 1.5 years off people’s lives in the UK, accounting for around 9,400 premature deaths a year.

Council bosses saw a lack of resources, competing priorities and limited decision-making powers as their biggest barriers to tackling the issue.

The survey also found council heads grappling with another serious responsibility – rough sleeping. Only 44% of council heads said they had adequate resources to support the provision of temporary accommodation this winter. Respondents from London – where rough sleeping hit a record high last year – were most pessimistic, with 55% saying they do not have adequate resources to find people warm and safe places to spend the night.

Key Findings: Air Quality

  • 66% of respondents see improving air quality a top priority for their councils.
  • Only 18% believe they have enough power and resources to improve air quality in their area
  • Regions that feel most ill-equipped are North West (71%), Yorkshire and the Humber (67%) and London (64%)
  • Biggest barriers are lack of resources (25%); competing priorities (24%); and limited decision-making powers (20%)

Pawda Tjoa, Senior Policy Researcher, says:

“Increasingly, councils are alive to the threat that poor air quality poses to health and wellbeing– and are determined to improve it. However, our research shows that most feel they lack the power and money to meaningfully address the issue. Central Government has signalled its concern through the air quality targets it has placed locally. Now it urgently needs to trust and support councils to do their bit to tackle local pollution and actually meet these targets. Not only should Westminster commit resources, but it should give local places the freedom to try new, innovative ways to reduce congestion and clean up the air their residents breathe.”

Key Findings: Rough sleeping

  • 44% of council heads agree or strongly agree that they have adequate resources to support the provision of temporary accommodation for winter rough sleepers.
  • Respondents from London are most pessimistic with 55% saying they do not have adequate resources to support this.

Pawda Tjoa, Senior Policy Researcher, says:

“Since 2010, the rise in people sleeping on our streets, in tents or makeshift shelters has risen by 165% – something that is unforgivable in an economy like ours; and an increasingly desperate issue as temperatures drop. While the government has promised funds, it remains uncertain whether this will be enough to meet drastically increased need. It is startling to note that currently under half of council heads feel able to offer enough temporary accommodation to keep people warm and safe. Our survey also exposes regional divides – London, which has had the biggest increase in rough sleeping recently – feels the most pessimistic about solving it.”


1. For further information, please contact Katy Oglethorpe, Head of Communications at NLGN, on 0207 148 4605/ 07912161536 or at katy@newlocal.org.uk.
2. Full analysis of the survey, including questions and responses, can be found here.
3. All graphs and tables can be downloaded here.
4. The NLGN Leadership Index is a quarterly survey of council leaders, chief executives and mayors of local authorities across the UK, first published in March 2018. It asks about the level of confidence in delivering key services, alongside a topical set of questions. In January 2020 these topical questions focused on air quality and rough sleeping.
5. The survey was sent to 762 leaders, chief executives and council mayors across all UK regions. It was open from 11 December 2019 to 7 January 2020. This latest survey received a total of 140 complete responses, which equates to an 18.4 per cent response rate. Survey responses were received from all UK regions.
6. Air quality
a. The UK is currently failing the EU requirements on nitrogen dioxide, with almost 2,000 locations in breach of the legal limit. This is having a negative impact on public health.
b. Local authorities are required to fulfil the government’s national air quality objectives. They must identify areas that require specific intervention to reduce pollutants (Air Quality Management Areas). Councils in these areas are then expected to prepare and implement an Air Quality Action Plan to fulfil these requirements.
c. In October 2019, the government announced a further £2 million in funding to help local authorities improve air quality across England. This is in addition to the £275 million Implementation Fund to help local authorities improve air quality, and a £220 million Clean Air Fund to help them minimise the impact on individuals and businesses.
7. Rough sleeping
a. The total number of people counted or estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night is 4,677. This fell by 2% from 2018 to 2017, but has risen by 165% from the 2010.
b. 27% of the UK’s rough sleepers are in London. From 2017 to 2019, the number of people sleeping rough increased by 13% in London, but decreased by 6% in the rest of England
c. In August 2018, the government set out its Rough Sleeping Strategy, supported by £100 million funding, to ‘end rough sleeping for good’. As part of a wider strategy to tackle all forms of homelessness, the Government has pledged £76 million for the Rough Sleeping Initiative to help 246 local authorities support rough sleepers in their area by getting off the street and into secure accommodation.

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