London street

Air pollution in the UK is at unacceptably high levels and the government has been criticised for not taking the issue seriously, following the release of a “woeful” and “disappointingly unambitious” draft air quality plan, particularly around construction site emissions.

Matthew Pencharz, who brought in the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) regulations for construction equipment while he was deputy mayor for environment and energy, called the draft plan “disappointingly unambitious”, calling on the government to help local authorities enforce environmental regulations on construction sites, and to push the use of clean technologies.


Emissions from commercial and domestic buildings and construction represent a small but significant proportion of overall UK nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. In London, construction equipment accounts for some seven per cent of emissions. These lead to unacceptably high NO2 concentrations and are important sources of pollution in towns and cities.

Plans slammed as “woeful”

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth had to take the government to court to force it to publish the Air Quality Plan, with the government fighting against publication until after the general election.

ClientEarth previously had to take the government to court to force it to even produce draft plans by 24 April and final ones by 31 July, as the government was in breach of the European directive of the clean air.

They also this week won a campaign to persuade the European Union to pass tough new industrial pollution rules that, they say, “could save thousands of lives each year”.

When he finally saw the government’s proposals, James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, accused the government of “passing the buck” to local authorities. He said he had no faith in the central proposal – to set up clean air zones for urban areas – without the imposition of charges to deter the most polluting vehicles from entering the zones.

A clean air zone defines an area where targeted action is taken to improve air quality and resources are prioritised and coordinated in a way that delivers improved health benefits and supports economic growth.

“The plan looks much weaker than we had hoped for,” Thornton said. “The court ordered the government to take this public health issue seriously and while the government says that pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health, we will still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under these proposals.”

Ed Davey, the former Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary, called the proposals “not a plan, but a cop-out” while London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said: “We’ve dragged the government kicking and screaming through the courts to produce these belated proposals – but they are toothless and woefully inadequate.”

The proposals involve increasing the number of clean air zones from the current six that are in the planning stage to 27. They estimate that this will cut air pollution and provide cost benefits of over £1 billion ($1.76b).

But local authorities would have to exhaust all other options first and they would not be allowed to introduce charging.

Air pollution and construction

Breakdown of UK national average NOx roadside concentration into sources, 2015]

While diesel vehicles are by far the largest source of pollution in urban areas, construction sites are also accused of playing their part. Pollution comes from machinery onsite, vehicles going to and from the sites, and dust.

Construction dust is classified as PM10 – particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter, invisible to the naked eye. It can cause a wide range of health problems including respiratory illness, asthma, bronchitis and even cancer.

Diesel particulate matter consists of soot, sulphates and silicates, which easily combine with other toxins in the atmosphere, increasing health risks.

Diesel is also responsible for emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. Noxious vapours from oils, glues, thinners, paints, treated woods, plastics, cleaners and other hazardous chemicals widely used on construction sites also contribute to air pollution.

Construction activities can also cause water pollution from diesel and oil; paint, solvents, cleaners and other harmful chemicals; and construction debris and dirt. If land is cleared, soil erosion may send soil into natural waterways turning them turbid and destroying aquatic life.

The website Sustainable Building issues guidelines to construction firms to help them minimise all types of pollution. These include:

  • Minimising land disturbance
  • Leaving maximum vegetation cover
  • Controlling dust through fine water sprays
  • Screening the site, skips and trucks to stop dust spreading
  • Covering piles of building materials like cement, sand and other powders
  • Using non-toxic paints, solvents and other hazardous materials
  • Having a policy to manage toxic substances to prevent spills
  • Covering up and protecting drains
  • Collecting wastewater in settlement tanks then filtering before discharge
  • Disposing of remaining sludge according to environmental regulations
  • Using low sulphur diesel oil
  • Incorporating the latest specifications of particulate filters and catalytic converters
  • Not burning materials on site
  • Reducing noise pollution through careful handling of materials and the use of sound shields

The UK government’s proposals, however, are confined to noting that excavators and bulldozers and other vehicles or engines used in construction must be approved to demonstrate compliance with pollutant emission standards.

New emissions standards for non-road mobile machinery will come into force in January 2019 and new measures to tackle NOx emissions from generators by the end of 2018.

Pencharz called this response “disappointing” and said it should “do more to push the utilisation of clean technologies on construction sites to save both money and emissions and stimulate this high value manufacturing sector”.

The GLA brought in regulations in 2015 to begin the cleaning up of constructions sites. But the government in its draft only refers to regulations from 2019 for new machines, with no regard to the thousands of older, high polluting ones.

In addition, Pencharz notes, other local authorities do not appear to be being encouraged to bring in London-style regulations and, even if they did, any enforcement powers remain weak.

He points out that clean technologies such as batteries, especially for temporary power for construction and events, would markedly reduce air pollution emissions.

Whoever wins the general election will have an uphill battle improving British air quality cost-effectively.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, sustainable building and renewable energy. See his website here.

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