UK air quality goals go beyond sustainability to a regenerative “net health gain”

Ever since my (Storm Cunningham) first book, The Restoration Economy, came out in 2002, I’ve been advocating for non-profits, businesses and (especially) governments to set their sights higher than “merely” doing less harm.

Reducing our levels of waste, pollution and environmental destruction is certainly necessary, of course. But these sustainability efforts are greatly belated, so we’ve got a vast inventory of “renewable assets” all around the planet. These depleted, decrepit, degraded natural, built and socioeconomic assets are the ingredients of a vast global restoration economy.

But to fully address the need for renewal, we must think restoratively. For instance, we need to stop focusing on “carbon neutral,” and shoot for “carbon negative”, since only the latter can restore our global climate.

The latest good news on that front is that a major British government agency—Public Health England—(PHE) is now calling for all development activities to have a “net health gain” as relates to air quality. While most other governments are still shooting for that outdated goal of simply slowing down the rate of pollution, Public Health England is (finally) saying that we need to improve the situation, not just make it less bad.

As I’ve been saying in my talks and workshops for the past two decades, “who wants to sustain this mess?“.

Here’s an excerpt from PHE’s new report:

This report proposes the adoption of a “net health gain” principle in any new policy or work programme which affects air pollution. If this is adopted, then any new development or proposal for change to existing developments will intend to deliver an overall benefit to people’s public health. In effect this means that any new development should be clean by design.

The impact would be that the considerable amount of housing and other community developments that is currently underway would by default be well designed to reduce pollution, support walking, cycling and clean public transport, as well as providing charging points for future ultra-low emission vehicles.

Such a principle would need to be built into national and local planning frameworks. It would help ensure that the role played by local authorities in shaping local places enables gradual redesign to reduce pollution and enable cleaner alternatives. Transport and urban planners will need to work together with others involved in air pollution to ensure that new initiatives have a positive impact.

For example, embedding “net health gain” principles in local plans and reviews of applications for development consent is one way of encouraging the interventions identified in this report. For new developments, emission-lowering measures such as the use of clean energies and energy-efficiency measures (such as the use of insulation and inbuilt energy generation for electricity and water heating) alongside the provision of infrastructure to support the use of low-exhaust emission vehicles (such as electrical vehicle charging points or stations for alternative fuels) and incentives for their use (such as priority parking and reduced fees) can minimise air pollution and maximise health gains.

At the planning stage, journey distances and layout need to be carefully considered to minimise driving and ensure that traffic is kept moving at optimum speed. These factors need to be built into local planning systems and supported by national planning frameworks.

The local implementation of “net health gain” principles can be supported by their evolution and integration within wider ‘net gain’ principles in national environmental and planning policies and guidance, and by using building standards’ requirements to support ‘healthy by design’ principles.

Photo via Adobe Stock.

See full Public Health England report (PDF).

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