Specification editor, Paul Groves questions whether criticism of the Clean Air Strategy is missing a central point.

Politicians are more than familiar with the old saying: “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

Indeed, some of them might well think they should adapt that to read “I can’t please anybody at any time.”

Which brings us neatly to Environment Secretary Michael Gove and in particular his widely reported Clean Air Strategy. The fall out from his announcement in the middle of May was almost immediate.

The idea that success hinges on a collaborative approach was somewhat lost

Paul Groves Paul Groves Editor of Specification magazine

A wave of criticism

There is no doubt the strategy includes some fairly radical ideas and the Government itself was quick to categorise the proposals as “ambitious”

But arguably one of the most telling comments Mr Gove made in outlining his strategy was: “Government cannot act alone in tackling air pollution. Our strategy sets out how we will work with businesses, farmers, industry and households to develop innovative new solutions to reduce emissions.

“It also highlights how we can all take action and play an important role in cleaning up our air.”

The acknowledgement that the success of the strategy hinges almost completely on a collaborative approach to developing new ideas, new products, new ways of thinking and new solutions was somewhat lost in the wave of criticism the minister faced.

Pollution levels

For example, part of the strategy aims to “clamp down” on “all sources” of pollution, including coal-burning and wood-burning stoves.

Ministers want to halve the number of people exposed to “high levels of pollution” from fine particulates, by 2025.

This caused a great deal of consternation, not least amongst manufacturers of these products.

Yet, as Allan Wilson, Test Engineer with BSRIA, said: “While there is tighter legislation being introduced in terms of appliance manufacturers having to demonstrate compliance, there is no control as to how they are operated once sold to the consumer.

“Education as to how the end user operates their new and existing appliances would contribute greatly in the reduction of ‘real’ emissions. Part of the education piece should be the promotion of appropriate fuels that are ‘fit to burn’. For both new and existing appliances.”

Indeed, this was a subject taken up by a manufacturer. Ian Sams, commercial director of Specflue, supports the legislation but highlights that reports insinuating all wood burners should be banned were sensationalist and unhelpful.

"Cleaning up the air is something Specflue wholeheartedly supports, however recent press reports have given far too much weight to the issue of wood burning in general terms, when the focus should be educating consumers on the importance of clean burning fuel, and, most crucially, tackling toxic emissions from diesel vehicles in urban areas,” he added. 

Greening primary production

The other factor that seems to have been lost in this focus on combustible fuel, is the rise of alternative and renewable heating equipment. 

Heat pump manufacturers such as Mitsubishi Electric have shown that the technology is ready to deliver a much more sustainable solution that is not associated with all of the problems that the debate about wood and coal burning is obsessing on.

Each year, we are seeing the way we produce electricity as a nation get cleaner and greener and we are edging towards the day when the national grid is wholly supplied by electricity produced from clean and renewable sources.

This will undoubtedly help the country transition to a more sustainable future and is why the government has already recognised renewable heating through heat pumps as an important part of the future – predicting sales of heat pumps reaching 1 million units a year by 2030.

Again though, this cannot be achieved by one manufacturer alone, or one sector of society which is why I come back to the point in the environment secretary’s strategy about collaboration.

Despite the many negative headlines that followed the announcement and the various misleading soundbites that also emerged, the general consensus was that Mr Gove may actually be onto something worth supporting.

An important role for construction

Dr Diana Montgomery, Construction Products Association Chief Executive said: “The importance of this announcement cannot be underestimated. This is a significant opportunity for us and I am pleased construction products have been identified as a contributor towards the UK’s clean growth.

“Construction products shape the buildings we use and in delivering this mission from government we can have a positive impact on the UK’s built environment.”

Mr Gove’s media and public personality may well need refining, but his Clean Air strategy is actually worth a second, more considered look. After all, this is not about a personality contest.

We all have a role to play in improving air quality. The first step is arguably educating ourselves about the facts and understanding the measures that are being proposed and the impact and benefits they are likely to provide.

Paul Groves is editor of Specification magazine.