Report: The South West & Wales Air Quality Conference 2023

On 21st June, we held our inaugural South West & Wales Air Quality Conference at The Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel.

Feedback from previous conferences had suggested that there was a demand for such an event in this part of the world and the fact that our delegates included representatives from 15 separate Councils seems to indicate that this was indeed the case.

Other than the local authorities, the conference brought together air quality professionals, academics and campaigners to discuss what the future holds in this field.

Our host for the event was Stephen Cirell, last seen performing the same role at Our National Air Quality Conference in London last year. 

The speaker who got us under way was Cllr Don Alexander from Bristol City Council, who disarmingly introduced himself with the words ‘I don’t know much about air quality – my job is transport’. Of course, Don’s work is inextricably linked with clean air, particularly given his involvement in implementing the city’s Clean Air Zone in 2022. Don considers the CAZ a ‘blunt instrument’ and is conscious of its limitations. He talked about the ‘Liveable Neighbourhoods’ that Bristol are trialing and was particularly energised when discussing this scheme. It isn’t simply a clean air project, it adresses social isolation, biodiversity… a whole range of issues. ‘If this pilot is successful,’ he says, ‘I would love to take it across the whole city’.

View Don’s Presentation

Next to speak was Joseph Carter, Chair of Healthy Air Cymru and head of Asthma & Lung UK Cymru. Joseph outlined the charity’s main concerns about air pollution and focused closely on the progress of legislation in Wales, particularly the Environment (Air Quality and Soundscapes) Bill. Public Health Wales say air pollution costs Wales £1bn a year in  health service costs and lost work-days, so the problem is a significant one. It was clear from Joseph’s presentation that the way the Bill is currently drafted leaves some issues unclear (it doesn’t reference WHO limits for example) and asking himself the question ‘Will the bill be enough?’ he replied ‘Yes… to an extent’.

View Joseph’s presentation

There followed a break during which the delegates repaired to an adjoining room for coffee and a chance to talk to the dozen air quality professionals who had set up exhibition stands there. Lunch was also held in this space so there was ample time for the Local Authority representatives to familiarise themselves with the latest technology in the air quality space.

Following lunch Stephen Cirell hosted our traditional panel discussion in which the audience fired questions at our five guests:

  • Ella Patel, Technical Presales Consultant at Vortex IoT
  • Tessa Bartholomew-Good, Head of Campaigns – Clean Air – Global Action Plan
  • Aled Williams, Environmental Protection Manager at Bath and North East Somerset
  • George O’Ferrall, Air Quality Projects Lead at Southampton City Council
  • Enda Hayes, Air Quality & Carbon Management – UWE Bristol

Domestic indoor wood burning was the first subject to be raised:  ‘people don’t like being told what to do outside,’ said Enda summing up the problem, ‘they absolutely don’t like being told what to do inside.’ 

The subject of aviation was then raised, which brought a variety of responses covering the use of hydrogen, the planning process and the fact that people driving to airports are a greater source of pollution than the aircrafts themselves.

A delegate asked whether we are too concerned on setting targets for pollution levels without considering its toxicity. Essentially, what the particulate matter actually is rather than the amount of it. Ella said: ‘people are aware it’s bad but they don’t know how bad it is.’

Each of the panel were asked if the success of any policy intervention was guaranteed, what policy would they come up with?

George: Free bus travel and enough busses
Aled: Low cost pm monitors
Enda: A way to influence behaviour
Tessa: A ban on wood burning stoves
Ella: Accessible alternatives with an infrastructure to allow people to make better choices

Tessa Bartholomew-Good stayed on stage as she was our next speaker. Tessa’s talk was very instructive because, although we are all aware of Clean Air Day, it seems most of us are not so familiar with Global Action Plan’s other work. Essentially the group tackle three issues they refer to as: ‘Clean Air, Post-Consumerism and Generation Action’. Even within the first of those, Clean Air Day itself is only a small part but given it took place last week and many local authorities were involved among the 350 different events that took place on the day, Tessa was obviously keen to talk about it. Its approach these days, she explained, is making people feel invested in driving change, ‘It’s less telling people to leave their car at home and more write to your local council’.

View Tessa’s presentation

After lunch, Dr Phillip Webb, CEO at Respiratory Innovation Wales, took to the stage. Phillip was immensely engaging, peppering the audience with all sorts of questions. ‘If you saw a cyclist was about to be hit by a car, hands up who would shout a warning.’ We dutifully raised our arms. ‘The NHS wouldn’t’ he announced, ‘they’d let the car hit you then take your money.’ As a prevention is better than cure analogy, it was certainly dramatic. Phillip went on to express his concern about the cumulative effect of exposure to air pollution, likening it to a head trauma caused by repeated small blows, rather than a single big one. 

View Phillip’s presentation

Our ‘celebrity’ speaker was next. There is an irony in the fact that the TV character Robert Llewellyn is best known for – Kryten in Red Dwarf – was emotionally repressed by his programing and yet Robert was possibly the most passionate speaker we have ever had at a conference. His Fully Charged YouTube channel which focusses on ‘not burning stuff’ has over a million followers who watch videos on EVs, hydrogen planes, solar panels and more EVs. He railed furiously against the fossil fuel lobby, angrily telling us that ‘for every one pound I spend promoting clean air, they can literally spend a billion countering it.’ He talked enthusiastically about what has been achieved in places as diverse as Utrecht (an ambitious vehicle to grid EV sharing scheme) and Shenzhen (where more than 10,000 diesel buses were replaced with electric overnight). Then someone mentioned Rowan Atkinson’s recent anti-EV Guardian piece and Robert became animated again.

Our final speaker was Enda Hayes, from the University of the West England, based in Bristol. Enda’s focus was on engaging with the public. Perhaps that’s jumping the gun as first, he explained, you need to known what sort of ‘public’ you are dealing with. Without knowing that, you can’t have the right conversations. Laughing at the idea that sending out 3,000 letters and receiving three replies could actually tick the ‘consultation’ box in some areas, he explained some of the processes he has used to really consult. This led on to a discussion of citizen science, particularly the Clairecity citizen-led air pollution reduction project across six European cities in which he was deeply involved. Of course, in this room full of councillors, someone asked for Enda’s experience of bringing citizen science data to local authorities: ‘When they’re good, they’re very, very good.’ he replied. ‘But when they’re bad, they’re horrid.’

View Enda’s presentation

And that was that. Our first SW & Wales Air Quality Conference came to a poetic conclusion. We’d like to thank all the delegates who supported the conference by coming along and of course all the speakers who found time in their uniquely busy schedules to share their knowledge and passion with us. And a huge thank you to the exhibitors for bringing along practical solutions to help address the air quality issues that we were all here to talk about.

Next stop, the National Air Quality Conference at Lords in London on 8th November


Notify of
1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

“wood burning … people don’t like being told what to do outside,’ said Enda …they absolutely don’t like being told what to do inside.’ “. That’s the heart of the problem, then? They think it’s all about erosion of their rights, just like the LEZ arguments in London. They think they msut “take back contol”. Then the answer is to educate the public. Give them very graphic pictures of what wood smoke particulates and gases do to their lungs, hearts and brains. Take some real damaged human tissues to doctors’ talks at schools and community centres. Tell the public they have been tricked into this dangerous myth that wood burning is cheap, cosy and green.Explain alternatives to them and get wood burning, of all kinds, banned in our cities.But get the public to see they have been lied to first. The wood stove retailers are the ones who have, in effect, told the eager public what to do. Now they need to believe the government and local authorites are on the side of public health. Part of the trouble is that you can’t see the smoke if you are inside your house with a “good” stove with tight fitting doors. And if you are or were a cigarette smoker, or you use lots of scented stuff, you won’t smell the smoke either. But it is still there and affects you and your neighbours, day after day, year after year. It weakens you in the end. Just like cigarettes or coal smoke or diesel. That’s why local air quality monitoring, and citizen science, can help. Show people the numbers and explain how the health damage happens.

Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top