Air Quality, Covid-19 and Property Transactions
Poor air quality is arguably the most significant environmental risk to the health of our nation, with some 40,000 deaths per annum attributable to pollution from motor vehicles and industry. This has been brought into sharp focus at a time of pandemic where respiratory vulnerability has been a key driver of fatalities. Add to this the fact that we are now spending much more time at home and air quality is quickly becoming one of the more critical factors in deciding where to live.
Data gathering on air pollution levels by local councils has long been an important part of traffic management as they look to create more sustainable environments for their communities.
In recent years, air pollution levels have exceeded safe EU limits on many occasions and affected those who are especially sensitive like those who suffer from asthma or COPD. Exposure to pollution for this population can have lifelong impacts. There is also improved scientific research on how fine particulate matter (PM) gets into the bloodstream and can accelerate dementia.
The Clean Air of Lockdown
The first lockdown of March-June 2020 showed how quickly things can change. With vehicles off the road and aircraft removed from clear blue skies, air pollution levels plummeted, and it felt like a different world – cleaner, quieter, calmer. And it proved clearly the benefits of cutting back on road transport movements.
Dr Roland Leigh, Technical Director at Earthsense, providers of air quality monitoring and advanced pollution modelling undertook an analysis of the changes:
“We found about a 40% reduction in pollution levels occurred within a week of lockdown starting, which was frankly astonishing. We had thought it would take until 2030-2035 to reach these kinds of reductions, with the gradual roll-out of electric vehicles. It proves that if you wanted to make a positive change to the air that we breathe, we could do it relatively quickly.”
While clearly an upside, the pandemic also showed the double impact of greater vulnerability in urban areas typically affected by poor air quality.
Post-Covid Health Risk
Recent research has found that a small rise in people’s long-term exposure to air pollution was associated with an 11% increase in deaths from Covid-19. Breathing dirty air over years is already known to cause heart and lung disease, and these illnesses are known to make coronavirus infections worse.
Dr Roland Leigh continues:
“We have also seen those who have had Covid-19 are now more vulnerable to respiratory illness and could be more affected again now that traffic is back to 75% of pre-pandemic levels. With an estimated 1 million “Long Covid” sufferers, there is a growing cohort of people where poor air quality has suddenly become a more pressing issue where perhaps they didn’t think of it much before. ”
As we emerge from lockdown, air pollution levels could go in a number of directions. There may be a large spike in traffic from pent-up demand as everyone enthusiastically travels and consumes. This could settle back to still below where we were before the pandemic as employers look to a more hybrid approach to office and working from home practices, reducing the frequency of commutes and vehicle movements.
But it won’t stop heavy goods, trade and school run traffic and it may be that in certain congested locations there is very little change or improvement in air quality. There remains a reluctance to use public transport, especially at peak times, which could put more vehicles back on the road if employers insist on a return to the place of work more regularly. With a lag of vaccinations still to work through it could take the rest of the year for before we find our way back to “Normal.”
Finding Clean Air?
For homebuyers, in the last year we have seen a clear trend to look out of city centres to suburban or rural areas for more green space and room to work from home. In June and July last year, the number of buyer inquiries made to Rightmove from people living in 10 cities increased by 78% compared with the same period last year. And there was a 126% increase in people considering properties in village locations, compared with a 68% rise in people searching for towns.
Many who have made the transition have achieved more for their money, realised some equity, and found less crowds and cleaner air. But for others who do not have the choice or are key workers that need to be close to their place of work, what information can be easily obtained by legal and property professionals to safeguard them?
Increasingly, a baseline understanding of air quality at a local level is becoming recognised as equal to other environmental issues such as flood risk and land contamination, when buying a home. Many conveyancers and legal professionals are acting accordingly and choosing to highlight air quality as a factor which could impact upon their client’s quiet enjoyment of the home.
For these important reasons Future Climate Info (FCI) took the pioneering decision to add Earthsense’s MappAir® air quality data to its environmental search reports in early 2018. This provides homebuyers with an indication of annual mean air pollution, based on levels of PM2.5 particulate matter and Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) to a resolution of 100 metres.
Earthsense’s national network of sensors and unique data insight has been analysing current air pollution levels and trends since 2014 to a 100m square grid. Its predictive model incorporates vehicle movement statistics, wind speed and direction, local industrial emissions and even impacts on wood burners and open chimneys to assess potential future changes. This expanding network sits on main roads, in schools and other public buildings.
This provides far greater insight than reliance solely on whether a property lies within a Local Authority Air Quality Management Area (AQMA), which tends to be isolated areas in the centre of cities and towns, and do not provide the full picture.
Having sight of this data and insight enables homebuyers to consider their options and, whether in an urban or countryside setting, to enter into a transaction with their eyes wide open.
Young Families at High Risk
How we as consumers choose to buy homes will be increasingly influenced by air quality data, traffic impacts and how they are being managed in any one area. But choosing schools can often be the biggest determinant for young families. The first thought is squeezing into the catchment which can attract a premium, but it may have a sting in its tail if that also suffers from poor air quality as it sits close to a main road in a city, as many do. Children can breathe in up to three times more air relative to their weight. This means they take in a greater volume of air pollution, which can stunt lung growth and increase their risk of respiratory disease.
A recent peer reviewed study by scientists at the University of Basel Children’s Hospital found that increased air pollution levels from birth were associated with reduced lung function at six years.
Ella Kissi-Debrah, who suffered from asthma and walked to school every day along the South Circular Road in London, was the first child declared to have air pollution listed as a contributory cause to her death after an historic high court judgement.
Who will Guide the Client?
As part of their research, home hunters should not just look at price, features and space for a home office. If the house is on a busy main road, will they have to invest more in insulation, better windows and air filtration? Or could they save by moving one or two streets back where the air pollution is a fraction of the High Street?
The trouble for most buyers working to a tight budget, air pollution risks are not writ large on property portal house particulars or in estate agent windows – it could get in the way of the sale.
And right now, with the SDLT payment holiday window still wide open and supply of the right properties tight, there is a very real risk that this vital information can get overlooked in the pursuit of securing a property to move to, only to discover issues later.
An agent may say “it is priced to reflect the location” and cover a multitude of potential sins. The current position is for the buyer to make their own judgement and to fall back on “caveat emptor”.
“Poor air quality is a real issue”
says Tim Champney, Managing Director at Future Climate Info (FCI),
“although it’s positive that the issue is rapidly gaining the mainstream awareness required to find sustainable solutions.
“Aside from the potential physical and mental impacts of poor air quality in residential areas, the future may also see the financial impacts on homeowners should the value of their home falter if air quality deteriorates further. This is particularly pertinent if the current trajectory towards air quality becoming a mainstream consideration continues, affecting the desirability and value of a home in the eyes of lenders, valuers and prospective buyers alike.
“In 2018 the key driver for FCI to introduce air quality data into our searches was a simple desire to help homebuyers make informed decisions about their future, and FCI remains the only environmental search provider to include air quality analysis as standard. Our searches offer solicitors and conveyancers a robust mechanism through which they can quickly and easily provide insight to their clients right now through their existing search report bundles, without having to obtain additional searches or increase their workload.”