The government’s response to losing three court cases on air pollution brought by Client Earth has been to devolve responsibility for the health crisis onto local authorities. The local authorities have limited resources and powers but, just like the government, most of all they lack the political will to make the decisions that will reduce pollution by reducing traffic. The first set of plans put forward by local authorities in some of the worst affected cities have led Client Earth to say that the government’s Air Quality Strategy is unravelling into ‘a shambolic and piecemeal mess’.
Derby is proposing a scheme that would lead to new traffic lights and traffic calming measures on one road. If you think that removing a bike lane and tinkering with a bit of bus infrastructure is going to solve anything, then you have missed nearly twenty years of Greens telling you that radical action is needed to stop air pollution killing people.
As Client Earth point out: “Their preferred option does not seem to be based on any kind of assessment of the possible impacts on air pollution in the city… from our point of view that is totally inadequate and seems to be creating more space for more cars and little else.”
The minimum that local authorities like Southampton, Nottingham, Leeds and Birmingham need to do is to follow London’s lead by bringing in an Ultra Low Emission Zone, with the aim of transforming that into a Zero Emission Zone within a few more years. Manufacturers are now switching from diesel to electric vehicles, so local authorities should be encouraging this process.
Any revenue raised from these zones needs to be ploughed back into improving public transport and also into facilities that encourage walking and cycling. This happens in London and helps to pay back the loans on the upfront investment in the new rail and bus facilities that have encouraged people to leave their cars at home.
There are lots of upsides to local schemes to reduce pollution and reduce traffic, such as nicer neighbourhoods and creating safer places for children and others to use. If more people are getting some exercise by walking and cycling then that doubles the health impact of calmer, less polluted cities. The key thing is the NHS bill goes down as people suffer less from respiratory conditions, such as asthma, emphysema and bronchiectasis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, strokes, dementia and reduced cognitive ability. It is a long list that should be repeated whenever someone claims that we are waging a war on motorists.
London managed to reduce traffic by one per cent per year for sixteen years, despite its population growing by 100,000 each year during that time. It is possible for local authorities to act decisively to end pollution, it is the government who needs to fund the major improvements to bus and rail services, so that all cities can follow. They do have the money to do so, but it is tied up in budgets for new roads, or their refusal to increase the Fuel Duty Escalator. Ultimately, the best way of raising the funds quickly would be to introduce pay-as-you-go driving, so that the polluters have to pay the true cost of the health impacts they impose on others.
There is no doubt in my mind that the government expect the local authorities to be in court with them when disgruntled parents and grieving relatives try to take legal action against them for their failures. My Clean Air Bill would enshrine clean air as a human right and create an organisation dedicated to helping people in their legal battles. It would end the delays and excuses by focusing the minds of every level of government on ending the health impacts of toxic air.