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Clean air zones will only solve one aspect of the air pollution problem

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LGC’s essential daily commentary 

As we learn more about the damage that toxic air is doing to our health - from causing permanently underdeveloped lungs in children to dementia in the elderly - it increasingly seems like one of the most pressing issue facing our time. 

It’s certainly not a new problem. In London’s ‘Great Smog’ of 1952, the air was so toxic that up to 6,000 people are thought to have died as a direct result, and 100,000 more made ill by its effects. The pea souper was a catalyst for the Clean Air Act of 1956.

The new ultra low emission zone in London will be a litmus test to gauge the effectiveness and public enthusiasm for rolling out similar clean air zones in cities across the UK. So far, it seems to have been welcomed by most Londoners who are concerned about their city’s chronic air pollution problems - although not the Daily Mail, which described it as a “monstrous injustice of a poll tax on wheels”, and the Taxpayers Alliance which said the “stealth charge” risked creating an “ultra low enterprise zone”, and plastered a van with placards calling on Mayor Khan to scrap the charge.

This week LGC research revealed that four more clean air zones are being planned, covering 14 council areas, in areas that have been ordered by government to take acion to reduce dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide. One benefit of clean air zones which has not yet been focused on is how, in light of the current economic challenges facing the high street, they could complement efforts to make urban centres more pleasant, pedestrian-friendly community hubs that entice people in to gather and congregate.

So it’s not just those councils located in the most polluting areas mandated by government to take action on air pollution “in the shortest time possible” that are focused on the issue. The Greater Cambridge Partnership, for example, is about to conduct a full consultation on proposals for a clean air zone in Cambridge that could complement its futuristic vision for an autonomous metro system.

And a trial project soon to be launched in Coventry, which could later be rolled out across the West Midlands, will see motorists being persuaded to ditch their cars in exchange for up to £3,000 in cash credits, to be spent on public transport and car sharing schemes.

But designating urban areas as clean air zones can only solve part of the problem. For a start, the air pollution threat is being judged using EU-regulations on what is deemed to be safe levels of nitrogen oxide, not carbon dioxide, which is the main culprit when it comes to climate change.

And the effectiveness of clean air zones is also limited by the fact that much of the air pollution is located at the arterial roads leading into city centres, rather than the centres themselves, because so many people drive into work from suburbs and outlying villages. For this reason, surely conversations about dirty air have to take place at a combined authority/regional level? Public Health England recently recommended such an approach. 

Highways England should also bear responsibility for cleaning up our air. Shamefully today it emerged it has only invested less than £8 million of its £100m air-quality fund, four years after it was unveiled. This is money that coud have been spent on a comprehensive network of electric changing points. 

Before joining Local Government Chronicle, I used to live in the UAE, and found it baffling that the government of a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers had nonetheless rolled out hundreds of electric charging points across the country, to ensure it was ready for a future after oil. In comparison, the UK has been woefully slow to act.

Ideally, limiting the most-polluting vehicles from town and city centres can be achieved in part through broadening the use of low-emission buses. But this solution is impeded by the fact that fewer people are inclined to travel by bus these days.

Figures from the Department for Transport reveal the number of local bus passenger journeys in England was 4.3 billion in the year ending September 2018, a 2.1% decrease compared with a year earlier.

According to Michael Waterson, an economics professor at the University of Warwick who published a study this month on bus usage, while the consumer price index has risen 22% since the start of 2009, bus fares have risen on average by 39%. By contrast, the costs of operating a motor vehicle have risen roughly in line with inflation over the same period. “Declining ridership and declining local government subsidies mean that the dwindling number of passengers shoulder the bus-operating costs,” he said.

The urban planners of the future may also have to bear in mind the air pollution affects not just of road-worthy cars but flying ones too, as according to taxi-app Uber flying cars are expected to start hitting our cities from 2023. Research published this month in the journal Nature Communications found that it was only when flying cars travelled more than 50 miles that it become more beneficial to the environment to use them than a standard petrol car, meaning that they too might have to be factored into clean air charging zones of the future.

One senior local government policy maker told me he thinks that clean air zones are becoming a local election issue for the first time this year. The next generation to take to the voting booths is one that has grown up digesting Blue Planet and holding school strikes over climate change, so it is likely to become even more of an election issue in the future.

Jessica Hill, senior reporter


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