Good intentions but will the implementation let the strategy down?
The Government’s new Clean Air strategy offers a broadly positive package of measures for all sources of air pollution, but some flaws remain.
The issue is high in public awareness thanks to better information. Now, a ‘personal air quality messaging system’ is promised. This is too micro. Instead, we need pervasive real-time air pollution alerts on major roads, in cities, and on public transport.
Under the current patchwork, the same neighbourhood can be covered by three different types of pollution rules. The new plan is tidying this all up with a single Clean Air Zone (CAZ) law including vehicle charges.
However, only a few cities are likely to see CAZs, and companies might transfer their most polluting vehicles to offices in laxer cities. To prevent this, we need CAZs in all cities breaching pollution standards.
Some CAZs will charge buses but not cars. This could lead to marginal bus routes going bust, and would be inequitable and wrong. The new law must charge both.
Ports are central to many cities’ economies, yet produce considerable emissions. The Government wants ports to individually reduce emissions, but each is likely to do the minimum to avoid being undercut. A stronger national approach is needed to create a level playing field.
Ultimately, the commitments are fine, but must be followed through. The Government plans to create an official environmental watchdog. Air pollution must now be put within its remit. That way, Ministers will have their feet held to the fire even after the press loses interest.
In 1952, London choked as several factors combined to create the ‘Great Smog’. Four years later, the Clean Air Act 1956 was passed by the Conservative Government of the time to address air pollution. In many respects, it succeeded, and Britain now enjoys far cleaner air than before.
But problems do still persist, and new ones have arisen. Recent Bright Blue research found that, in 2015, 40% of local authorities breached limits on nitrogen dioxide. This prompted the launch of our campaign for all English cities to be allowed to introduce low emission zones, which charge polluting vehicles for entering certain areas. Last year, we also recommended that the Government should allocate £255 million of funding in a way which encourages innovation and rewards successful pollution abatement techniques.
Today’s Conservative Government is currently consulting on its forthcoming Clean Air Strategy. Altogether, the Strategy includes much to admire. Its comprehensive approach goes beyond easily invoked sectors such as road transport and power generation, but also includes emissions from agriculture, industrial processes, and aviation, amongst others, too. On this point, Bright Blue has already called for a new rural payments system after Brexit which should deliver better environmental outcomes (including cleaner air), and for greater public R&D spending on the electrification of aviation and shipping – sectors which have not made progress in the way electric cars have.
However, whilst positive ambition is one thing, following through with credible action is quite another. For the Strategy to be successful, proper enforcement will be paramount. This, critically, in a post-Brexit Britain, includes effective oversight of government, preferably by an independent watchdog, able to step in and initiate court action if environmental standards are breached.
The latest draft Clean Air Strategy (May 2018), is the latest plan developed by the government following a series of court rulings that found the UK to be in breach of its legal obligations to clean up its toxic air.
Aspects of the latest strategy are welcome, not least the plans to tackle emissions from a range of sources and shifting to an approach focused on reducing the wider impacts on health and the environment rather than simply meeting legal targets. However, in many respects, the strategy doesn’t go nearly far enough and on its own it will not be sufficient.
First, the government should use legislation, regulation and road pricing to progressively phase out diesel cars across the UK. The ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles, currently proposed for 2040 (and which the government now appears to be reneging on), should be brought forward to 2030.
Second, the government should use its industrial strategy to invest in the research, design and commercialisation of new clean vehicles and provide a financial incentive for consumers to buy them through a smart scrappage scheme.
Third, the government should focus on encouraging what is called ‘smart mobility’. Investment in public transport and the necessary infrastructure for walking and cycling should be complemented by the expansion of car clubs, journey planners and other applications of digital technology that encourage shared and efficient travel.
Finally, as we leave the European Union (EU) it will be essential that these ambitions, environmental principles and targets are enshrined in law as part of a new Clean Air Act, which is then enforced by a new green watchdog to ensure compliance.
When considering the major health hazard of air pollution, and whether the clean air strategy goes far enough, we might well ask ‘what would Bazalgette do?’
Air quality is not yet quite having the same impact on where people chose to live in the 21st century city as it did during the industrial revolution. Then, the unavoidable and highly tangible presence of smog led to the growth of the suburbs, as those who could afford to avoid the polluted industrial centres did so. Indeed, it was the post-industrialisation of the city that led to the growing popularity of inner city neighbourhoods in recent decades. The main difference now is that the poisons in our air are rather less visible – our research in Greenwich using our Street Score tool showed that air quality doesn’t have much impact on houses prices. But as the science becomes clearer, this will surely change.
Joseph Bazalgette, London’s Chief Engineer, faced a similar public health problem in Victorian London. With no significant sanitation system, the Thames had become the odorous dumping ground for all of London’s filthy waste. His solution was emphatic – the construction of over 1,000 miles of sewers under the city.
In our cities, similarly drastic intervention is required. Whilst it might be politically audacious, it would be less toxic than simply allowing thousands of our urban inhabitants to be poisoned to death. We must become less reliant on our cars. They should be banned from much more of our city centres, and car lanes reduced in size where they are not. Traveling by car should become more inconvenient in our cities. We should focus on walking, cycling and public transport – and earn the admiration and gratitude of future generations.