Bristol Greens have been campaigning for improvements in the city’s poor air quality for as long as there have been Bristol Greens. So when news of the mayor’s ‘bold’ clean air proposals were unveiled, some might have expected us to be celebrating – unfortunately, having dug into the reports accompanying these, we’ve got serious concerns.
In February 2016, we proposed a budget amendment to allocate funds to develop a plan for a Clean Air Zone for Bristol. That was voted down by Labour and the Conservatives, but after a strong campaign and thousands of petition signatures our motion proposing a number of actions the council could take immediately to start improving the city’s air quality, including a commitment to implement a Clean Air Zone, was voted through with unanimous support in November that year.
Work got off to a good start under the Green member of the mayor’s rainbow cabinet (remember that?) and chair of the mayoral task force on clean air Fi Hance. Government funding was secured for a feasibility study to explore different types of Clean Air Zones, as well as to retrofit polluting buses and provide electric vehicle infrastructure.
However, after the mayor removed other parties from the cabinet and took responsibility for air quality himself, it became clear that he was determined to rule out the option which showed the most rapid improvement in the city’s air, as it would also have an impact on private cars.
Masking this with concern for lower-income households, the mayor conveniently ignored the fact that the poorest fifth of the population is the least likely to have access to a car, and that many of Bristol’s most deprived people live in the areas most affected by air pollution.
The most effective option from the council’s initial study – a zone which charged all polluting vehicles – was not taken to public consultation in the summer.
Now, after months of mysterious delays, key reports hidden from the public and councillors, threats of legal action from the government and repeated missed deadlines, we finally have a first plan. However, there are worrying signs that instead of policy being based on the evidence, the evidence is being shaped to fit the mayor’s policy.
In supporting reports, reviewed data and different modelling were applied only to the mayor’s preferred option, making it appear to be the fastest option to clean up the city’s air.
This proposed ‘hybrid option’, a complicated combination of two options the public were consulted on in June, would have less impact on private car use across the city than the ‘benchmark’ charging zone demanded by the government and underway in other cities.
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In a meeting on October 30, a council officer admitted that a different combination of measures would reduce air pollution faster than the mayor’s choice – something which would have been obvious to officers and the mayor a long time ago but was nevertheless left off the table.
But as well as not being the fastest possible option, the proposed ‘hybrid’ plan is risky.
A risk assessment document identified three major risks which could jeopardise the entire project – the government not introducing the required legislation, and opposition from residents and businesses resulting in a judicial review or public inquiry. All three were given a likelihood rating of 50 per cent.
Key elements of the plan, such as the enforcement of the diesel ban, have not been fully worked out, along with additional measures and mitigation that will be crucial in determining the success of the option in reducing pollution. If proposals are kicked back by government, or fail at one of the hurdles identified in the report, Bristol could face additional delays in tackling our toxic air.
To be clear, the work we’ve seen so far has arisen because the government forced the mayor to produce a clean air plan for compliance with legal limits on nitrogen dioxide (NOx) levels. Despite the risks, dubious data and doubts about its viability, the mayor’s proposal may just tick the box and meet the government’s required criteria, and see Bristol City Council avoid facing legal action.
However, a huge opportunity has been missed by the mayor’s determination to do no more than he is forced, no sooner than he is forced. NOx pollution is just one half of the harm caused by air pollution.
Tiny particulate matter, known as PM2.5 or PM10 is produced by all road vehicles and is extremely harmful to human health. The government estimate that long-term exposure causes more deaths per year in the UK than alcohol and the World Health Organisation has said there is no ‘safe limit’. As well as lung development and respiratory problems there’s recent evidence that PM may affect our brains, and even reach foetuses in the womb.
While the mayor’s ‘legal minimum’ proposal will crack down on diesel vehicles in the centre, having a significant impact on particulate matter would require tackling all vehicles across the city.
We cannot get back the time that has already been wasted by the mayor, or undo the harm that has been done to the health of people in Bristol in that time.
Despite all its flaws, the council’s plan is better than doing nothing.
But Greens want to go further – we know there is more to be done which could dramatically improve air quality and quality of life for everyone in the city. By creating low traffic neighbourhoods that encourage people to be more active and sociable in the way they move around, by discouraging corporate free parking and investing in better public transport options, by switching money from road schemes that only create further pollution to infrastructure that can give people a real alternative to being stuck in their cars – we can deliver cleaner air, public health, economic inclusion and tackle climate change.
But until Bristol takes serious action to join up climate, health and transport issues like this, air pollution and congestion will continue to blight our city and our health.
Eleanor Combley is the Bristol Green councillor group leader