Blog : Clean air

Brum Breathes: What Councillor Waseem Zaffar wants for Birmingham

Brum Breathes: What Councillor Waseem Zaffar wants for Birmingham

Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone goes live in June 2021. We spoke to the councillor overseeing the progressive new measure, Cllr Waseem Zaffar. He spoke about his wish for the city once at the heart of the Industrial Revolution to be sought after for its clean air. 

 

This is just the start

When Birmingham experienced a 70% drop in traffic during the coronavirus pandemic, with people out and about on foot or bike enjoying its green and blue spaces, Cllr Waseem Zaffar recalls someone telling him they could ‘taste clean air’.

That sentiment taps right into the vision the Cabinet Member for Transport & Environment has for the city. So when it got the go ahead from government to launch its Clean Air Zone on 1 June 2021, amongst all the Covid-19 uncertainty, it was a hugely encouraging step forward for the city. 

For Cllr Zaffar, wanting clean air for Birmingham is personal. His late father was just 54 when he died in 2009 of heart failure. Like him and his mum, his dad was Type 2 diabetic but otherwise fit and active. But he was a taxi driver – a job that consistently exposed him to the brunt of Birmingham’s dirty air.

From Lozells, one of the city’s most socially deprived neighbourhoods, Cllr Zaffar believes that the Clean Air Zone is as much a health policy as a transport policy. But he says it’s just a start – he wants Birmingham to eventually go beyond the strict standards on air quality defined by the WHO.

When air pollution causes 1,000 people a year to die in the UK’s second city, it’s not hard to see why. Cllr Zaffar wants it to become a place where people want to live for its clean air. And he urges Brummies to reimagine their city with far fewer cars – where kids play in the street and business still thrive.

“This is very personal to me,” Cllr Zaffar said. “The role that poor air quality has on me, my family, my community, my neighbourhood, my neighbours. It’s kind of a deadly problem that you can’t see and because you can’t see it, you think it doesn’t exist.

“During lockdown somebody said to me, ‘I could taste clean air’. That is the reputation I want for this city – where people say we need to move our families to Birmingham because it has fantastic air. 

“The Clean Air Zone for me will be a start. I want to see clean air in every single neighbourhood in Birmingham, particularly when it comes to schools. I want schools to be safe havens. I want it to go way past legal compliance. WHO guidelines are just a start. Getting there is an absolute must.

“There was an air pollution public health crisis  pre-Covid and it’ll be there post-Covid. More than 1,000 people a year are dying prematurely and kids are losing six months of their life in our city. 

“You compare that to 30 deaths because of collisions on our roads each year. That’s 30 too many but if you put it into contrast it shows why this is such an important area of work.”

How the city will support people through the transition

Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone will cover an area of the city inside the inner ring road (A4540 Middleway, but not the Middleway itself). Once live, owners of the most polluting vehicles, which account for around 25% of Birmingham’s traffic, will need to pay a daily charge to drive into or through the Clean Air Zone.

It’ll be a big change for the city and Cllr Zaffar is not underestimating the challenge it’ll pose to many businesses, especially for its taxi community. In response, the city council is providing exemptions and financial incentives of around £35m to help residents, city centre workers and businesses prepare.

And Cllr Zaffar feels what Birmingham has negotiated with government could give other local councils a head start.

“I’m not underestimating the challenge that the Clean Air Zone will have on many in Birmingham at the same time as the Covid pandemic,” the Lozells councillor said. “This is real tough stuff, I absolutely get that. 

“Part of the reason for announcing the launch in October and going for the grants is we want to give people as much time as possible to prepare for this. That’s why we’re encouraging them strongly to apply for the financial incentives and the exemptions as soon as possible. 

“I’ve got to know a lot of colleagues predominantly through UK100. Where we’ve negotiated with the government on the mitigations and exemptions package, and the financial incentives in particular, that’s where other councils can start their negotiations. 

“As in, ‘you’ve given Birmingham this, you need to give us this plus this, this and this’. I’ve had conversations with colleagues in Bristol so there’s a lot of comparing notes.”

 

Getting the message right

Cllr Zaffar believes the messaging around the Clean Air Zone is an important part of gaining support among residents. He believes it’s about framing it beyond a transport issue – this is a discussion just like, if not even more important, than the debate around smoking in public places 20 years ago.

“I think there’s still a lot more work to be done with our communities and we’re absolutely committed to that,” he said. “We’re listening. we’re engaging, and we’re going on this journey with them.

“I think messaging is really important. This is a transport policy but for me it’s more of a health-related policy. This is about reversing health inequalities. 

“Taxi drivers and bus drivers are three times more likely to be impacted by poor air quality than a normal person because of the hours they spend behind the wheel.

“This is about making people fitter and healthier, allowing your children to grow up fit and strong, and our elderly to live longer. Find me a doctor who doesn’t tell me that clean air is important.

“I just want our communities to reimagine Birmingham with less cars. I used to play football and cricket in the alleyway by my house, in the middle of the road because there were fewer cars.”

 

Reimagining how Birmingham does business 

But it’s also about embracing concepts like the ‘15-minute city’, where people can meet most, if not all, their needs within a short walk or cycle from their home. Waltham Forest Council has seen success with this kind of urban planning, breathing new life into small shopping parades that used to be rat runs.

“We’re exploring this very seriously,” he said. “I had a briefing yesterday on the big development plan for Birmingham and it’s right at the heart of that.

“It’s part of the green revolution in Birmingham – the way people and goods move across the city, the way we operate post-Covid, and having access to services 800m to a kilometre from where you live are absolutely vital. I think that’s the future.

“Paris has been very bold and brave with the work they’ve done, and if they can do it, many others can follow suit. It’s an exciting time for us. The moment we get through this pandemic, there’ll be so much there on the other side for us to really use as our economic recovery across the country.” 

Find out more about Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone. Applications and expressions of interest for all of its support schemes are now open with more information available at BrumBreathes.co.uk.

Jonny Wilkinson, Senior Communications Officer

Waltham Forest’s Mini Holland: why LTNs are so important for clean air

Waltham Forest’s Mini Holland: why LTNs are so important for clean air

We spoke to Cllr Clyde Loakes, Deputy Leader of Waltham Forest Council, about how the borough has been a pioneer for LTNs. In this interview he explains why ‘mini Hollands’ are so important, gives some insight to councils looking to do the same, and urges government to pick up the pace.

 

How Waltham Forest is leading the way for low traffic neighbourhoods

When the government gave councils £250m to promote active travel in May, the low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) that sprung up were a novel experience for many. But for residents in Waltham Forest, its borough was six years ahead of the curve. With its Mini Holland project, it’s gone beyond simply encouraging more walking and cycling.

Chic shops and bustling cafes have sprung up on roads that used to be rat runs. Neighbours now stop to chat while their kids play in the street – a sight not seen by many Londoners for decades. Parents drop off their children at school by bike before picking up a coffee. And with working from home now the norm, residents meander through the borough’s pocket parks on their lunch break.

The ‘Mini Holland’ in Waltham Forest certainly lives up its name. With its modal filters – measures that limit the passage of some modes of transport – the 50% of residents who do not own a car can now safely travel by foot or bike. 33km of segregated cycle lanes now criss-cross the borough, along with more than 70 roads closed to through traffic, 500 bike hangers installed in residential streets, and seven cycle hubs at key rail and tube stations.

The scheme mirrors the ‘15-minute city’ concept, which has attracted attention since the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo embraced it as part of her 2020 re-election campaign. Developed by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno, the ‘15-minute city’ allows residents to meet most, if not all, their needs within a short walk or cycle from their front door.

But Cllr Clyde Loakes, who’s led the east London project since it began in 2013, says he’s reclaiming it as a Waltham Forest idea. And it’s because it started as a TfL-funded scheme to promote safer, greener and healthier streets, but quickly evolved into something which has fostered economic resilience and community cohesion.

Cllr Loakes said: “I looked at the 15-minute city concept and thought ‘that’s what we did six years ago with Mini Holland’. So I’m reclaiming it. It’s a Waltham Forest idea.

“What we were proposing wasn’t tinkering – it was bold and transformational. With the modal filters, instead of 2,500 vehicles a day driving down your road you now may have about 60. There were absolutely huge drops.

“Some of us still have that picture in our mind of what some of these roads looked like before the interventions. You wouldn’t see that kind of conversation happening in the street, or children messing around in the road. Back then there were hundreds of cars – it would have been dangerous.

“It’s not just your Lyrca-clad commuters whizzing down Lea Bridge Road on Chris Boardman bikes. It is actually those who are dropping off their children and then pootling off for a coffee. That’s what you’re starting to see. You’re seeing Muslim women and older people on bikes, and children cycling to school again.”

And the evidence speaks for itself. According to 2018 King’s College London research, more than 51,000 households across the borough now no longer live in areas with dangerous levels of air pollution compared to a decade before.

Blenheim Road

The business case

Cllr Loakes said the Mini Holland concept has tapped right into people’s needs during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen working from home soar. Whether it’s grabbing a coffee, a bite to eat at lunchtime, being able to buy a birthday card, or taking some exercise, people now want things like this close to home.

This is what you’re seeing in Waltham Forest with the reinvention of small shopping parades on the borough’s Orford Road and Frances Road. These local businesses have been able to take advantage of the changes in behaviour that Covid-19 has forced upon many of us.

“Now we know it is possible to work fruitfully at home, more of us are probably going to work more often at home,” Cllr Loakes said. “That starts to change the dynamic of what’s required in your local residential areas. And that’s got to be a positive thing for the economy, for personal and neighbourhood health and wellbeing, and for the climate.”

 

Sticking to a focussed path in the face of opposition

The project initially faced stiff opposition from a vocal minority of residents. 41% of those surveyed in the first area where work was planned were opposed. For local authorities looking to adopt similar projects, Cllr Loakes advises sticking to a ‘true and focussed path’ and says the more consultation you can carry out, the better. Now just 1.7% in that same area want to go back to how things were before.

Before: Francis Road and Albert Road in 2016

“It doesn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure”, he said. “But you have to inject pace and win the arguments. If we’re serious about building back better and greener then you have to stick to a very true and focused path.

“There will be angry people, demonstrations and shouty questions at council meetings. Some of you leading on this may get some really unpleasant emails and social media posts. It will be difficult but it is the right thing to do for a whole raft of reasons.

“You tend to talk to either the fanatics in favour or the fanatics against, certainly on social media. But actually 95% of people are probably somewhere just either side of ‘yeah it’s alright, I just have a few questions about it’. Because we’re humans and we adapt all the time.

“I think people are more aware that air quality is a big health challenge. The more resilience we can build into our population with regard to healthy living, then the more resilient they will be to some of these big challenges around respiratory diseases in particular.

“The evidence is stacked in favour of these kinds of interventions. To do anything other than this would be totally irresponsible, not just for current Waltham Forest residents but future residents too, and would be hugely damaging to any potential ability to reduce our impact on our planet.”

After: Francis Road and Albert Road

Picking up the pace in central government

With the Environment Bill returning to parliament on 3 November, Cllr Loakes is urging the government to pick up the pace on its climate commitments.

“It’s about pace,” he said. “I understand Brexit was going to take up a lot of time but I think the climate emergency is quite important to be perfectly frank. In a world driven by the internet, people expect change at a pace now. I don’t think our legislative processes, the way we design policy, has really caught up with people’s expectations around pace.

“That could be a negative thing or a positive thing. But I just think there is some link to how we respond, reflect, design and deliver that isn’t right. There’s stuff in there that’s common sense. There would be no argument with cross party support. Just get on with it – you know what has to be done.

“In the past 10 years and definitely the past five years national governments have been tied up with either Brexit or the economy. It’s required the leadership of local government to come forward to say, actually, there is a better way to do things. We can make it work.”

Read more about Waltham Forest’s mini Holland project, and find out more about low traffic neighbourhoods with this handy guide from Living Streets. Header image: Ramsay Road

Jonny Wilkinson, Senior Communications Officer

How Oxford is going beyond legal targets to clean up its air

How Oxford is going beyond legal targets to clean up its air

For Clean Air Day Oxford City Council’s Deputy Leader and Green Transport and Zero Carbon Oxford Cabinet Member, Cllr Tom Hayes, talks about how the city is ‘taking matters into its own hands’ and going beyond legal targets.

The change in season reminds me of an old joke about Christmas starting earlier every year. Well, this year Clean Air Day is the opposite of Christmas, taking place later than usual because of the need to respond to a global pandemic—a pandemic which itself reinforces the need to mark Clean Air Day and redouble effective action. Research increasingly shows that dirty air significantly increases coronavirus infections.

This year Oxford City Council is hoping for a great Christmas present. We have  just set our draft Air Quality Action Plan to go significantly further than the government’s legal target for air pollution, and the council is hopeful that our city agrees to this approach in a consultation now underway.

We believe we will become the first UK local authority to set out a city-wide air pollution reduction target within our draft Air Quality Action Plan—the action plan seeks to go further than the legal annual mean limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) of 40 µg/m3, with a new local annual mean NO2 target of 30 µg/m3 by 2025.

This action plan moves Oxford beyond the focus on local compliance by volunteering to set a target stricter than the legal target. Our target of 30 by ‘25 is based on evidence, including an analysis of our historic air quality monitoring data from 2002 – 2018, air quality modelling projections and studies, and the expected impact of the measures proposed in our action plan. 

Oxford City Council has been calling on the government to meet its legal responsibilities by highlighting the reasons for air pollution but also proposing solutions with Oxford’s Charter for Cleaner Air—the first formal cooperation of its kind between a local authority, Greenpeace UK and Friends of the Earth. However, with this new Air Quality Action Plan, we are taking matters into our own hands by setting a tighter target and taking forward our zero emissions policies. 

Our plan builds on a record of delivery. Oxford has achieved an average reduction of 26% in NO2, 31% in particulate matter (PM10) and 36% in particulate matter (PM2.5) at the sites where monitoring has been in place since 2013. Over the past decade NO2 levels in Oxford have decreased by 29% mainly due to the introduction of a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) for buses in 2014 and a £2.3m investment in the retrofitting of several buses to cleaner Euro VI engines and introduction of electric buses into the city.

However, we must move further and faster to cleaner air. Transport continues to be by far the largest contributor (68%) to total NO2 emissions in the city (as well as contributing to 17% of Oxford City’s carbon emissions). With fossil fuel cars contributing to 33% of NOx emissions and buses to 32% of emissions, our city council is working closely with partners to prioritise action to address transport.

Our main priorities are focused on the delivery of our Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ) to restrict polluting vehicles into the city centre and our congestion-busting Connecting Oxford to reduce the dominance of cars on our roads through bus gates, a workplace parking levy, and new subsidised bus routes. We are also proposing new measures including work with schools to raise awareness of air pollution and active travel, introducing a Euro VI LEZ for buses, expanding Oxford City Council’s EV fleet, and delivering a £41m Energy Superhub Oxford. 

Our target is stretching, but achievable by 2025 only with the introduction of transport schemes such as Connecting Oxford and an accelerated ZEZ. Harmful levels of air pollution are shortening lives, hurting health, and undermining our quality of life. The people whose lives will be disproportionately affected by air pollution are the more vulnerable members of our communities.

The founding document of our modern social security state made suggestions aimed at eradicating the five “giant evils”. One such evil was “disease”, yet today air pollution blights our neighbourhoods, as it did when Clement Attlee’s government enacted the recommendations of William Beveridge. In the 75th anniversary year of the election of the 1945 government, elected figures will be compelled by the injustice of air pollution to clean up our dirty air.

Cllr Tom Hayes, Oxford City Council Deputy Leader and Green Transport and Zero Carbon Oxford Cabinet Member

Find out more about Oxford City Council’s draft Air Quality Action Plan.

Why adopting WHO standards could be an unmissable opportunity for the government

Why adopting WHO standards could be an unmissable opportunity for the government

Ahead of Clean Air Day on 8 October, UK100’s Jonny Wilkinson spoke with Councillor Adam Harrison, the Labour ward councillor for Bloomsbury and Cabinet Member for a Sustainable Camden, about the council’s air quality ambitions.

Cleaning up Camden’s air was a lively issue in the borough when Councillor Adam Harrison took up the brief in November 2017. Residents and community groups were keen to help the council do something about it while asking it to take action.

Getting up to speed on the issue, the Camden cabinet member was alarmed to learn the pollutant fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is damaging to health at any level – there is no safe limit for it in our air.

Hearing this helped to convince him that adopting the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s stringent air quality standards – stricter than the EU’s – was the only way to go for Camden. 

And he believes that if the government were to follow Camden’s lead, it would be an unmissable opportunity to demonstrate serious leadership.

With a King’s College London study finding that Camden’s plans for cleaner air were achievable, the borough is now aiming to achieve WHO standards by 2030.

Councillor Harrison said: “The government says they want to be more ambitious than the EU and take up the purported freedoms that Brexit brings. So they should put their money where their mouth is and establish something more ambitious than the EU.

“It’s a no-brainer, given that we want to be doing all we can to keep people healthy and for them not to suffer the many conditions air pollution worsens or creates. 

“The way we have to live – travel and the houses and buildings we live and work in – all has to change. There’s lots of opportunity for investment in retrofit and new infrastructure, and it’s great for our health.

“This all fits together in a way that should appeal across political parties. That’s why I think if the government adopted WHO standards it would be something quite symbolic and, with the weight of law behind it, would be an important part of solving the puzzle of how we cut air pollution.

“The whole process of Camden adopting WHO standards and the King’s College London study that we commissioned to map our path to those standards, has meant that there’s a lot of organisational focus inside the council on implementing the plan.”

Camden Council says that many measures that could improve air quality in the borough are outside its control, like limiting the use of wood burners and fireplaces. As much as 38% of UK primary PM emissions come from burning wood and coal in domestic open fires and solid fuel stoves [source: Camden Clean Air Action Plan].

Part of Camden’s Clean Air Action Plan 2019-2022 is to use its influence to lobby those with responsibility for these measures to implement policies that reduce pollution levels.

Councillor Harrison said: “I think that is something we’ll need to have a big conversation about. It seems like there isn’t even yet a public understanding that burning wood is bad for you and bad for air pollution because at the moment it’s extremely popular.”

For other councils looking at their air quality strategies, the Labour councillor recommends getting into the details of where their air pollution comes from, who’s responsible for it, and then trying to bring people together.

He said: “We can’t do it all on our own and we shouldn’t try to because we’re not the sole creators of air pollution by any stretch. It needs to be a joint effort.

“Ultimately it’s about showing what you’re trying to achieve: cleaner air, healthier travel, more equal streets, quieter streets. You need to paint a picture of what streets could look like.

“People often treat streets in public places as if they’re immutable, which is odd because they’re so dynamic. Streets change all the time. So when you try and change the street, it can be very controversial.

“But equally once you do change a street, if you’ve done it for the right reasons, people often like it and get used to it quite quickly.”

Jonny Wilkinson, UK100 Senior Communications Officer

Click here to find out more about Camden’s air quality ambitions.

Local Government: a breath of fresh air for public health and wealth, by Geraint Davies MP

Local Government: a breath of fresh air for public health and wealth, by Geraint Davies MP

Coronavirus has made people stop and think about public health like they have never done before, which has galvanised the campaign for Clean Air.

People have enjoyed cleaner air during lockdown. They have recognised the flourishing of nature, appreciated the reduced noise pollution and they have, in part, enjoyed the flexibility that remote working has brought to their lives.

These things should be safe-guarded and encouraged in a new normal and local authorities, with the right support, can use this time to deliver these changes as part of a localised response to coronavirus.

Evidence from universities around the world link air pollution with increased infection and deaths, which means it affects prevalence and should therefore be read alongside R value for avoiding a second peak.

A report published by a cross-party group of MPs that I chair, sets out a series of cross-department and multi-governmental proposals, supported by 90 parliamentarians, to keep air pollution low.

The proposals, based on evidence from scientists, businesses and local authorities include the continuation of home working, the phasing out of wood and coal burning in homes, a scrappage scheme for dirty vehicles, and changes to the Environment Bill which include Air Pollution targets and incorporates indoor air quality so harmful domestic chemicals are banned and planning regulation improved.

Most significantly for local authorities it calls for the roll-out of clean air zones, increased cycle lanes and more frequent public transport services – which will of course need the right central government support.

Having been the Leader of Croydon I oversaw the introduction of the UK’s busiest tram system – a public-private £200m 26km electrified orbital link between Wimbledon, Croydon and Beckenham. I believe similar schemes should be supported across the UK.

Greener planning and building regulations can bring in-built power generation, insulation and ventilation, less need to travel and more public transport with local government procurement boosting demand for electric vehicles on an upgraded charging grid.

These changes will revolutionise public spaces and give a much-needed boost to local economies by increasing footfall.

Further, it will encourage the UK to develop a greener and cleaner infrastructure, which can create jobs and establish a new industry and expertise that can boost our exports.

Polls shows that public support for cleaner air is at an all-time high and people are prepared and willing to change their lifestyles to achieve it. Some businesses, too, have been early to adopt flexible working and encourage public transport usage ahead of the coronavirus hitting, and many more have been forced to follow.

Likewise, local authorities have been proactive responding to air quality and have an opportunity to be more ambitious than ever before, if given the correct support.

Through a local approach people will be empowered to make the changes that will allow them to lead healthier lifestyles, during the next year or so where the threat of Coronavirus lingers and beyond.

Now, the government must embrace the opportunities of the next few months to ensure a green recovery that build Britain back cleaner and greener than ever before.

As ever, local approaches will be different and should be flexible– but they must be unified in their desire to improve air quality, and with-it public health.

 

Geraint Davies, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution

 

To feed into the APPG’s work, join the mailing list or to have the council become an associate member email Geraint.Davies.mp@parliament.uk

 

Herne Bay’s groundbreaking green hydrogen plant, by Cllr. Dan Watkins

Earlier this month planning permission was given by Canterbury City Council for the construction of the UK’s first green hydrogen plant in the UK. I was heavily involved with this process as the plant will be located in my own ward, and perhaps inevitably with such a new technology, local residents had a number of safety concerns about it.

Operated by Ryse Hydrogen, and located on Council land on the edge of Herne Bay, the hydrogen produced will be 100% ‘green’, having been created using renewable energy from the nearby Kentish Flats offshore wind farm. The first customer for the fuel will be a new fleet of hydrogen-powered London buses, which will be emission-free since the gas produces no carbon emissions when burnt.

As such, this project plant will support the Council’s ambitious targets to reach carbon net-zero, with capacity to produce enough hydrogen fuel to power 300 buses (in place of highly polluting diesel). Only a small fraction of the full capacity of the proposed plant is committed to support Transport for London, with the developer intending to supply hydrogen to bus operators in Kent in future, reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality in the county. This is a major issue locally as locations in Herne and Canterbury regularly see pollution from petrol and diesel vehicles running at a dangerous level and contributing to respiratory illnesses and deaths. Hydrogen fuel offers a solution to this public health risk.

Going forward, the hydrogen from the Ryse plant could also be used to replace diesel in other heavy vehicles, such as trucks and refuse collection vehicles. Longer-term it could also replace the burning of natural gas for the heating of homes and offices, with such trials now underway in the UK. Hydrogen is a very flexible fuel and replaces carbon emissions from the sectors where fossil fuels are most ingrained.

Some local residents had expressed concerns in the planning consultation relating to the safety of the plant. Ryse had assured local residents that their plant will use modern equipment with industry-leading safety standards, but nonetheless, I was involved in many conversations with local residents talking about the project, its benefits and the degree of risk it represented. Ultimately I was reassured by the fact that the global hydrogen industry is already huge, valued at $125 billion, and the company supplying the equipment for this plant has over 3,000 sites across the world.

Once constructed, the manufacturing plant will be the first of its kind in Britain and position Herne Bay at the forefront of the green economy, bringing employment and environmental benefits to our community. I hope that by having championed this first factory, it will be easier for other developers and councils to bring forward their own plans for similar hydrogen projects in their areas.

Dan Watkins is the Climate Change Champion for Canterbury City Council and the Councillor for Greenhill Ward. Canterbury City Council is a founder member of the UK100 Countryside Climate Network.

Lambeth’s response to COVID-19, By Cllr. Claire Holland

Lambeth’s response to COVID-19, By Cllr. Claire Holland

It’s already become somewhat of a cliché to talk about not going back to the pre-COVID-19 world and to harness what positive changes we can to address the inequalities that existed in our world before. Not least to address the causes and unequal impact of the climate crisis, and of one of the biggest emitters – the way we move around our streets.

Yet councils like ours in Lambeth, dealing on the ground with the scale of challenge and re-thinking required by this crisis, cannot wait for clarity or funding for active travel initiatives from government. As local authorities, we are stepping up and delivering for our communities.

Already in this crisis, councils have picked up the slack – keeping essential services going, delivering food parcels for vulnerable people, filling the PPE gap left by government and supporting communities to get each other through these difficult times. In Lambeth, this has meant setting up and delivering by cargo bike food and care packages to over 8,000 people in weeks.

Reshaping our neighbourhoods

Once we had got the initial food and care response off the ground and our business support package up and running, the imperative switched to looking at designing our neighbourhoods so people can move around safely, reducing road danger and the risk of COVID-19 transmission. We know that without bold intervention, as restrictions ease, we will be seeing a catastrophic rush to motor vehicles as people stay away from public transport.

People in Lambeth are using their neighbourhoods differently in response to government regulations and health advice. Whilst we might have seen fewer cars on our streets, they were much more dangerous due to rampant speeding. The Met Police have published statistics showing compared with the same week last year, speeding offences are up by 300% this year.

In Lambeth, over 70% of our households live in flats and the majority do not own a car. What this means is that most of our residents have no outside space and are increasingly are  trying to enjoy the public space available in their local neighbourhood on roads that are totally dominated by non-local, rat-running traffic, that is going dangerously fast. This is manifestly unfair and impacts our more deprived communities disproportionately.

Our Emergency Transport Strategy

That’s why last week we were the first council in the country to launch an emergency transport plan in response to COVID-19. It aims to tackle the crisis in stages by temporarily widening pavements to enable social distancing and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission; build safe routes for our key workers to cycle to Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital for example; make interventions in our local neighbourhoods so that we filter miles of rat-running traffic and allow local residents to use and enjoy their streets free from increased risk of danger; and construct safe routes to and from our town centres, connecting them with our residential areas so that as social distancing stays with us into the future, we are able safely to access employment and support our fantastic local businesses.

Our plan is informed by, and builds on, the ambitions we set out in our Transport Strategy last year – to create Healthy Routes (safe routes for walking and cycling) and cover Lambeth in low traffic neighbourhoods. Through the strategy, and with the projects we had been working on with TfL, such as the Brixton Liveable Neighbourhood, we are building a borough where walking and cycling becomes the mode of choice for everyone.  It is rooted in what we already know and had planned to deliver in Lambeth, but we are now doing so as an emergency because we urgently need to protect people from an explosion in motor vehicle use and the multitude of negative effects that will come along with that.

But what about the finances?

It is true local authorities face massive financial challenges, following a decade of austerity where in Lambeth, for example, we have had 56% cut in our budget from central government. The government said that we must do whatever it takes to protect residents and businesses and not to put off decisions because of money. However, the government has committed to funding less than half of the tens of millions Covid-19 is costing Lambeth. And we are yet to be guaranteed funding by government to act to protect our residents on transport. We will continue to lobby to ensure they stat true to their word. Because we agree, the approach should be whatever it takes.

But we can’t wait for that conversation with central government to play out – we must take action now. The risk of doing nothing is too great. If we don’t act, we could be left with gridlocked main roads and residential streets clogged up by rat-running traffic- creating an environment where people – particularly children and older citizens – are unable to move around their local area safely,  breathing in that toxic air.

Looking to the future 

In Lambeth, we are working with our residents and fantastic campaign groups who are sick of their roads not being safe when walking or cycling and of pollution marring their children’s walk to school. But whilst they have shown huge support for action we have taken, they rightly want us to go much further and to create significant and long-lasting changes to our environment.

And our ambition is to meet this challenge.  For us in Lambeth, we do not consider it is an option to replace one health crisis with another. The climate crisis has not gone away just because the air waves have been full of talk of the Covid-19 crisis.  We pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030 and a safe and clean transport system is key to delivering that. Whilst these problems may be national and international, the solutions are indeed local.

 

WANDSWORTH CHARGES UP THE BOROUGH, by Cllr Jonathan Cook

WANDSWORTH CHARGES UP THE BOROUGH, by Cllr Jonathan Cook

In 2018, I took charge of the electric vehicle (EV) charging points strategy to promote EV ownership in a bid to reduce our carbon emissions in the borough and prepare for the approaching future of an electrically charged Wandsworth. Fast forward to 2020 and Wandsworth Council has not only announced a climate emergency, but it has a Climate Change Action Plan to back it up with plenty more EV charging points in tow.

Improving air quality was a major theme of the action plan. A key action from the council to meet this challenge is to build on our extensive EV charging network and increase our charging points to nearly 700.

The commitment is a huge step forward in our roadmap to becoming carbon neutral by 2030 and zero carbon by 2050 and EV ownership is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions from traffic and as a bonus, its effect is immediate.

Already, many of our residents have embraced this new technology.  Up to December 2019 we received more than 1,000 requests from residents for more EV charging points. This level of requests proves that there is a high demand for EVs. According to TFL, EV ownership in London is set to increase seven-fold over the next ten years and Wandsworth is keen to get behind this transition and support the community going green.

Electric cars will be critical to the future of our nation if we want to reach our carbon emissions goals committed to in the Paris agreement. One of the major challenges of switching to an EV is the up-front costs of purchasing. While the costs of EVs are falling as the market responds to consumer demands, governments at all levels still need to find ways to make EVs accessible to residents. One of the ways we can do this is car clubs.

Car clubs are an initiative that the council has invested in heavily, to the tune of £3 million, and as a result Wandsworth has a thriving car club membership of nearly 30,000 – the largest in the country. Car clubs allow owners to hire an EV by the hour, day or week and reduces 13 private cars per club. The popularity of the car clubs is largely because they help people avoid the heavy costs around car ownership and the prevalent issue of space for parking in London. The response from the car clubs has been immensely positive and we’re looking at ways to build on the initiative.

Our Climate Change Action Plan emphasised the need for community engagement and involvement. While the council is dedicated to making changes and future-proofing our borough we acknowledge there needs to be significant collaboration and buy-in from the community to see a real impact.

Among the noteworthy actions from the plan was a pledge to spend £5 million on climate change initiatives that support the council environment and sustainability strategy, significantly increasing our tree planting program, supporting cycling infrastructure and availability of e-bikes as well, of course, increasing the borough’s EV charging network. I’m also delighted to say that council recently announced that it will be committing £20 million overall to the climate change agenda. This will continue to remain a top priority for us.