Blog : local leaders

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.

Why cities and city regions need a resilient recovery

Why cities and city regions need a resilient recovery

As we publish our Resilient Recovery Declaration and research on the retrofit army needed to reach Net Zero, Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees talks about the need to build resilience into our cities. 

The last decade has seen extreme weather events causing disruption to our economy and loss of life. Last year saw four UK records broken – the highest recorded temperature of 38.7C, the warmest ever winter’s day, the highest December temperature and the mildest February night. We now face dealing with climate related events taking place at the same time as managing the ongoing pandemic. I am writing this at the end of a summer which has seen heatwaves, flooding and continuing outbreaks of Covid-19 across the UK. As we rebuild and reconceptualise our cities and their economies, we need reliable and dependable support from government for the green infrastructure which will help us meet these interlinked challenges.

Local leaders and mayors are used to dealing with and resolving multiple, interdependent challenges balancing prevention and crisis. This has been the case with the response to the generation defining issue of Covid-19, and the pressure it puts on our systems and services. We have been on the frontline of the response to the pandemic, working with public health professionals, business and community sector to shield and heal. We’ve demonstrated our role in responding quickly to the crisis through our strong communities and networks. Operating in the complex urban environment, we see up close and personal the consequences of decisions and policies.  

But we’ve also needed to protect the space needed to think not just about survival, but about the recovery and reinvention of our cities and towns. To plan and build the centres we need for an economy that has changed considerably. Changing the systems so that they are more resilient and behave in a way that doesn’t contribute to the likelihood of shocks. In Core Cities UK and the other city networks that Bristol is part of, clear demands and plans of action are forming.

We want more from the government’s economic planning so that in recovering from the primary risk in the National Risk Register – a pandemic – we also need a commitment to tackle the three climate related risks of the other top five at the same time. It is short-sighted not to, but will also bringing billions of pounds into the economy, harvesting the benefits of low carbon and making resilient places attractive to inward investment. 

A key aspect of infrastructure for future cities to resolve is the delivery of low carbon heat to its residents and businesses, which represents 45% of final UK energy demand. In Bristol we have been installing new heat networks for several years, with a particular focus on the city centre. Bristol’s heat network currently supplies over 1000 properties with low-carbon heat from a variety of sources across the city and continues to expand to new areas across the city. Heat networks can be integrated into wider city urban growth and regeneration plans, helping to address fuel poverty and environmental issues such as air quality.

Across the Core Cities network, we are playing our part to build climate-resilient cities. Each city’s approach is unique, but there are consistent threads running throughout:

  • building an evidence base to understand the risks of climate change
  • a leadership role in setting out the future path for a city, working with local and national partners
  • thematic work tackling specific climate-related risks such as flood risk management or urban heat risks
  • cross-cutting work addressing common aims like protecting vulnerable people, using nature to tackle climate threats or retrofitting buildings

 The UK100 Resilient Recovery Taskforce was established by a group of 24 mayors and local leaders, representing 24 million people across the country. We are calling on the government to commit to a ‘New Deal for Green Skills and Growth’, alongside a major push on infrastructure investment, public transport and retrofitting homes.

We know that cities, and their economies, must become more sustainable and inclusive.

Now is the time for government to lend backing and offer real partnership and investment to support what cities are already doing in response to Covid-19. By front loading the investment in the green infrastructure cities and towns across the country already have lined up, we can secure billions of pounds of investment in quality jobs and invaluable confidence to local partners and their supply chains.

This is what will help us deliver the vital green infrastructure we need to meet carbon neutrality targets and rebuild the economy in a way that avoids future climate shocks and includes people to give them hope and social justice.

Putting the rural voice into climate action

Putting the rural voice into climate action

David Cope, UK100’s Countryside Climate Network Coordinator, spoke at the Rural Service Network’s annual conference Revitalising Rural on Thursday. In this adaption of David’s talk, he spells out why we need to include the rural voice in climate action and highlights some informative examples of councils engaging residents. 

UK100 is the only network for local authority leaders with a focus on net zero. But until recently, our network was predominantly urban. We recognised that we needed to be more inclusive, to support rural authorities that had distinctive challenges and opportunities around climate action, and to ensure that the rural voice was incorporated into our national advocacy campaigns.

That was why we created the Countryside Climate Network. We currently have 23 members from across England, together covering over 40% of the country and making up 20% of UK100’s membership. 

So far, more than 280 local authorities have declared climate emergencies. The ones that are generally finding it easier to act are those that have more devolved power or funding. But others, including many counties, unitarities and districts, are also acting positively. 

This second group is able to do so because they have the political will, public support and determination. We think that building consent and support among local residents is crucial for the success of climate action – it is a key aspect of building the power to act.

Climate concern is high

National polling tells us that concern about climate change is high. Before the pandemic, YouGov polling showed us that a quarter of the public felt that the environment was one of the most important topics facing the country – behind Brexit and health – with 74% concerned about climate change.

The pandemic hasn’t changed this. YouGov reported in July that ‘COVID-19 has not kicked environmental issues into the long grass’, with a quarter of Brits still viewing the environment as one of the most important issues facing the UK.

In spite of these general statements, it is evident that this doesn’t make the implementation of climate friendly policies smooth or simple. The introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods and pop up cycle lanes as a policy response to the need for travel adaptations to Covid-19 have demonstrated that even with a groundswell of enthusiasm for action, this doesn’t mean that everyone has provided their consent and support.

And even though the UK government is changing its position on support for onshore windfarms, there is still nervousness about whether communities will support their development locally.

That’s why we advocate for a high degree of engagement between local politicians and a broad cross-section of the residents and businesses in their areas. Last month we held a webinar on ‘mini publics’ – citizen assemblies and citizen juries – to discuss the pros and cons about their use in building consent and support in local communities around climate action. 

On 10 September, Climate Assembly UK – more than 100 ordinary people representing the diversity of the British public, commissioned by the UK Parliament – presented its report. The Assembly members supported the swift implementation of a variety of policies that the BBC referred to as ‘radical’, including banning gas boilers, frequent flier taxes, swift transition to electric vehicles and reductions in meat and dairy in diets.

But vitally, Assembly members also identified that the policy changes could only happen if there was better education for all on climate action. They highlighted that fairness needed to be an underpinning principle of the transition, and individuals and local areas needed to have freedom of choice. 

To me this highlights that the public are potentially very ready for radical changes, as long as they are part of those changes and they are not imposed on them. The importance of local choice and local solutions stood out for me too. 

The importance of engaging residents in action

Local authorities are well versed in engaging their residents in decision-making. As ambitions around climate action increase, it is ever-more important to involve residents in a discussion about what is acceptable and desirable to them. Here are a few examples from members of our Countryside Climate Network.

In Herne Bay, on the Kent coast, part of Canterbury City Council, planning permission has recently been given for the UK’s first green hydrogen plant. Powered by electricity generated by an offshore windfarm, this plant will produce hydrogen for use by buses, initially in London, but once production increases and new bus fleets are fitted out, it will be used by hydrogen-powered buses in Canterbury too. 

Some local residents had objected to the development on safety grounds – hydrogen being potentially explosive. The Councillor for the ward, Dan Watkins, one of our Countryside Climate Network members, had many conversations with local residents to discuss safety concerns, explain the risk profile and the project’s benefits. This type of engagement is crucial in achieving climate action.

In Cornwall, another one of our members, they recognise that some climate actions could be detrimental to some residents. So they have committed to ensuring no Cornish resident is worse off as a result of climate action. They developed a decision-making ‘wheel’ that balances environmental ambitions with social needs. 

With use of this framework, they have decided to not install fossil fuel heating in any new council-developed housing, have invested in a bike and walking network of trails to link together housing and economic growth areas, and are using central government funding to reduce bus fares across Cornwall. 

And in Cambridgeshire, the county council is working on a project that will replace oil fired central heating with ground and air sourced heating in the entire village of Swaffham Prior. The scheme is being offered to the village, but whether or not residents buy into it is up to them. The project was inspired from community members and this local ownership has been instrumental in building the support for adoption. 

Upcoming research to better understand local views on climate action

For all these reasons, we are about to commission some research into the views of rural residents on specific climate actions – including around transport, heating, energy generation and land management to name a few. This research will dig into what it is about these specific actions that make them easy to commit to, or contentious.

By understanding these issues better, we will be better able to explore ways to engage a broad section of rural society. This will allow local politicians to frame discussions about specific climate actions, equipping them to build consent and support locally. Ultimately, by building this consent and support, their power to act will grow. 

David Cope, Countryside Climate Network Coordinator

If you’d like to join UK100’s Countryside Climate Network, please do get in touch with Coordinator David Cope.

A ‘One Nation’ approach to climate action

A ‘One Nation’ approach to climate action

Cllr Steve Count, Chairman of UK100’s Countryside Climate Network, responds to the One Nation Building Back Greener paper

As leader of Cambridgeshire County Council (CCC), and Chairman of UK100’s Countryside Climate Network, I welcome the ‘Building Back Greener’ policy recommendations published recently by One Nation Conservatives. Delivering net zero is a perfect example of a One Nation approach – it will benefit everyone today and in future generations. The recommendations their report included will address the challenge of delivering net zero carbon emissions through incentivising better low carbon choices and planning for nature-based solutions to capture and store carbon emissions.

My Council, similar to others, is signed up to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. We are working with businesses and our communities to deliver change. However, there is a delivery gap. For example, nationally we need to retrofit approximately one million homes a year for the next 30 years to take them off oil and gas for heating and hot water. But how can anyone believe that this can be achieved when other statistics highlight that only 172,000 new homes were built last year – do we have enough construction workers with the right skills to make change happen at this scale?

This low carbon construction skills and supply chain gap needs filling quickly, to address the need to scale up delivery of home retrofits. Additionally, and importantly, homeowners need to be incentivised to shift from oil and gas heating. In Cambridgeshire we are working with a rural community of 300 homes to move them off oil-fired central heating. However, there are currently few economic reasons why those householders should want to change to low carbon heating systems. Jerome Mayhew MP suggests a carbon tax will shift behaviour, drive demand from householders and encourage better environmental choice. I think it’s worth exploring whether a carbon tax could replace the VAT system over a period of time to achieve both behavioural change and keep costs neutral for the public.

Putting a value on carbon is important, whether real or just nominal. An initial nominal valuation will help improve environmental decision making within Cambridgeshire County Council. I am encouraging our business cases to include two prices – one which includes the costs of carbon emissions and one without. The test will be to review decisions to see if this results in us making better decisions towards achieving our ambition of net zero carbon emissions.

During 2019, researchers from Cambridge University quantified Cambridgeshire’s carbon footprint. Emission from homes, businesses, transport, waste, agriculture and land use change totalled 6.1 million tonnes CO2e in 2017, with a further 5.1 million tonnes CO2e estimated for agricultural peatland. As part of the research analysis, measures to deliver net zero carbon by 2050 were identified. Apart from all homes and buildings needing to be retrofitted with low carbon heat solutions, such as air source heat pumps, it was identified that a network of 3,500 EV chargers would be required, in addition to substantial increases to walking and cycling. A massive effort, but even this would not deliver zero carbon emissions. To reach net zero, carbon capture and storage will be required to remove the remaining 0.6 million tonnes CO2e every year for Cambridgeshire alone. For this reason, I welcome our South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne’s views on the publication of a Greenhouse Gas Removal Strategy that includes carbon capture and storage, tree planting and soil improvement.

The Countryside Climate Network (CCN100), comprises 23 rural authorities covering over 40% of land across England. Planting trees is something that local areas can plan and deliver with financial support (accepting some areas are more limited as to how and where trees can be planted). For example, CCC owns the largest county farms estate in England and works closely with its tenant farmers. I actively encourage our tenants to consider tree planting, use ploughing and other techniques to minimise emissions whilst also increasing soil quality and food productivity.

Initiatives for sharing best practice and nature-based solutions are also encouraged. Through our work with university researchers, I know there is an urgent need for a UK soil strategy – peatland emission calculations in Cambridgeshire are based on data that is over 40 years old and urgently need updating. This will allow us to plan how our peatland asset can be better utilised with regards to airborne carbon. Building investor confidence in nature-based solutions to carbon capture and storage must be supported as one of the overall solutions. I will be seeking environmental land management schemes, as set out in the Agriculture Bill, to invest in nature-based solutions to deliver results and proof of concept along with other local authorities in the CCN100.

The CCN100 is looking to work closely with government to support the UK to prepare as the host for the UN Climate Change conference, COP26, next year. This is our opportunity to showcase to the world progress and leadership.

If the key recommendations coming from the One Nation publication are taken up by the Government, my Council will be at the front of the queue to demonstrate how local climate action will make significant contributions to achieving our national net zero goal.

Cllr Steve Count, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council and Chairman of UK100’s Countryside Climate Network.

If you’d like to join UK100’s Countryside Climate Network, please do get in touch with Coordinator David Cope.

Launching UK100’s Resilient Recovery Taskforce, by Jason Torrance, UK100 Policy Director

Launching UK100’s Resilient Recovery Taskforce, by Jason Torrance, UK100 Policy Director

Early in July, a cross-party coalition of Mayors and council leaders came together as a Resilient Recovery Taskforce, with secretariat provided by UK100, to call on the Chancellor to commit to a ‘New Deal for Green Skills and Growth’ in his forthcoming Spending Review, expected in the Autumn. The opportunity for an economic recovery package that creates resilience in our communities and reduces carbon emissions is more possible now than it has ever been. However, success lies in a renewed partnership between UK Government and Local Governments that looks to the future and commits to large scale investment that reduces our climate emissions and builds back better.    


The social distancing and resulting lockdowns put in place to tackle COVID-19 is likely to cause the biggest drop in climate emissions ever recorded. Analysts estimate worldwide carbon pollution will plunge by more this year than the combined reductions seen during the global financial crisis, World War II and the Spanish flu. However, it is the actions that are taken as social distancing restrictions ease that will define our ability to tackle wider global challenges such as climate change and the need to build socially-just economic prosperity. Put simply, the opportunity to accelerate our efforts into developing a low carbon economy is now.


The COVID-19 crisis may of course only temporarily cut emissions. As shuttered factories begin to reopen, commuters get back into their cars and flights once again take to the air, little may have changed in the structure of the global economy – and progress towards net-zero will likely be as slow as ever and air pollution may return to city streets. Unless there are concerted efforts by governments, nationally and locally, to ensure this does not happen, our current global tragedy could sow the seeds for the next one. 


As we have seen with the global spread of COVID-19, no problem exists in isolation. While the UK was brought to a near standstill at the height of the lockdown, with road travel plummeting by as much as 73%, activity is now returning to near pre COVID-19 levels with car use now at 79% compared with before the COVID-19 outbreak, with vans and lorries at 92% and 97% respectively. 


With a COVID-19 vaccine seemingly some way off in the distance, it’s likely that there will continue to be a sharp rise in car travel over time at the expense of public transport so as to maintain social distancing. Now, more than ever, the need for UK Government increased investment in public transport is vital to keep services running.


For our wider economy, the post-pandemic outlook remains extremely uncertain, due to the unknown duration and severity of COVID-19 measures and doubts over the shape of the recovery. Analysis by the International Monetary Fund has resulted in them slashing their forecasts for global growth in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and warning of a slump in output this year unparalleled since the Great Depression of the 1930s. 


Towns and cities around the world are taking the lead in post-coronavirus planning, with a raft of environmental initiatives being rolled out in places from Bristol to Bogotá to ensure public safety and bolster the actions to tackle the climate emergency. Launching the newly formed Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, as part of the C40 group of cities, the mayor of Milan, said: “Our immediate priority is to protect the health of our residents and overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. However, we must also look towards how we will keep our people safe in the future. How we structure our recovery efforts will define our cities for decades to come.”


As the UK Government now begins to plot a course out of lockdown and towards a post COVID-19 new normal, the opportunity must be seized to protect jobs and safeguard the future while paying off debts created by emergency spending on the NHS and household incomes. This means re-evaluating infrastructure investments, such as the planned £28bn UK Government roads programme to ensure the country benefits from a jobs boom from initiatives such as: broadband, batteries, electric cars, home upgrades and infrastructure that enables walking and cycling.


Local leaders have played an essential role in tackling the COVID-19 crisis and they have an essential role in shaping what comes next. In fact, resilient recovery cannot be achieved without local leaders and the communities that they represent. Building back better requires a new dynamic partnership between the Government UK and local governments, a partnership that must be seized if we are to deliver Net Zero and renew our economy for the benefit of our environment, everyone and generations to come.  


Jason Torrance, Policy Director, UK100