Councillor Waseem Zaffar, Cabinet Member for Transport and Environment at Birmingham City Council, reflects on the work the authority is doing to tackle a national public health crisis on a local level
Turn on the tap at home or in your workplace and you can be sure that what comes out will be safe to drink. We take clean drinking water for granted – though so many others around the world can’t -because we view it as a basic human right rather than a privilege.
The same should apply to clean air. We’d never allow our children to drink dirty water, yet we let them breathe poisonous air every day.
Air pollution is a major public health crisis that affects us all. People are dying. That is no exaggeration. In Birmingham alone, up to 900 premature deaths each year can be at least partly attributed to man-made pollution. It is linked to heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, cancer and dementia, as well as still births, infant deaths, low birth weight and organ damage. Children living in high pollution areas are four times more likely to have reduced lung function when they become adults.
For years, our scientists have studied this crisis while our politicians did nothing about it. Well now we are. We’re working on a range of measures, the most visible – and controversial – of which will be the introduction of a Clean Air Zone in our city centre. From January 2020, vehicles whose engines do not meet nationally set emissions standards will have to pay a charge if they wish to enter the Clean Air Zone. The idea is to discourage the most polluting vehicles from entering the Clean Air Zone in the first place, not to generate income. If someone is driving a cleaner vehicle, then they will not have to pay; and if they have a non-compliant vehicle then we hope they will consider walking, cycling or using public transport instead.
We know this will be a big change for some people. But it’s a big problem. And you don’t solve big problems without challenging yourself.
We have engaged extensively with people affected, both through a major public consultation last summer and a series of engagement events. We listened to what people told us and in response put together a range of mitigations and exemptions designed to help them make the switch to cleaner, more sustainable transport. And we’re going to keep listening and reflecting what people tell us. These are national air quality laws that as a community we have to comply with. On an individual level, we want to make that as easy as possible.
A common misconception – encouraged by our political opponents – is to see the Clean Air Zone as a congestion charge. It is nothing of the sort. Only the most polluting vehicles will be charged. It’s about getting the dirtiest vehicles out of our city’s central zone so that people aren’t choked by their fumes. Nothing more nor less than that.