Dirty air isn’t just a London problem

Following yesterday’s Clean Air Summit in London, which brought together city leaders from a number of major urban areas in England and Wales, Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council and co-chair of the UK100 calls for joined-up national and local measures to address air pollution.

Yesterday local authority leaders and mayors from across the country gathered in London for the National Clean Air Summit – to call on the government to develop joined-up actions that will tackle air pollution on a country-wide and regional level.

Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council

The likes of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram, Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street and Mayor of Sheffield City Region Dan Jarvis were at the event, along with leaders or representatives of cities such as Birmingham, Bradford, Leicester and Southampton.

My own Deputy James Lewis represented Leeds and it was a chance for all of those gathered around the table to share our ideas and vision for how pollution can be tackled in our towns, cities and beyond. A key focus was linking the action required by the Government on the issue to local air quality plans and proposals, to ensure the best way forward for all cities.

Air pollution is now the largest environmental risk linked to deaths in the UK, with around 40,000 deaths linked to exposure to air pollution every year. Council leaders are therefore working hard to get the right solutions in place to improve the quality of the air our residents breathe.

We already know from our experiences in Leeds how local action on the ground by the council, businesses and residents can make a huge difference to the problem.

As co-chair of UK100, I know many of the network’s 89 members, especially those that break legal limits, are taking their own innovative and distinct local actions to curb air pollution and reduce the health risks for those living and working in the area.

In common with other leaders and mayors, we know our city, our businesses and our people; we also know how our city works and what doesn’t work because we live and breathe it every day and this is crucial in the fight.

It is true that each town and city across the UK will have its own challenges and huge potential. But it is our unique local knowledge and partnerships that will help deliver the best possible outcomes in the battle against air pollution.

National measures that create consistency for consumers and business are also essential if we are to shift away from polluting ways of moving around. That is why we are calling for a diesel scrappage scheme to help small business and the poorest make the switch – and also for a Clean Air Act that holds government to account if policy fails.

We also see the risk of losing out on an economic opportunity. Globally, people are moving away from polluting fuels. Our car, truck and bus manufacturers can be at the cutting edge of new Electric Vehicle technology.

Strategy

To enable this, the government needs to ensure the industrial strategy complements local proposals and provides the right support for industries to make the move to cleaner and greener alternatives.

Without corresponding action from central government, such as increasing capacity of markets to deliver electric vehicles, local action alone will be insufficient to deliver the required results in the timescales that have been set for us.

Events such as yesterday’s Summit ensure we can all benefit from each other’s successes and failures. The UK100 network unites many local leaders and mayors across the country, each committed to transitioning to clean energy, and it provides a collective position from which we are able to negotiate with government and business.

That will become clear from the asks we agree to deliver to national government. As a network, we can pool knowledge and jointly lobby for important decisions.

We are not alone in Leeds in seeing budgets being squeezed year-on-year. We don’t have the finance available to present a full and rounded solution and are reliant on the Government providing further finance to make all of our plans a reality.

We know however that businesses are willing to work with us if we are able to help and guide them to new ways of reducing pollution in the city to make it a viable and economically sound proposal.

City leaders pictured at the Clean Air Summit in London yesterday

In Leeds we are already involved with exciting and innovative trials such as Project ACCRA – assessing the operational ability of hybrid vehicles to automatically switch to zero emission mode when they are in an area of poor air quality. Leeds City Council also has more low emissions vehicles than any other local authority in England and the council has already committed to procure a further 200 electric vans by 2020.

In late 2017, we created the Clean Air Leeds brand to encompass all the work the local authority is undertaking around air quality and within this we have launched the first behavioural change campaign in 2018 asking everyone in the city to reduce their car mileage by just five miles a week.

Having heard vivid testimony from doctors at the local hospital about the impact of air pollution, which demonstrates a clear link between air quality and admissions to hospital, we understand the huge importance of tackling the issue head on.

Working together as a city – each and every person that works, commutes, or lives here – makes the difference when it comes to cleaning the air in Leeds.

Local initiatives

These successful local efforts then sit best within a clear national framework to raise public awareness, set long-term goals for improved air quality, influence the delivery of cleaner vehicle manufacturing and to incentivise cleaner vehicles and financing the transition costs.

As I have mentioned, the success of Air Quality initiatives and Clean Air Zones will cannot depend upon local action alone and we must see corresponding national measures put in place in order to succeed. These should include national policy around intercity charging that would see vehicles only charged once per day regardless of the number of Clean Air Zones that were entered, and a national database of taxi and private hire drivers.

For long-term success in improving our air quality and the lives of our residents, we need the budget to be devolved to a local or regional level to better facilitate action in this area.

From the summit we will look to gather insight and share knowledge of the work that is happening across cities in the UK around improving air pollution.

Importantly, we also look at our key asks of government, including the national policy measures mentioned, and the level of resource that will be required to ensure local air quality proposals can be successfully put in place.