Southampton and Portsmouth in race to clean up the air

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Air quality has become a buzz word in local government, and for very good reason. Earlier this month, the UN issued its sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6), urging the global community for ‘transformative change’ as air quality related premature deaths total 6 to 7 million annually worldwide. Air pollution has been a topic of increasing concern around the world. The UK Government has responded, launching the £220m Clean Air Fund last year, which provides funding to initiatives taken forward by local authorities. However, with Government being temporarily distracted by the B-word we will not utter here, it comes down to local government to take drastic action. On the south coast, pollution-hotspots Southampton and Portsmouth are taking meaningful steps to tackle the issue, with a strong focus on reducing the pollution caused by city traffic.

Southampton City Council unanimously passed proposals for a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) in January 2019, following a public consultation triggering almost 10,000 responses, of which 56% supported the plans. However, the Council decided on a non-charging zone, as fears were expressed that charges of up to £100 per day for the most polluting vehicles would damage the local economy. The Council believes that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels can be brought down by a “refined set of freight, bus and taxi measures”. Southampton is one of five English cities preparing to introduce clean air zones by 2020; the others being Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham and Derby. This month the city council received £1.8m in government funding which will be used towards measures including low-emissions taxis, the introduction of further electric vehicle charging points and a free trial scheme for taxi operators to consider the benefits of electric vehicles.

Portsmouth City Council hit the news this week when their Leader, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, called on the Government to make significant funding available in order to allow the Council to take ‘radical measures’ in reducing air pollution. The request came following published results of air quality monitoring in the city, which showed significantly increased levels of NO2 since measuring began in May last year. The Council is looking to avoid the introduction of a Clean Air Zone, as it fears costs associated for local residents and businesses. By October the Council will need to demonstrate to Government that it can reduce air pollution without the introduction of a CAZ. Proposals include free bus passes for all, valid year-round, to get people out of their cars; a fully electric fleet of taxis and trams; electric vehicles to deliver cargo transported to the city by lorries, and a trolley bus system.

In his letter to Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Cllr Vernon-Jackson said: ‘The areas I would ask for your help with may be expensive but I would hope that the government would look to fund these to be able to get the dramatic reduction in air pollution that the ministerial directive expects.’

Air quality is clearly another key issue that local government are taking the lead on, demonstrating the importance of councils in everyday life. We will have to hold our breath and see if actions match words and changes lead to results – although for the present moment, hopefully our Southampton team don’t breathe in too deeply!

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