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The Bristol Cable

Bristol’s invisible killer


What kills twenty times more people than road traffic collisions, and is second only to smoking as a cause of death?

Air pollution.

Photo: Alon Aviram

A failure to tackle levels of air pollution in Bristol – which are in breach of EU law – has been implicated in at least 5.9% of the deaths which occur in the city every year. According to a 2014 report commissioned by the council, 188 people died from particulate pollution in 2010, as well as 52 additional hospital admissions for breathing difficulties and 42 for heart problems. Yet, in comparison to car accidents or smoking, it is a threat which receives little publicity.

The council are clearly aware of how important the issue of air pollution is. Along with the 2014 report, across the city monitoring stations provide real time data on pollution levels. The frequent traffic gridlocks in the city are hard to ignore for the public too, although the link to serious health implications isn’t widely known.

“I am not sure how many members of the public would be aware [of the connection],” says Dr Jo Barnes, a research fellow in Air Quality Management based at University of the West of England, “In short, no, I don’t think that Bristol City Council are doing enough to specifically highlight the public health threat of air pollution amongst the public.”

Action at the local level

At the close of last year, central government got involved in the issue when Defra announced they planned to improve air quality by introducing ‘Clean Air Zones’ in five cities; Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Southampton and Nottingham. Other cities, such as Bristol, have been excluded from these plans on the grounds that modelling shows their pollution limits should comply with EU law by 2020. An environmental law firm, Client Earth, are currently challenging Defra on both the way they have carried out this modelling and on the assumption we should wait until 2020 to breathe fresh air.

Mayor Ferguson promised at the beginning of 2015 that the Green Capital year would serve as a stir to action. There was a promising start. During the handover from Copenhagen, the previous title holder, Bristol hosted an Air Quality ‘master class’ looking at best practice in tackling the issue.

Although valuable in raising awareness and bringing people together for discussion, some people, including Dr Barnes, have questioned how much actual change in air quality has occurred during the year.

One tangible output of the Green Capital year is that First Bus, a major sponsor of the year, are investing £13 million in purchasing 59 buses with ‘Euro 6’ engines which are 14 times cleaner than those they are replacing.

Just earlier this month at the full council budget meeting, a Green party amendment, backed by Lib Dems, to the Council budget to fund a Clean Air Zone in Bristol was voted down by the Labour and Conservative groups.

A technological approach?

The award also helped the city to attract funding, including £1.4m to test hybrid electric buses. At the end of January 2016 two buses fitted with cutting edge ‘geofencing’ technology were introduced to the 72 bus route. This allows the buses to switch from running on diesel to running on electricity when driving through more polluted regions of town. In less polluted zones a diesel engine is used, which also recharges the battery.  This is a start, but with 2,661 buses and coaches registered in the city, there is an awfully long way to go.

At the end of January it was also announced Bristol had won £7 million from the Department for Transport to promote uptake of electric vehicles. A move towards fewer exhaust pipes on Bristol’s roads is undoubtedly worth trying.

However the allocation of this funding – to provide free residential parking for electric vehicles and to allow access to specific carpool lanes – is controversial. Free parking for the owners of cars which generally retail at prices of £8,000 higher than petrol or diesel cars, seems very much like a rich man’s luxury.

“With hundreds of people dying every year, decisive action is critical.”

One of the most popular ideas for tackling the air quality issue is the establishment of a Low Emissions Zone (LEZ), similar to that in London. LEZs discourage users of the most polluting vehicles from travelling through the city centre by charging them. The Old City part of the city centre is the first zone the council has earmarked for an LEZ, the exact mechanism of which would be up for consideration.

A spokesperson for the council commented that, “Implementation of a CAZ (Clean Air Zone) in Bristol may go some way to improving air quality, however, the impact will be dependent upon the scope of vehicles covered by a CAZ and the future effectiveness of Euro emission standards, particularly in relation to diesel passenger vehicles.”

Barnes believes that only a “Zero Emission Zone” would really be effective and send the right message about the city’s ambitions. Discussions around low emissions zones have been going on in Bristol for many years now but with hundreds of people dying each year, decisive action is critical.

Other measures aimed at dealing with the city’s congestion and pollution, such as Resident Parking Zones, have provoked public backlash. If the Mayor wants to avoid the same for a low emission zone, sending a clear message of what’s at stake if we don’t act is crucial.


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Report a comment. Comments are moderated according to our Comment Policy.

  • I’m surprise there is no mention of the RPZ in this article as it’s one of his main selling point.


    • RPZ forces more cars into the centre. People used to park in the suburbs and walk in. Now they drive in and park in the centre as they have little option.

      Bristol has totally failed to produce a public transport system to replace the trams it ripped out.


  • So now we know: the tories and labour care more about drivers’ rights than they do about people’s lives. Just how did we end up with such utterly miserable politicians, who don’t care about the lives of their constituents?


  • I understand the seriousness of air quality, but I don’t understand how RPZ’s improve air quality, I’ve not noticed a reduction in car numbers


  • “Just earlier this month at the full council budget meeting, a Green party amendment, backed by Lib Dems, to the Council budget to fund a Clean Air Zone in Bristol was voted down by the Labour and Conservative group.”

    This text was added in at the request of the local Green Party leader on Twitter. However, it is a misleading account of what the Green party was proposing. The actual amendment is on page 131 of this document – It shows that what the green party wanted was not the creatio of a clear air zone. In fact they wanted the council to spend £50,000 on consultants in investigater the matter. The other councillorsd argued that this was unnecessary as the research already existed.

    This is a classic example of politicians sayinmg they are doing one thing but actually seeking another. Very poor by Bristol Cable to be taken in by this. Very poor by the Green party to be playing such old fashoined political games.


  • I live right by the m32. My child has asthma. This is too high a price to pay for people to have ‘convenience’. Close the thing down!


  • I also live near the M32, on Park Road which is currently in gridlock during commute times. Colstons school, UWE and business at Filton could help find ways to reduce car-use that would be particularly important to their neighbours, like myself, living in a area of higher air pollution. I am fortunate/ canny enough to live in walking/ cycling distance from work and from my course and I choose not to drive. This area being mapped as poorer air quality seems to have prompted nothing to be done to ameliorate the situation. The local Metrobus works have only lessened air quality locally. It would be great to see more cyclists and walkers, engines switched off when idling, a more reliable bus service that can be trusted to get people to work on time, more local jobs, better local schools, more trees etc etc.


  • The answer’s so obvious. The situation you’re facing is almost exactly the same as what London faced before it introduced a city-wide congestion zone. Do this in Bristol and pollution levels in the city will more than half. It won’t tackle the problem completely, but it’s a damn sight better than any of the other proposals! Plus it’s cheaper and could essentially cover its costs through charges in the long-term. Bristol is looking mega-stupid for not implementing such a scheme.


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