Marvin Rees’ announcement this week that there is a ‘timeline’ for producing a Clean Air Plan is too little, too late.
Photo: Colin Moody
Let’s face facts: Bristol’s current leaders have now spent years failing to deal with the air pollution emergency the city is facing. Toxic air impacts all of us, and yet our politicians get away with offering us nothing but empty words and endless excuses. Once again, Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees has effectively just kicked the can down the road on the issue, with no meaningful action being taken on air pollution until at least 2020. By then, hundreds more people in Bristol will have lost their lives to a problem we already know the solution to.
The more we find out about the dangers air pollution poses to our health, the more worried we should be. Experts say air pollution caused by motor vehicles is behind almost one in ten deaths, killing hundreds of people every year in Bristol alone. Our children’s lungs are not developing fully as a result of dirty air they are breathing. Researchers have now linked the toxic air to heart disease, asthma, strokes, lung cancer and even dementia.
The causes of dangerous air pollution are well known: first and foremost vehicle emissions, especially diesel vehicles. Researchers from ClairCity found that 40% of nitrogen dioxide emissions (the toxic airborne compound linked to respiratory illnesses) comes from diesel cars in the city centre, with larger vehicles like vans, coaches and lorries causing much of the remaining 60% of the emissions.
With all this becoming a serious concern to families in Bristol and across the country, you would think our politicians would be working hard to introduce solutions to keep us safe. That’s how society (eventually) responded when the dangers of smoking and drinking became better understood. What has been shocking to me is seeing politicians actively work against necessary solutions because they believe it will increase their vote share.
Our political leaders, and well as decision-makers employed by the council and transport authorities, are clearly afraid to take any action which risks upsetting drivers. As Marvin Rees declared in his Mayoral Address last October, “We will not repeat the errors of recent years in pretending that cars will disappear if we make life difficult for car drivers.” They expect us to just accept living with dangerous and illegal levels of air pollution. It has to stop.
Bristol will be stuck with dangerous air pollution until the number of vehicle journeys in our city starts going down. This is a fact, although one which might be hard to swallow. Anyone who claims otherwise is not telling the truth, or has an exaggerated belief in unproven technological fixes. Cars are used for almost half of journeys under 2 km in Bristol, which is walking distance for most of us. Since 2001, the number of cars and vans owned in the city has almost doubled to 309,762. But authorities in Bristol haven’t even come up with a goal for reducing the number of car journeys for the short or medium term, or even that they need to set any such goal.
Other cities around the country have taken steps to protect people from toxic air. Edinburgh, Birmingham and London are introducing car-free zones where the problem is worst and victims the most vulnerable: outside schools. Automatic number-plate recognition is used to issue fines to drivers. Financial penalties are one of the few effective ways to get people to change behaviour. Plans to restrict the most polluting vehicles have long been discussed for the most polluted parts of Bristol, but these have been pushed back and watered down by the current council leadership again and again, to the point where Bristol is facing legal action from the government for failing to act on the public health emergency that air pollution represents.
Now is the time for change
Transport is a social justice issue. It’s people in some of the poorest Bristol wards who pay the price for bad transport policies, and unfairly, who also have to live with the highest levels of congestion and toxic air. But this latest announcement from Marvin Rees appears to make it clear that private cars, even the most polluting kind, won’t be included in any new restrictions aimed at improving air quality., The Mayor, backed by his notably car-friendly advisor Kevin Slocombe, claims that measures to reduce vehicle journeys would impact negatively on the poorest in the city.
Well, low-income households in Bristol actually suffer a huge economic disadvantage when they are forced into car ownership. Estimates show that running a car costs on average more than £200,000 over a lifetime. That’s more than enough to pay off most people’s mortgages. Far too many households find themselves running one, two or even three cars because public transport, walking or cycling aren’t real options for the most part, as they would be in for example London.
Sometimes there is no getting around the fact that the solution to a problem is political. Air pollution is that kind of problem. I am appalled that the current Bristol administration have put electoral calculations over public health concerns, by resisting measures to get polluting vehicles off our streets. They are only now presenting what is in effect a ‘plan for a plan’, and are once again asking the people of Bristol to trust them that there won’t be further delays after that. After three years in charge, Marvin Rees has shown he’s not prepared to step up and show real leadership on this critical issue. Every single member of Bristol Labour should reflect very seriously on the situation before they throw their weight behind a potential re-election campaign for Marvin Rees.
In next year’s elections, I will give my support to whichever party or candidate is proposing the most ambitious short-term measures to solve the air pollution emergency. I hope political parties from across the spectrum will come together to deal with the problem properly instead of competing over who can dodge it long enough, or taking shots at any elected representative brave enough to introduce solutions which might be unpopular with drivers.
Children are suffering and people are dying, for no good reason. The time for talk is over, now we need action.
Seth Piper is a transport and sustainability campaigner.