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‘The new Bristol and WECA mayors will need to move fast to clean up Bristol’s air’

The need for steps to be taken on our dangerously polluted air is clear, but change is slow to come, writes clean air campaigner Katrina Billings.

Local Elections 2021

A chance meeting in the Guildhall, Bath, in March 2018 led to Christina Biggs (Tina) and I becoming founding members of the Bristol Clean Air Alliance (BCAA) while volunteering for different organisations. My concern about air pollution had been heightened by the awareness of its connection with asthma. At the time my young grandson, who has asthma, was living in one of the most polluted parts of the city. Tina, who has a young daughter, was also concerned about the effect of illegal levels of pollution. As a physics teacher, Tina was acutely aware of the connection between noxious gases and ill health. It wasn’t until we randomly met that we realised that we were both passionate about what was becoming the hot topic of air pollution in Bristol. 

“It’s ironic that we live in a city dominated by cars yet areas with the most chronic levels of air pollution are often where people are less well off and unable to afford a car.”

In early 2018, Bristol Friends of the Earth (BFOE) ramped up their clean air campaign and put out a call to various local environmental groups to meet and plan a campaign on the issue. Tina and I attended, along with other like minded campaigners, all ready to work towards cleaning up the air in Bristol. Shortly after this we held the inaugural meeting of what was to become the BCAA. Despite our very different areas of interest we were able to draw together our skills and experience and create a set of aims and objectives. Two other key players joined us in May 2018: Gavin Spittlehouse and Alan Morris, both of them offering valuable skills and expertise.

Our aims have stayed consistent throughout this time: 

“Our main aim is to persuade Bristol Council to adopt the fairest, most ambitious, most sustainable option for tackling air pollution in the shortest possible time. Bristol City Council have been charged with bringing NO2 below legal limits, but taking note that the World Health Organisation state that no level is safe, our aims go further than this.”

Although particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide were aspects of the air that most people had never heard of in 2010, two years after a EU directive to clean up the air in the UK, the estimated death toll due to air pollution had increased to around 6 million. Some 10 years later there had been no substantial action from the government – this fact was the driving force in my determination to campaign on this issue.

The BFOE campaign followed on the heels of the Let Bristol Breathe campaign, initiated by the Bristol Green Party in 2017. This campaign had gathered some 4000 signatures for a petition to Bristol City Council (BCC): 

“We call on the Mayor to take steps to implement a Clean Air Zone in the city, including measures to make the bus fleet less polluting, to discourage the most polluting motor traffic in the city centre and near schools, and to prioritise strong measures to promote walking, cycling and public transport.”

The wording of this petition has echoes of the concerns raised by citizens of Bristol in the Bristol Cable’s 2021 Citizens Agenda. It’s clear that air pollution and its detrimental effect on the health of the most vulnerable is still a major concern. Meanwhile we await the “urgent steps towards establishing a Clean Air Zone in Bristol” promised by the city council back in 2017. 

In 2018 BFOE called for the clean air zone to take in most of the city of Bristol (including the most polluted areas and marginalised areas) but this option was thrown out by the council. It’s ironic that we live in a city dominated by cars, yet areas with the most chronic levels of air pollution are often where people are less well off and unable to afford a car. On top of this the traffic is often worse and the public transport totally inadequate in these areas.

Children are very vulnerable to air pollution, which can lead to health complications later in life. It’s clear this also has an impact on their mental well being.  A recently completed Sustrans survey highlights that “half (49%) of UK school pupils are worried about air pollution near their school. . . That’s an increase of 10 percentage points since a similar survey ran in 2018.” In early 2019 we started working with Client Earth’s Clean Air Parents Network and helped them to initiate the Bristol School Streets scheme aiming to create a safer, calmer environment around schools.  

Thirteen years after the European directive (2008) and 50 years since the World Health Organisation (WHO) first highlighted the dangers of air pollution (1958) we have seen few changes for the better. Measures that have been instigated have moved at a glacial pace with echoes of an “all the time in the world” attitude both nationally and here in Bristol. Despite being charged to introduce measures “in the fastest time possible”, Bristol has been seriously trailing behind other cities. Birmingham’s clean air plan goes live this summer and they’ve also committed that “Once we reach that target, we want to continue to lower the amount of NO2 and particulate matter in the air as far as we can.”

We hope that the next four years will see rapid improvements to air quality and zero people dying early in Bristol due to the effects of air pollution. 

What we want to see from the new Bristol Mayor

  • Implement existing smoke control laws. The whole of Bristol is a smoke control area yet there is little or no enforcement of this rule. The particulate matter produced has a serious detrimental effect on health. Implement this ban and bring in measures to ensure that only fuel on the list of authorised fuels is burned.
  • Extend the School Streets schemes in the city where possible so that the air around schools is cleaner. Actively encourage schools to set up the schemes and support them financially and practically. 
  • All new developments to take into account existing levels of air pollution and ensure that adequate measures are taken to mitigate any detrimental effects of the development to the existing neighbourhood.  
  • Carry out a review of the existing CAZ in the light of a recent study carried out by CBI Economics, which found that only around 20 of the total 300 early deaths will be prevented as a result of the council’s proposed clean air zone. 
  • Encourage more active travel. Install 1,000 bike hangars across the city, in addition to secure cycling lockers or hubs at Park and Ride locations, and a secure bike-parking hub at Temple Meads Station.

What we want to see from the new Metro Mayor

  • Less emphasis on building new roads and more encouragement of active travel. 
  • Radical existing road space removal.
  • Developments to be built in a way that discourage people making long journeys to work, shops, schools by car.
  • Linking up public transport modes throughout the region so that people can travel without owning a car.
  • Increase the number of Car Club cars. 
  • Initiate a West of England Car Club – such as the Norfolk Car Club.
  • Improve cycle routes and prioritise cyclists over cars in the same way as Holland, Denmark and many other European cities.
  • Implement MetroWest rail lines and overground light rail rather than underground. 

What we want to see from the Councillors

In areas of highest pollution (50-69µg/m3) work towards achieving legal air through all possible and just means, including support for active travel, improvements to public transport and CAZ proposals, and taking into account the differing needs of all communities in the city.

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