Mayors and city leaders from 14 of the UK’s largest cities gathered last month to tackle what they believe is now a major health crisis for the nation: air pollution.
Hosted by London mayor Sadiq Khan and campaign group UK100, the local leaders called on the government to take “urgent action” over the problem and adopt the World Health Organisation’s guideline limits as a minimum in its new Environment Bill.
The call was one of a number of warnings issued in recent weeks over this growing environmental concern.
The day before, a King’s College London report showed air pollution in the UK could trigger hundreds more heart attacks, strokes and acute asthma attacks each year, with NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens labelling it a “health emergency”.
Centre for Cities policy officer, Simon Jeffrey, meanwhile told the National Air Quality Conference in November that more must be done to improve air quality within the UK’s cities.
It is against this backdrop that PlaceTech takes a closer look at how UK cities are addressing air pollution head on.
For a number of cities, tackling air pollution starts with understanding what it’s made of and for Sheffield this has meant the development of a complex air quality monitoring network, led by the Urban Flows Observatory.
Urban Flows is a partnership between Sheffield University, the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council and UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure & Cities.
The idea behind the project built on work carried out by Sheffield City Council and DEFRA, which installed nine air quality stations in the city to monitor both NO2 and particulate matter, as well as several other air pollutants.
The problem with the initial project, however, was that it didn’t have a good geographical spread, so the Urban Flows team have now installed 150 (and rising) small, low-cost sensors around city to improve the data’s reach.
As PhD student, Rohit Chakraborty, who is leading the project, explains: “My research instead looks into how we can have cheaper low-cost sensors and therefore more sensors around the city.
“This is more representative of what people are breathing around the city compared with the larger sensors, which don’t really represent the air quality of the whole city.”
The project has been funded by £2m from the EPSRC, which has also given funds to neighbouring city university Manchester to carry out similar research.
Manchester received a total of £2m from the UKRI Clean Air Strategic Priorities Fund, alongside the EPSRC and UKCRIC to develop a Manchester Urban Observatory.
In addition, Manchester will use the money to establish a Natural Environment Research Council air quality ‘supersite’ to make continuous measurements of air quality at a higher level of detail than is provided by existing monitoring stations.
Clean Air Zones
In other parts of the country, cities are establishing Clean Air Zones to encourage people to drive less-polluting cars. These allow councils to charge drivers of polluting vehicles up to £100 a day for entering a CAZ, the profits for which must then be reinvested into local transport schemes.
Central London already has one in place, with the government calling on Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton and Derby to do the same. Nottingham was initially in that list, but the city looks as though its NO2 levels will comply with government guidelines by the end of this year.
In a slight twist to the CAZ idea, Bristol, made the headlines earlier this month after becoming the first UK city to announce a ban on privately owned diesel cars from entering parts of the city centre.
Approved by Bristol City Council, the plans will enable commercial vehicles to pay to enter the central zone. They will come into force in 2021 if they receive the green light from central government.
Leeds, meanwhile, is making major improvements to its infrastructure networks through its £270m scheme ‘Connecting Leeds’, which began in 2017 and is due to complete in 2021.
In addition to creating car-free zones, the money has (and will continue) to go towards improving the city’s transport and walkway infrastructure, including new cycle routes, and improved transport systems.
Taxes, road closures and bans
Cross over to Nottingham and the council has implemented an effective levy to cut down air pollution in the city, whilst raising money to fund public transport improvements.
Introduced in 2012, the Workplace Parking Levy charges employers £400 a year for each employee parking space (if a business has 12 parking spaces or more in total), says Nottingham Council deputy leader, Sally Longford.
“A lot of employers pass that on to their employees which means that some people have made the choice to use public transport instead but also it has given us an income which has enabled us to improve our public transport.”
Funds from the levy raised to date total around £64m, which has helped to build Nottingham’s tram line, make improvements to the railway station and implement an electric bus fleet (more details below).
Pressure from campaign group Bristol Clean Air Alliance played a role in getting the ‘School Streets’ pilot initiative included in the city’s clean air plan, says BCAA campaigner Katrina Billings. Explaining the idea behind the pilots, she adds: “The School Streets pilot operates independently but we work very closely with them. They basically have garnered a list of 16 schools, who want to take part in the pilot schemes and who are prepared to have streets closed around them at drop off and pick-up.”
To put the importance of this project in context, research released by Sheffield University earlier this year showed that during the weekly school run, some children were breathing in amounts of pollution equivalent to nearly a full packet of cigarettes.
Elsewhere in the UK and following in the footsteps of New York and Paris, Edinburgh joined the ‘Open Streets movement’ in May, which temporarily closed the streets to cars around its Old Town area.
This allowed residents and tourists to explore this part of the city on foot or by bike, as well as giving them the opportunity to take part in activities like open-air yoga, giant chess games, music and tai chi.
Councillor Lesley Macinnes said at the time of the scheme launch, “We’ve seen how successful similar schemes internationally have proved by encouraging active travel, improving air quality and creating a safer, more relaxed atmosphere so I can’t wait to see this take shape in the capital.”
For cities like Leeds, much of their energy around reducing air pollution to date has been concentrated on boosting electric vehicle charging points around the city.
Most notably, this has seen the council adopt a statutory planning requirement that means new developments must provide EVCPs (when parking spaces are provided as part of that development).
The council has also partnered with energy company ENGIE on an Office for Low Emission Vehicles-funded scheme to install 88 rapid charge units that will deliver 176 charge bays for taxi, private hire and public use across the West Yorkshire region. Five units are already live and in use across Leeds, with up to 30 due to be installed by the end of March 2020.
Other partnerships with the council include a tie up with Highways England to offer businesses the chance to trial electric vehicles.
Highways England will invest £2m into the project with a further £900,000 coming from Leeds City Council via a government grant to allow the scheme to run for an initial two years.
Vans will form the majority of the new electric fleet, made up of around 70 vehicles available to loan. But as well as vans, the fleet will also include a number of electric car models suitable for use as Leeds-licensed private hire and taxi vehicles.
This move towards electrification can be seen in Nottingham too. Through its ‘Go Ultra’ programme, the council has installed over 300 electric charge points across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire as well as converting a “growing proportion” of its taxi and bus fleet to electric vehicles, according to councillor Longford. She adds: “One of the big concerns about people converting to electric cars is that they don’t feel confident that they will be able to recharge when they need to and by providing a good network or charge points you reduce that stress.”
The London borough of Hackney, meanwhile, has set up a publicly owned energy services company, Hackney Light & Power, which will formally launch in 2020.
The idea behind the project is that, in addition to providing clean local electrical power (generated from rooftop solar energy) and reducing the carbon intensity on the grid, the company will be able to generate revenue for reinvestment in decarbonisation such as support for electric vehicle charging.