British cities cannot afford to stall longer on tackling air pollution

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Last week a High Court judge ruled that the government’s plan to tackle air pollution is “unlawful”, and that it must do more to improve air quality across the country. In particular, the judge stated that the Government should introduce legal requirements to force places which have illegal levels of air pollution to take action, rather than simply encouraging them to do so.

As the recent Centre for Cities’ briefing How can UK cities clean up the air we breathe?’ showed, this problem is largely an urban one: cities are home to 88 per cent of roads which are predicted to have concentrations of NO2 above legal limits. It’s clear, then, that the high court ruling will have big implications for cities across the country.

A map of NOx concentrations. Spot the cities.

As the judge’s ruling suggests, the government’s approach to tackling these problems has been to urge local leaders in the most affected areas to act, without to forcing them to do so. In total, it has mandated 28 mostly-urban local authorities, as well as the Greater London Authority, to develop local plans to tackle local pollution problems by the end of this year. They have also been tasked with considering the best options to achieve statutory NO2 limit values within the shortest possible time.

However, the court case this week should signal a step change in this process. Indeed, the government’s response to the case was instructive, conceding that while it had previously taken a pragmatic, less formal approach “to encouraging places to act”, it will now “take a more formal line with them”. In other words, UK cities will have to take urgent action to address their pollution problems, or risk facing legal sanctions.

The good news is that cities have the powers and resources they need to start to take action. Our recent briefing set out steps that cities across the globe are taking to address their pollution problems, many of which could be replicated in UK cities – from Milan’s congestion charge, to Paris’s restrictions on car usage and New York’s laws against idling. Moreover, the government has made around £445m in funding available to local authorities to fund such measures.

Unsurprisingly, London – which is home to the highest levels of pollution, but which also holds the most extensive devolved powers of any UK city – has led the way in terms of tackling air quality problems. That includes the launch of the congestion charge in 2003, and the ‘Toxicity Charge’ (or T-charge) which the current mayor Sadiq Khan introduced in October last year.


Other cities are also tentatively starting to take steps to address these problems. Sheffield, for example, was one of the first places to launch its Clean Air Strategy, which features plans to replace existing buses with more environmentally friendly stock, and for anti-idling zones in front of schools. Cambridge is considering options for a congestion charge, while Oxford is examining the feasibility of introducing zero emissions zones.

However, for the most part, there has been a reluctance among city leaders to take the tough and potentially contentious decisions needed to improve air quality, and in particular to tackle the single biggest factor causing pollution – car usage.

This was illustrated last January when Centre for Cities published its three policy recommendations for the incoming metro mayor of Greater Manchester. One of the ideas we put forward was that the new mayor should introduce a congestion charge in Manchester city centre in order to reduce pollution and generate more funding for public transport. However, the idea was flatly rejected by all the mayoral candidates standing in the city region, perhaps reflecting the negative response it had provoked in local media.

Similarly, while Sheffield’s clean air strategy features some good ideas, it also explicitly rules out any measures to charge private car-users, again reflecting an awareness that such measures might be unpopular.

But the reality is that to get to grips with air quality problems, and all the associated issues they bring, from poor health outcomes to environmental damage, cities need to take difficult decisions – even if that means going against popular opinion.  Following last week’s court ruling, they might not have the luxury of idling on these issues any longer.

Brian Semple is head of communications at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.