Cities across the globe are leading the charge on clean air policies. But British ones can do more

Oh, no: air pollution in action. Image: Getty.

Last 21 June was Clean Air Day – and leaders of the UK’s 14 largest cities, all of which have illegal levels of air pollution, marked the occasion by calling on the government to do more to address these issues. In particular, the mayors have called for the government to accelerate its proposed ban on diesel and petrol cars by a decade, which would mean phasing out these vehicles by 2030; and to introduce clean air zones across the UK and a scrappage scheme to help car owners replace their high-emission cars.

This focus from city leaders is welcome, given that air pollution is primarily an urban problem. As highlighted in the recent Centre for Cities briefing How can UK cities clean up the air we breathe?’, UK cities are home to 88 per cent of roads which are predicted to have concentrations of NO2 above legal limits. The main culprit is unsurprisingly road transport, and in particular diesel vehicles, which are responsible for 80 and 35 per cent of NO2 roadside concentration respectively.

As such, while national government policies to tackle air quality problems are important, the onus is on cities to address these problems – and we’ve already seen progress on this front in recent years. 

London, with its greater devolved powers, has been leading the way – historically, with the launch of the congestion charge zone in 2003, and more recently with the introduction of the Toxicity charge (or T-charge). In addition, mayor Sadiq Khan recently confirmed a forthcoming expansion of the ultra-low emission zone to North and South Circular Roads.

Other cities are also catching on. Sheffield was one of the first places to launch its Clean Air Strategy, including plans to replace existing buses with more environmentally friendly stock. Leeds is due to introduce a new fleet of low-emission buses, and Greater Manchester’s metro mayor Andy Burnham wants to accelerate the timeline for achieving carbon neutrality ahead of the national commitment of 2050.

However, most UK cities could do more to cut carbon and drive efficiency, using the powers at their disposal, in particular with regards to the single biggest contributor: car usage. And with the government having mandated 28 local authorities across 12 cities to develop plans to clean air plans (due at the end of this year), city leaders need to act soon.

Our clean air briefing highlights a number of approaches championed by cities across the globe, which UK cities could also adapt to tackle air pollution in their area:

1. Restricting vehicle access and reducing idling

In Paris, a sticker system is used to restrict vehicle access into city centres. Vehicles are split into six categories, depending on how heavily polluting they are according to European emissions standards, and the most polluting have been banned from the city. Moreover, any vehicle can be refused entrance in response to high levels of pollution on a given day. To mitigate adverse consequences and to encourage low-pollution transport, the city makes public transport free during these periods.

In a similar vein, New-York City introduced an anti-idling law in 2009 to reduce unnecessary emissions from idling vehicles parking or stopping. In particular areas, it is forbidden to idle in a vehicle for longer than three minutes while parking, waiting or stopping. This is even stricter around schools, where the time allowed is just one minute.


2. Changing the flow of traffic and promoting cycling and walking

Barcelona and Copenhagen have both adopted approaches to promote cycling and walking. Barcelona’s urban mobility plan focuses on the idea of superblocks – the idea of redirecting traffic in grids around small neighbourhoods, with space within these superblocks dedicated to pedestrian and cycling public space. Through this, the city hopes to shift preferences from driving to walking and cycling.

Similarly, Copenhagen has invested in infrastructure to make cycling easier, faster and safer, thus achieving its goal to become the best cycling city in the world. Policies include set requirements for bike space per employee for commercial buildings, and bike parking space for residential developments. There are also cycling superhighways connecting the suburbs and inner-city areas, and large areas of the city centre are closed for motor vehicles.

3. Introducing a congestion charge

Milan is one of five cities across the world which has introduced congestion charges in their central area. The €5 tax is charged between 7.30am to 7.30pm. In addition, vehicles entering the area must fulfil a minimum emission standard and diesel vehicles must be equipped with a particulate filter. Electric vehicles have free access and hybrid cars are exempt until a set date. The profits are used to reinvest in policies that promote sustainable mobility and reduce air pollution.

Implementing these ideas in UK cities will not necessarily be easy, as suggested by the response among politicians in Greater Manchester when we proposed a congestion charge in the city region. But as places finalise their clean air strategies, they will need to take tough decisions to get to grips with pollution and the associated health and social problems it brings – and that may mean going against the grain of popular opinion.

Maja Gustafsson is an intern with the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.