Cllr Paul Wray
“The fresh air and cool breeze of walking about town was great” is something you won't often hear in the urban areas of our inner city - maybe a breeze (or gale force wind) but fresh air?
Our city is choking.
Maybe this sounds dramatic but Leeds is one of the cities with the dirtiest (in term of harmful chemicals in the air) in the UK, and its health impact is frightening – shortening the lifespans of those in the worst areas by ten years or more.
Families who've lived in Hunslet all their lives will tell you of the alarming rise of asthma after the motorway built through it. Residents on the Riverside of the city know the smell of the air closer to the main roads into the city centre. This issue is not just a nicety to make our communities more pleasant – it’s a health nightmare that needs fixing.
It is a concern for the whole city, and it was heartening to see Labour members across Leeds at a recent meeting all speak of their grave concerns on the issue. 40,000 people a year in the UK die prematurely due to air pollution, with the most impoverished communities seeing lifespans reduced by a decade or more.
Leeds, by 2020, must install a "clean air zone" with charges on the dirtiest of commercial vehicles entering it - but not private cars. It was an option, but the Labour-led council saw this as being unfair to households - many of whom would face undue hardship if imposed on them. [19/3/17 Correction: Not including private cars is part of a consultation on the final option taken (in about 18 months apparently) as no formal choice has happened yet. Some people are minded not to include private cars but, the sheer number of vehicles means the most significant difference in air quality is it made by adding them.]
HGVs and buses are the biggest polluters, and the coming of the zone is likely to result in the significant electrification of buses in the city (First Bus will have most of its fleet in Leeds converted by the start of the zone), and on the fleets of the largest resident companies. But more will still need to be done to clean up the cities air and convince residents across Leeds to convert to cleaner cars.
More "Park and Ride" schemes will help divert cars from the city centre and support more people to use buses (hopefully electric) but this does mean the pollution from private vehicles is pushed elsewhere - so other ideas are needed to reduce the impact of the vast number of private cars that remain.
One idea raised could be to use planning rules. Leeds will need around 70,000 new homes in the near to mid-term. Therefore, could the council use planning permission to insist on or at least be more supportive of, developments of new homes that have electric charge points as standard - giving private drivers an incentive to go electric the next time they upgrade their car. New large employers who provide car parking in the city for their staff could also possibly be covered - providing an end-to-end charge chain for their employees between work and home.
After buses and HGVs, the next most significant generator of air pollution are cars with engines turned on when stationary - and shockingly up to ten times worse for the driver then someone stood next to the road. Is a citywide campaign to educate drivers about the damage they are causing needed?
Do we need to force habit change with on the spot fines for drivers who fail to not switch the engine off when stationary? It could be a powerful incentive - but enforcement would be a challenge and would have to be done in a way not to criminalise drivers.
In the end, much will also rest on central government initiatives, and I hope that our council with others will push for a government scrappage scheme to help finance the move to electric cars from other types. Without this, the likely take-up of electric vehicles could be well over a decade - a decade in which more damage is done to peoples health.
There are of course many more ideas, and I admit I’m no expert, but we in Leeds need to clean up our act – for the sake of everyone’s health.
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