Along with social care funding and Brexit, devolution has been one of the hottest topics this year in local government.
All over the country, town hall leaders have been burning the midnight oil, trying to agree combined authority deals, which will see money and powers transferred down from Whitehall to their respective regions.
Many of the bids, which have either been agreed or are still under discussion, have focused on regional issues, such as transport, infrastructure and skills. But could devolution also hold the key for other cross-boundary issues, like air quality?
In West Yorkshire, the combined authority has been working with five local authorities – Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield – to draw up a low emissions strategy for the whole region.
The West Yorkshire Low Emissions Strategy has been funded by Defra and outlines the key issues around air quality in the region, and how combined authority and town halls can work together to create a healthier place for people to live, work and visit.
According to the strategy, around one in 20 deaths (5.1%) in West Yorkshire are caused by exposure to particulate air pollution, with up to 6% in some local authority areas.
The key messages are around air quality not being viewed in isolation, and how people can be encouraged to use public transport and lead more active lifestyles.
‘The rationale behind it was to get a better, more consistent approach across a wider geographical area,’ explains the strategy’s project manager, Gary Blenkinsop.
‘We’ve developed a planning guide, which we are using across West Yorkshire to reduce emissions from new developments. It means one developer does not play another authority off against each other.’
Mr Blenkinsop believes by working together, councils can achieve greater economies of scale in terms of buying new infrastructure. For example, he says one town hall on its own might want to install five or 10 electric vehicle charging points, but a group of local authorities might want to order 50 or 60 for the region at a cheaper cost.
He adds that by working with a combined authority, local authorities can also unlock additional funding streams and match funding, which might not have been available otherwise.
As part of the strategy, the councils and the combined authority have been working with bus operators to reduce emissions.
Last month, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the five councils launched the ECO Stars scheme, which supports operators of heavy goods vehicles, vans, buses and coaches to run their fleets more efficiently.
At the launch event in November, combined authority transport chair, Cllr Keith Wakefield presented certificates recognising their initial star ratings to Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield council fleets, Bradford and Leeds Teaching Hospitals and commercial fleet operators JG Pears and DHL.
‘ECO Stars work has an important role to play in helping us to achieve our aims, which include a Low Emission Strategy and a Clean Air Zone for Leeds and a modern bus fleet that has a positive impact on health and environment with all vehicles meet at the latest environmental standard,’ said Cllr Wakefield.
Mr Blenkinsop says the councils and the combined authority are also working together on joint bid for government money for a low emissions taxi scheme.
They are also looking at installing electric charge points for taxis across the region and a feasibility study for public charge points has just been carried out.
‘While our low emission strategy is still being developed, West Yorkshire Combined Authority is already contributing to reducing air pollution across the Leeds city region through developments in its transport systems,’ says Cllr Wakefield.
‘We have opened two new rail stations, at Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall Forge, and we have almost doubled the size of our Elland Road Park and Ride to 800 spaces. This is helping to reduce congestion and pollution in Leeds city centre. We have also increased the number of electric vehicle charging points at the facility.
‘Recently, thanks to successful bids for DfT funding, we have carried out the ‘greening’ of our entire 165-vehicle My Bus school transport fleet and have installed clean engine technology on 26 of our AccessBus service vehicles, which provide door-to-door local transport for people with limited mobility who are unable to use conventional bus services.
‘West Yorkshire Combined Authority has also established a £1bn West Yorkshire plus Transport Fund. It will be targeted at reducing congestion, improving the flow of freight and making it easier for people to commute to and from expected major growth areas across the city region and successful schemes will also contribute to improving air quality.’
West Yorkshire Combined Authority is not alone is using devolution to help improve the environment. Transport for Greater Manchester has developed the new Greater Manchester Low-Emission Strategy (LES), and Air Quality Action Plan (AQAP), on behalf of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
The final versions of this plan are due to be published shortly. But as local authorities continue to grapple with the issue of air quality, surely more combined authorities and regional groups will follow suit and consider the subject from a wider perspective.
‘Improving air quality will come down to, in large part, convincing individuals to change their behaviour. In particular, their commuting behaviour,’ comments chief executive of think tank Localis, Liam Booth-Smith.
‘Having a more strategic view of this challenge is a good thing, particularly as many people cross local authority boundaries to and from work. Reflecting the scale of the problem is only the first step, however.’
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