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Gauging public opinion on air quality plans

As councils around the country start to develop plans for low-emission zones, public attitudes to tackling air pollution have been explored in Oxford.

Last week, Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council published the preliminary public consultation results on their plans to introduce a zero emission zone in Oxford city centre.

As Environment Journal has previously reported, the two local authorities are looking to ban ‘pollution emitting vehicles’ from the city centre in phases, starting with some vehicle types and a small number of streets in 2020 and, as vehicle technology develops, moving to all vehicles across the whole city in 2035.

The councils say the move would take air pollution levels in Oxford city centre down to near-background levels.

For example, in the city centre’s most polluted street, George Street, a 74% reduction in toxic nitrogen dioxide levels is expected by 2035.

The initial results from the six-week public consultation show there is huge support for the proposals, however many concerns have been raised which will be assessed in the next stage of work.

The overwhelming majority (90%) of those who responded to the online consultation said tackling poor air quality in Oxford is either ‘very important’ or ‘important’.

The proposals ban emitting vehicles in five-year stages, expanding from a small number of streets in 2020.

Each of these incremental stages received public support, with 71% ‘strongly supporting’ or ‘supporting’ the 2020 proposals, 69% the 2025 proposals, and 68% backing the 2030 proposals.

However, when asked directly if the proposed zones are appropriate, just 28% said ‘yes’. One in five people (20%) said the area ‘should be smaller’ and 45% said the area ‘should be larger’.

And almost two thirds (61%) said the zone should be extended beyond the proposed boundaries in the future.

The consultation has also highlighted a number of areas of concern from stakeholders, especially from businesses and individuals directly impacted by the proposals, which will need to be considered in detail.

These areas include deliveries to and from businesses within the zone, access to the zone for disabled people, the introduction of electric buses within the suggested timescale, and infrastructure improvements that are needed to encourage alternative means of transport, such as cycling and walking.

‘Politicians at all levels should take heed’

Andrea Lee, a healthy air campaigner at ClientEarth, says: ‘The results show that when people are aware of the problem there is a real appetite for bold action to tackle this serious public health problem. Politicians at all levels should take heed and not be scared to be more ambitious.

‘Local authorities should be doing everything they can but we won’t get a grip on this national problem unless central government shows leadership and lives up to its legal and moral duties to protect our health.

‘The UK government has identified at least 80 local authorities that have illegal and harmful levels of air pollution but more than half of them are not being required to take action. We urgently need a national network of clean air zones that take the dirtiest vehicles out of the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and support to help people and businesses move over to cleaner forms of transport.’

The city council’s executive board member for a clean and green Oxford, Cllr John Tanner, says he’s ‘thrilled’ most people back the plans for a zero emission zone.

The reason for carrying out the consultation was to understand, in detail, what people’s needs are, so we can minimise the impact of the zero emission zone on business and residents while maximising the impact on the city’s health,’ says Cllr Tanner.

‘We have received more than 130,000 words in response to the online consultation alone, and we now need to go through this in detail. We must now work urgently to finalise the proposals to make sure they work for everyone and deliver a solution to the toxic and illegal levels of air pollution in Oxford city centre.’

Slough launches its own consultation

The response data were published as another local authority, Slough BC, launched a public consultation on its own plans for a low-emission strategy.

The draft strategy supports the council’s new transport strategy and forms part of the Slough Air Quality Action Plan (AQAP).

It lays out an integrated, year on year plan to improve air quality up to 2025, reducing vehicle emissions by accelerating the uptake of cleaner fuels and technologies.

The strategy also builds on significant activity already taking place across the borough, including the development of an extensive cycling infrastructure – including cycle hire facilities, the introduction of electric charge points in the town centre and at various council premises and the availability of electric pool cars and bikes for use by council staff.

The health and wellbeing of our residents and the people who visit and work in Slough is paramount and we can make great improvements to our local air quality if we work together towards a shared vision,’ says Slough’s cabinet member for the environment and leisure, Cllr Joginder Bal.

Photo by Angel Ganev

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