Today’s news that a woman in Paris was taking the French Government to court for failing to protect her from the effects of air pollution (Source: BBC) comes as no great surprise. It’s been something that I have been predicting would happen for some time.
Over the last few years, the topic of air pollution has been moving up the media agenda and we, as a nation, are therefore becoming increasingly aware of the impact that this health emergency will have on our futures and that of our children. Air pollution is estimated to cause up to 40,000 premature deaths a year and as awareness grows, litigation is inevitable. Unfortunately, that litigation is going to be placed on the shoulders of our cash strapped councils, of which many have been slow to react to the problem up until now.
The Government’s recent announcement of the introduction of Clean Air Zones is a start, however what this act has done is highlighted particular local authorities and placed the emphasis on them to make the decisions and changes needed to tackle pollution on a local level. In my view the Government need to go one step further – acknowledge that this is a problem for all and take steps to support councils to implement the changes needed and allocate funding where necessary. The result of not taking a UK-wide approach to this problem could well be hundreds of court cases brought against individual local councils who are struggling to make the necessary changes.
So what changes could councils be making as a starting point? I believe there are several things that could be done to ensure that Councils are taking all reasonable steps to reduce localised pollution and avoid costly court challenges from residents and employees.
Firstly, each authority needs to quickly assess where they are breaching (or soon to be) air quality targets and develop plans to reduce pollution, demonstrating that they are doing all in their power to tackle the problem. Although even this must come with some acknowledgement that air pollution is a difficult thing to measure through the use of sensors which are both costly and problematic to install.
Where problem areas are identified councils then need to be considering initiatives such as stopping access for particular vehicles at particular times of day. Councils also have power to influence public transport such as taxis and buses and should be putting pressure, through licencing, on companies to introduce cleaner vehicles into their fleet. And speaking of fleets, the public sector should also be looking closer to home to replace older fleet and pool vehicles with low emission alternatives.
Encouraging an electric car friendly city is another way that, if done right, can have an impact on transport pollution in cities. We’re currently working with the Go Ultra Low City of Milton Keynes as they provide infrastructure, incentives and information for residents and businesses to encourage them to ditch their petrol and diesel cars. It will be interesting to see the impact that this initiative will have on pollution in that city and an initiative that other areas could learn from.
One thing is for sure though: councils need to act now as well as plan for the future. The case in Paris is just the start and it will be only a matter of time until we see similar cases being brought in the UK.