Stuart Thomson is the Head of Public Affairs at BDB Pitmans

Communities up and down the country are seeking to address the air quality issues. This is not just a health matter; successfully dealing with air quality delivers educational improvements and can be part of the Government’s post-Brexit agenda, provided the Government gives them the necessary tools.

Local government are the ones who have to balance often complex, sometimes competing, local needs and therefore require critical support from central government.

Unfortunately, all too often trust in local government is lacking from a number of audiences. For example, the Planning White Paper noted that when it comes to development, public trust is low. The argument frequently made against giving too many powers to local government is that they lack the expertise needed, a charge always strongly denied. In its election manifesto, the Conservatives stated very clearly that “we need to get away from the idea that ‘Whitehall knows best” and talked of “full devolution” along with a, now delayed, White Paper.

The challenge when dealing with air quality is that authorities need powers across a range of areas.  They need to offer, for instance, public transport alternatives but also potentially offer to put charging schemes in place as well. Authorities complain that both the powers and finance are often lacking.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a renewed focus on both air quality and local transport. The virus’s effects on respiration mean that the case for improvements in air quality has never been stronger. This is coupled with the experience of significantly cleaner air during lockdown, when traffic levels and associated pollution evaporated overnight, leading to calls for these lower levels of pollution to be maintained.

Some bigger local transport schemes take time and resources to put in place; therefore alternatives such as clean air zones (CAZs), where local authorities already have the powers, feature high in the list of initiatives to improve air quality. At their most basic, a CAZ introduces a daily charge for certain vehicle classes entering or moving within a defined area. Legally, they are created under the Transport Act 2000 where powers are given to local traffic authorities to make a charging scheme. The act also allows for traffic authorities to act jointly, opening up the possibility of joined up CAZs covering one or more local authority areas within a conurbation.

A number of cities are already in the process of considering or implementing CAZs and there is ample evidence to suggest their benefits. The revenue raised from the charge is ringfenced for local transport improvements and so the upfront investment by a city or region can be offset in the longer-term income stream.

It has been widely reported that measures such as the introduction of more cycle lanes and improvements to pedestrian safety better facilitate active transport (as well as, potentially, e-scooters which the Transport Select Committee recommends) and thus lower the risk of Covid-19 transmission. CAZs are another tool in local government’s arsenal to take steps to improve air quality.

Nonetheless, bigger public transport schemes will be needed as well, not least around HS2 stations. There is no point levelling-up economically only to level-down environmentally.

A criticism laid at the door of No 11 during George Osborne’s time as Chancellor was that the impacts of austerity were devolved. It is also the case that central government is very likely to continue to ‘pass the buck’ to local authorities to deal with air quality. However, such action would undermine any recognition of the benefits of air quality measures.

Aside from the obvious health benefits of schemes such as CAZs, local authorities can also use them to build their own reputations.  The manifesto sees bodies such as the Northern Powerhouse, Western Gateway, and Midlands Engine, as a way of promoting the UK and attracting inward investment. At a time when the emphasis is on the country developing a more outward facing, global approach, what could be better for an authority than being able to ‘sell’ the quality of its environment as a way of attracting businesses and inward investment?

Local authorities too should challenge the Government on its promise to give them “far more control of how (that) investment is made” and put money towards environmental measures, including public transport.

Government needs to work to give local authorities the powers and the financial flexibility needed to deliver for the environment and air quality. The benefits for communities and economies are vast.