While often (sometimes unfairly) seen as the rotten borough with regard to taking action to clean up its air, Westminster Council has now decided to “be more ambitious in its commitments to reduce air pollution”.

Air Quality Action Plan front cover.
Westminster council’s air quality action plan must be more ambitious says a report to councillors.

Fitzrovia News understand that reports put before the council’s cabinet on Monday 11 May have been approved, paving the way for the council to draw up an improved Air Quality Action Plan.

The Council’s Action Plan set out five themes: air quality monitoring, reducing emissions from buildings and new development, reducing emissions from transport, raising awareness of the effects of air pollution, and lobbying and partnership working for greater action to reduce air pollution.

Transport is the single biggest cause of air pollution in the city. Much of the action plan is about “encouraging” a move away from private car use but there was little in the way of “enabling” people to make healthy lifestyle changes. The plan does touch on the thorny issue of residents parking but it doesn’t shy away from the limitations of electric vehicles in improving air quality.

The plan noted that while a shift to electric vehicles will result in “huge reductions in NOx emissions” due to there being no tailpipe emissions, particulate emissions won’t decrease as much because tyre and brake wear are strong components of road transport particulate matter (PM10).

“This emphasises the need to not view electric vehicles as a ‘silver bullet’ for air quality; rather, electric vehicles need to be encouraged as part of a wider road user hierarchy that in the first instance prioritises modal shift away from private vehicle use to walking, cycling and public transport use,” states the draft plan.

The public consultation on the plan received 629 responses mostly from individual residents.

“The most popular priority actions were related to the council’s partnership working with businesses, lobbying the Mayor of London for greater action on reducing emissions from black cab taxis, and the council leading by example through its own fleet and procurement,” stated the report.

“The least popular priority actions were investigating changes to the use of parking bays, investigating changes to parking permit structures, and action on non-road sources of transport emissions.” The comments about parking are unsurprising since 62 percent of the respondents are holders of resident parking permits, yet the vast majority of households in Westminster do not have access to a car or van.

However, since the closure of the public consultation, the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown has “clearly changed the circumstances under which Westminster’s new Air Quality Action Plan will operate”, states the report.

“During the lockdown period, pollution levels across the city have dropped dramatically. Compared to similar time periods in 2019, Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) emissions have reduced by more than 50 percent at the council’s monitoring sites on Oxford Street and Buckingham Palace Road, which reductions of between 40 and 50 percent at all other sites in the city. This is due to the high reduction in road transport in central London, as well as reduced emissions from commercial buildings, and potential impact of reduced aviation traffic,” states the report.

The cabinet papers also draw attention to a correlation between air pollution and the spread of Covid-19.

“There is also a great deal of emerging data concerning the potential relationship between exposure to high pollution levels and the spread of COVID-19, the onset of the disease (i.e. how likely people are the contract the disease), and the severity of it once contracted. A study published on April 20th suggests that there is a clear correlation between levels of air pollution and deaths from Covid-19 in England. This has not yet been peer reviewed and the data sets show only a correlation rather than a direct causal link,” said the report.

Because of the current crisis the Air Quality Action Plan as it stands would not reflect the reality of a post-lockdown Westminster in the short or longer term. 

“By considering what new opportunities there may be for innovative policies and projects across the city, it is envisaged that a refreshed Action Plan will be more ambitious in its commitments to reduce air pollution in Westminster,” said the report.

But Westminster councillors are likely to have the events of 2012 in the back of their minds when they were unfairly criticised by business groups and opposition parties to their plans to end free car parking and which led to the leader of the council resigning.

Today’s problem for Westminster council is the New West End Company. For on the same day as Westminster council committed itself to improving air quality the largest business group in the city were calling for the continued suspension of congestion charge, discounted car parking rates, and more space for car parking as part of its plan for recovery when lockdown is eased.

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