Interview: Cllr Anna Richardson on Glasgow’s Low Emission Zone

Glasgow introduced Scotland’s first Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in Glasgow city centre on December 31 2018. The scheme is slowly being phased in and will come into effect for all vehicles on 31 December 2022.

Cllr Anna Richardson of Glasgow City Council spoke with Air Quality News about the LEZ, concerns over its speed of implementation and how the scheme fits into a wider move towards walking and cycling in cities across Europe.

How has the response to the LEZ been so far? 

We’ve seen around the city that people who are using those buses are responding positively because they’re not just getting cleaner buses but [they’re] obviously more pleasant to be on – they’ve got the Wi-Fi and mobile charging points too. People who are using the buses are starting to see that benefit already and that will be an incremental change every year between now and 2022. A further 20% of buses will need to be compliant, so by next New Year we’ll be having 40% of buses will be compliant and that is a real significant jump, so that’s really positive.

Although it only affects buses at the moment, we’ve used it as an opportunity to raise awareness and get people about thinking about what the LEZ will mean to them. We’ve put some nice big bold signage up around the city centre so people will see that and will perhaps look at our website and inform themselves, and we’ve done huge amounts of publicity just to make sure that people are getting prepared.

We don’t want folk to go out and change their vehicles now and find that they’ve bought something that won’t be compliant. We want to make sure that people are informed, and if they’re upgrading their vehicles that they are Euro 6; obviously, for businesses, they need to be thinking about what preparation they’ll need to make over the next four years.

You mentioned the potential impact on businesses. How will the LEZ affect taxi drivers and other small businesses? 

One of the key messages I’ve put across to everybody who’s working on this project is that while it’s an air quality project, it’s a transport project too and will only succeed if we get our engagement and our communications are right because this is a policy that will only work if everybody is on board.

Since the very beginning, we’ve had stakeholders’ forums and we’ve done as much publicity as we can. We’ve been engaging with the taxis through our licencing department, for example, working closely so that we make sure that taxis tell us that if the licencing policy would make it difficult to comply with the LEZ. We’re also doing a lot of engagement with the Federation of Small Businesses and with our Chamber of Commerce here in Glasgow.

Friends of the Earth Scotland criticised the LEZ saying you need to be more ambitious and the rollout for other vehicles needs to happen sooner. What is your response to that? 

I think given that we’re the first city in Scotland to do this and that the Transport Bill hasn’t even passed into law yet – we’ve actually pushed on ahead. We haven’t waited for the legislation – we’ve gone on.

We’ve looked at the evidence and all of the modelling we’ve done through the Scottish Environment Protection Agency [SEPA] and in partnership with the council, shows that actually by clearing up the bus fleet, we are going to get the best improvement in the most efficient way, so that’s a really significant step.

It’s not an easy one but we have had to do it at a pace that means the bus operatives can adapt, they can purchase new vehicles and they can also retrofit the ones that are suitable for retrofit. I think it’s really important to bear in mind that we have still had a significant number of Euro 3 and 4 buses in the city – which we don’t want to retrofit. They should be scrapped.

We should be moving up to brand new buses in that case – and as a city, we have less than 50% of households who own a car so the bus service is absolutely crucial for huge chunks of our city and we couldn’t risk the bus operators having to pull services, not having enough buses in their fleet, having to increase fares for example.

It was really important that we manage all of those alongside air quality, and it’s about being proportionate and making sure that the solution didn’t create any unintended consequence.

With the business community, especially the small businesses, and also residents, we want to make sure that people have time to adapt and to prepare for this. Euro 6 vehicles are still relatively new so there aren’t perhaps as many on the second-hand market for example; it might not be as easy for certain households to upgrade their vehicles with short notice.

I’m very conscious of the fact that evidence from this city has shown there are areas of transport poverty whereby families are forced into owning a vehicle because there is no other way for them to manage their lifestyle, to manage their employment, perhaps their childcare commitments.

The last thing we want to do is to try to improve air quality for people and at the same time create a situation whereby they’re having to upgrade a vehicle that they can’t afford to do, so we really wanted to try and balance all of these different issues and find something that felt comfortable, that we feel we are going to make an improvement to air quality, but that also gives people time to adapt to that.

It would be lovely to go to zero emissions tomorrow [for all vehicles], but the consequences for business and people in our city would have a disproportionately large negative impact and that’s something that we have to mitigate. We’re looking at the air quality but we have a lot of other responsibilities to our citizens as well.

Compared with European cities such as Amsterdam, do you think the UK has a lot of catching up to do in its attitudes to walking and cycling as opposed to car/vehicle usage?

I think that globally the argument is being won. Everybody understands that we have moved to a position whereby people do walk and cycle a lot more. I think those conversations are happening, but I think they have to keep happening more in the mainstream. Certainly we haven’t won over all of our citizens – I speak nationwide, not just for Glasgow – and we really do need to do a better job of getting those conversations out there, but we also need to prove the case so we see that where we put good cycle lanes in, people are using them – and not only more people are using them but different people are using them so we see an increase in women, in children, in people with mobility difficulties who find that a bike enables them to move more freely.

In a city like Glasgow, less than half of households have access to a car. If we are representing the good of all of our citizens, the majority of those people don’t have access to a car; therefore we should be giving as much road space as possible to walking, cycling and public transport.

As you do that, everybody gains, because our air is cleaner, because our streets are quieter as well. I think that’s something that perhaps we’ve not yet started to talk about – the impact of the noise created by having a lot of road traffic, and how different our neighbourhoods can feel, how different our city streets can be when it’s just that quieter, more human level of noise and activity rather than constant traffic.

Glasgow bus air quality

Three other cities in Scotland – Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh – will implement LEZs by 2020. What kind of insight is Glasgow sharing with them?

All four of us as cities have got quite different challenges, and certainly, Glasgow was very keen to go first and the fact that buses are the key issue that we’re tackling has been good for us. It’s something that we can do in advance of the legislation.

Other cities have different proportions of pollutants coming from different vehicles so they can’t just take the scheme that we’ve made and apply it to themselves; obviously they will have to seek local solutions and that’s as it should be. I think the Scottish government are right to give local authorities that autonomy to find the scheme that works for them and for their own particular circumstances.

Certainly, the [4-Cities LEZ] Leadership Group is a great place to be able to share how we’ve got on so far, to allow them to learn from some of the things that have been tricky for us or that we’ve had to do a lot of discussions around. Hopefully, that will help ease their transition as they move into their LEZ.

The LEZ is now a national conversation, people are becoming more aware of it, and hopefully the publicity we’re doing will help people accept what a LEZ is before it actually hits their city. In terms of consistency that’s really important, around things like exemptions, around standards, and I think again the Scottish government are right to determine those things nationally.

We’re really pleased with how it’s going so far, but that was in a way the easy bit. There’s a lot of work ahead, and we’re not going to sit down and relax.