To tackle air pollution Boris needs to back devolution

To tackle air pollution, local authorities need to be empowered with more than just rhetoric from central government, writes Oliver Harrison.

Boris Johnson gave only a slight nod to the potential of devolution to empower the green economy and help tackle emissions during his speech in Manchester on July 27:

‘I want higher frequency, low-emission or zero-emission buses, more bus priority corridors, a network that’s easier to understand and use,’ he said. A not-very-honourable mention went to the untapped potential of the green jobs market, too, when he added: ‘I’m absolutely certain there will be displays celebrating the dawn of a new age of electric vehicles, not just cars or buses, but electric planes, made possible with battery technology being developed now in the UK.’

It is undoubtedly very Johnson-esque to speak with such surface generality on issues of such importance. The truth of the matter is that central government is doing rather little to report and explain the connection between emissions and air pollution, and so it appears difficult to argue against the notion, that devolved environmental powers to regional Mayors (at the very least) would be a step in the direction of progress.

In Manchester, Johnson was pledging to ‘give greater powers to council leaders and to communities.’

It could potentially be the right time to give all councils (outside of the 23 already mandated to do so) the ability to set their own emissions targets as well as take action across their infrastructure to achieve them.

Devolving powers for setting emissions targets and precedents would inform the wider perspective of central government and illustrate the national picture of air quality in more detail.

Competition and innovation

The Strand is already being in breach of the London NO2 target for 2019, so surely competition and innovation across the nation’s cities would be conducive to more informed emissions policies and faster achievement of our national target.

With Manchester specifically introducing it’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) from 2021, the question remains as to why every other town and city in the United Kingdom wouldn’t be able to do the same.

So far only Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton have been asked to join London and Manchester by introducing a CAZ policy.

The process of drawing up plans, submitting them to central government and hoping for a financial windfall in order to activate them, disempowers councils.

Last year councils were asked to put forth their air quality improvement plans, which typified the creative outlook of local government and made provision for handling more than just vehicle emissions.

The London Borough of Merton for example, put forward new air quality policies, centred on air traffic and housing development emissions, areas of extreme importance but with little attention from central government departments.

Johnson’s rhetoric since his election has been worryingly void of much consideration for health or climate, with minimal regards for air quality specifically.

Financial backing

Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester said upon the announcement of their CAZ scheme that government must guarantee the right level of funding to help them tackle the scale of the problem without damaging local economies.

‘That includes adequate financial support so we can help businesses make the change to cleaner vehicles,’ he added.

‘Without this backing we won’t be able to do what’s required to drastically improve our air quality.’

As has been the case in local government for a significant time, devolution and its propensity to incite impactful change, comes back to money.

Environmental and financial devolution would propel more than CAZ schemes; it would allow councils to invoke and resource creative clean air practices which are individualised to their localities.

Bring change to life

If Johnson refuses to fund such work centrally, or offer new fiscal regulations locally, then we are certain to only see standardised progress in the same places as always. In fear of this being the case, I have a quote to bring to the attention of the new PM:

‘That which you most need will be found where you least want to look’ – Carl Jung

Giving power to the places of little interest or reverence, and seeing what they come up with, would show real trust in local government and a real dedication to tackling the issue of air quality nationally.

Only members and officers who engage with their localities at close proximity have the insight to interpret infrastructure and strategize realistically informed solutions.

Devolution is the answer, but real devolution means more than just the ability to policy-make, but also the ability to fund those ideas and bring them to life.