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Why a London masterplan faces opposition from air quality groups

Despite promising to reduce pollution, a central London masterplan has been met with opposition from air quality groups. Martin Guttridge-Hewitt attempts to navigate the confusion and asks if planning processes that fail to engage communities are valid in the climate age.

Spanning 150,000 square feet beneath Kingdom Street, Westminster, The Box is a deceptively simple development. A subterranean void used for storage during London’s Crossrail construction, the site is set to be transformed into a low emission urban logistics hub, which could remove 100 LGVs from roads each day, leading to a 90% reduction in carbon emissions.

Developer British Land says the facility is a solution to the heavily polluting ‘last mile of online retail’. Packages will arrive at the hub by HGV, then transfer to e-cargo bikes for greenhouse gas-free onward travel to customer homes. The scheme comes with a £1million contribution towards cycle infrastructure in the area, and a sister project at surface level includes greening, landscaping, an 18-storey mixed use tower, sports, and community facilities.

Despite these credentials, residents and campaigners in the area have raised serious concerns about the level of scrutiny applied when considering the scheme. Kingdom Street resident Alice Danna first contacted Air Quality News to express concerns about what The Box means for traffic and air pollution in the neighbourhood, doubts echoed by local campaigners Clean Air Bayswater.

These include how a survey conducted by architecture and engineering consultancy group Ramboll could conclude no assessment of the effect on air pollution resulting from day-to-day hub operations would be necessary, even when sat within one of London’s 10 most polluted boroughs, which also falls in an Ultra Low Emission Zone aimed at curbing tailpipe fumes.

Air Quality News contacted British Land, and the company was forthcoming with information, but even this adds to confusion. Modelling accounts for 13 HGV deliveries per day, all of which will pollute. And, although 239 e-cargo bike trips every 24 hours will contribute no carbon, PM10 and PM2.5 will be emitted. Yet residents say the development was positioned as car-fee, raising questions over how that status is defined. Meanwhile, a transport audit of main routes to the hub – A404 Harrow Road, A5 Maida Vale and A40 Westway – concluded roads were suitable, but locals cite heavy congestion.

All documentation is online at Westminster City Council’s planning register, showing required and recommended steps have been taken. But this only makes what Clean Air Bayswater, Danna, and other residents say more alarming. Simply put, this is where the lack of transparency around UK planning regulations and processes, along with their shortcomings, is brought into sharp relief.

‘A big problem is when you look at these things in isolation you don’t see what else is happening in the surrounding environment, so assumptions made will not necessarily add up,’ says Clean Air Bayswater’s Inge Lyngborg, citing a 3,500 home development at nearby Kelham Rise as just one example of other major schemes underway in the area.

‘You don’t look at the full community impact,’ she continues. ‘If you’re going to send out, say, 30 bikes every 15 minutes, in a densely populated and congested area, it will add to stop-start traffic, which is terrible for air pollution. You need a more comprehensive study for how things will actually work in reality.’

shallow focus photo of gray steel muscle rack

Distrust in how the UK approaches development, particularly in big cities, is nothing new. But the lack of public confidence is particularly concerning at a point in history when it has never been more important for developments to have a positive environmental contribution, and for all stakeholders in the vicinity to be fully engaged and included in conversations. To do that, we need clear information which does not assume expertise, and gives an opportunity for all parties to submit relevant thoughts and receive a comprehensible response.

‘Trying to understand the requirements on a developer, and if they’re meeting them, sneaking around them, or adhering to them, is incredibly hard,’ says Bayswater Cllr Max Sullivan, Deputy Cabinet Member for City Management & Air Quality. ‘And there are only certain operational elements [of developments] covered by planning permission rather than site management plans. In dispensing its duty as a planning authority, Westminster, or any other council, is only competent to make planning decisions and can’t go beyond that.’

Planning teams are also under huge pressure to retain their own decision-making powers. As Sullivan points out, when a project is blocked companies have the right to appeal. Each time that happens it costs taxpayers money, and an authority will lose its planning powers if too many appeals are upheld. Adding to the complexity, many UK regulations are woefully out of touch with the latest scientific advice.  

‘A lot of this isn’t helped by fuzzy guidance around air quality, the national framework. But distinct from that is the fact developers will often make amendments to or concessions in plans right up to the meeting, making it hard for councillors and local groups to meaningfully comment,’ he continues, anecdotally recalling how new documents were submitted to a consultation on The Box in the time it took to him travel from home to the meeting, emphasising the point. 

As our conversation continues it becomes clear Sullivan now supports the scheme, citing the rapid growth in online retail since the pandemic began as a major transport headache and smart logistics hubs as a viable response. But it’s also evident that, like Clean Air Bayswater, he also believes planning processes urgently need reform, not least to bring various environmental criteria in line with new research.

‘One thing I advocated for was that air pollution measurement in Westminster should be conducted against World Health Organisation guidance on safe levels, which was updated in 2021, rather than the 2015 limits the national government uses,’ Sullivan explains. ‘But that doesn’t give any additional power to the planning authority. It’s a statement of intent, and there are other things we can try and do… But the reality is guidance needs to be modernised, made more robust and easier to understand.’

According to Sullivan, one of the most powerful tools to facilitate this is the Clean Air Act, which is yet to pass through Parliament and, it is hoped, will finally enforce tighter regulations on air pollution – going some way to reassuring people that new developments will not be to the detriment of their health. The snail’s pace at which the bill is progressing is a cause for alarm, and so too is the disempowerment communities tend to feel towards masterplans drawn up on their doorstep.

In the climate change era, keeping people well informed about the built environment today, what it might look like tomorrow, and why, is a key frontline battle. And without effective communication we risk leaving swathes of the population behind, while making it unnecessarily difficult to call into question decisions before they’re set in brick and mortar.

images: stock photos

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