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Air Quality Campaigners Meet With Portsmouth City Council

Big news: The air quality petition has been accepted as being over 1000 signatures and the issue will be debated at the next full Portsmouth City Council (PCC) meeting on 10th July. I’m (Tim) giving a 6 minute deputation. We have been also been covered in The News.

I’ve been talking to local neighbourhood groups which are already very active in campaigning for clean air in Portsmouth. They set up a meeting with Ben Dowling (Cabinet Member for Planning, Regeneration and Economic Development and Lib Dem councillor) which happened 4th July. Also present were Dave Ashmore (Cabinet Member for Environment & Community Safety), Lynne Stagg (Cabinet Member for Traffic & Transportation), and several PCC staff members including Tristan Samuels (Director of Regeneration), Pam Turton (transport planning),  Kirsty Routledge (senior transport planner), Richard Lee (Regulatory Service Manager, runs the council’s air quality monitoring). Cabinet members have only recently taken on their respective roles since the Lib Dems have just taken control of PCC. I’d say most of the key people were present from the council, except perhaps the project board overseeing the City Centre Road (CCR) scheme.

Rod Bailey (Milton Neighbourhood Planning Forum) started by introducing our concerns. The CCR scheme is harmful and missed opportunity because it re-enforces car dependence, it worsens the air quality situation and does not prioritize sustainable transport. While the scheme claims to improve things, it fails because it retains dangerous cycle routes and congestion will occur in other areas of Portsmouth. While the road scheme is currently awaiting a planning decision, it is troubling because PCC is both the applicant and evaluator of the scheme. He recognized the need to make more areas of Portsmouth suitable for development but claimed the CCR scheme was the wrong approach.

Mike Dobson (Friends of Old Portsmouth Association) then spoke at more length about the details. In different planning documents, PCC has used different traffic growth figures, an inconsistency he has raised several times but not heard a satisfactory response. He pointed out the CCR scheme was intended to make traffic flow freely but planning only accounted for a small area of Portsmouth. The traffic would quickly arrive at locations like Anglesea Road heading towards Gunwharf Quays, which is already highly congested. The CCR scheme will only make congestion in the surrounding areas worse. (This is shown in the WSP Consultants Environmental Statement on the CCR scheme which indicates an overall increase in traffic.) The CAPIT tool, which is a set of interactive maps (and actually hosted on this blog: CCR impact, current NO2 levels), was introduced and explained to PCC. Using this tool, Mike realised that pollution will significantly increase at the southern end of Commercial Road (and all along Stanhope Road). This is a major shopping area which is already very polluted and will make the environment much worse for pedestrians and cyclists that choose to visit the area. Mike introduced the parking survey results, which highlights the need for cheap reliable buses and safe cycle routes. He then went on to question the effectiveness of some air quality initiative of PCC, such as road signs shown around Clean Air Day encouraging sustainable transport. He showed traffic count data indicating it had had a minimal effect. He then moved on to the legal implications on PCC of the February High Court/Client Earth ruling in that “steps are taken to achieve compliance as soon as possible, by the quickest route possible and by a means that makes that outcome likely.” In a recent council report, the PCC solicitor highlighted that the council was legally liable (“there is nothing in law to prevent such private applications being aimed at local authorities either failing to engage or failing to achieve compliance suitably interested individuals or groups could mount significant challenges”) but would have a defence if they can show they committed fully and acted reasonably. Mike called for a range of options to be modelled covering “do nothing”, “do something” (continuing present course) and “do everything” (charging Clean Air Zone) options, as well as evaluating measures of effectiveness, confidence, speed of implementation, cost, political difficulty, and the most effective to be selected based on the evidence. However, most measures taken by PCC have effects that are either difficult to quantify or have minimal impact. Mike showed a RAG (red-amber-green) chart as a starting point.

Lynne Stagg (Traffic & Transportation) then spoke, firstly recognizing that car ownership is too high in Portsmouth. She plans a series of parking control zones which limits the number of cars in the city. This will be gradually introduced because of the lack of resources at PCC (Tim observation: due to cuts by central government). Replacement services need to be provided such as buses – however bus service providers are planning to cut their services. We also need to encourage use of the park and ride service. She also hopes to gradually change public opinion on the issue of air quality and sustainable transport. She was doubtful that compliance could be achieved by 2022, and was thinking 2026 was a more realistic date because of shortness of officers to do the work. In the end, she promised to do everything possible “within our constraints”.

This is perhaps a key point of difference between us air campaigners and PCC: they expect that taking well intentioned (but limited) actions within normal day-to-day business of the council will be sufficient, but without attempting to quantify the effect this will have. Rod described this approach as based on “hope” or what I might call “wishful thinking”. What PCC don’t seem to grasp is their legal obligation to ensure compliance “by a means that makes that outcome likely.” Politicians are wary of adopting policies that could be unpopular since their careers and personal influence are at stake. PCC is also short of money so every solution seems financially problematic. They also are worried about impacting economic growth in the Portsmouth area. Air campaigners call on PCC to think outside of the box and re-evaluate their priorities. Air quality levels are a legal requirement on PCC and this takes precedence over most of their usual priorities. The hidden health cost of air pollution has not been properly balanced with more easily measured economic activity, not to speak of the human cost. Based on the High Court ruling, I suspect PCC is also legally required to take measures that are at least as effective as a Clean Air Zone, which would again require modelling work to be conducted.

Given the potential impacts on individuals and businesses of CAZs and other measures, the [Government’s] Plan provides that if [the most polluted] local authorities [excluding Portsmouth] can identify measures other than Charging CAZs, which are at least as effective at reducing NO2, then such measures are to be preferred. However, the local authority must demonstrate that these will deliver compliance as quickly as a Charging CAZ. […] no real point is taken on the assertion […] that Charging CAZs are the most effective means of addressing NO2 exceedances. […] But the Government cannot sensibly, or lawfully, substitute the application of its [more lenient 3 year compliance] benchmark [for areas including Portsmouth], however rational in respect of areas where a CAZ is the most efficacious solution, for the requirements of the Directive and the Regulations in areas where it is not.

In my view, PCC also admitted that they are not aiming to achieve this as soon as possible i.e. by 2022, citing the lack of staff/financial constraints as the reason. This is a dangerous admission to make because it is breaks the law: “steps are taken to achieve compliance as soon as possible“. The High Court ruling dismissed the argument that financial constraints are a valid excuse. (Not all the air quality campaigners present think PCC went so far as to admit non-compliance until 2026, so this is definitely my own view.)

Nor is it an answer to this point to say […] that the current plan […] is a “proportionate” response by the government to the issue raised by NO2 emissions. Implicit in that submission is a suggestion that cost may play a part [in planning…] I reject that argument. […] the obligations imposed by the 2008 Directive are not qualified by reference to their cost

Pam Turton advised that planning and evaluation of options is being conducted in AQMA6. This is welcome but should be conducted on a city wide basis. PCC seems to be believe that pollution is limited to a handful of hot spots. Mike suggested that the range of measures considered will still not be sufficient to meet PCC’s legal obligations. I’m concerned that PCC are again focusing too narrowly on compliance and not enough on public heath. AQMA6 is not the only area of concern since many other AQMAs are only barely within legal limits.  Also, if I’m reading the reports correctly, AQMA7 is also above legal NO2 levels in the most recent annual report.

Ben Dowling again reiterated the Lib Dem administration’s commitment to air quality. They mentioned the creation of a new steering group on air quality including local groups, transport operators and council officials.

Cycle routes in the CCR were discussed. PCC councillors said they thought the scheme will have excellent cycle routes, which drew derision from most air quality campaigners present, including from Anna Koor (Friends of Old Portsmouth/Let Pompey Breathe). The CCR is primarily focused on road capacity upgrades, while having what is effectively spare land given to pedestrians and cyclists. The cycle route along the dockyard wall is currently very dangerous, but under recently published plans it will be widened in the CCR to only the minimum recommended width. Air campaigners pointed to this as an example of PCC’s lack of ambition in encouraging sustainable transport, since it will remain a daunting route alongside fast moving traffic. If PCC reallocated an additional metre width from the road to the shared cycle/pedestrian route, that might show PCC is willing to take sustainable transport seriously. It is startling just how low bar the PCC has set for what constitutes a good scheme. The air quality campaigners referred PCC to the Portsmouth Cycle Forum’s objection to the CCR as a starting point for further information. (See also FOOPA’s objection.) Sustrans have even threatened to delete route 22 of the national cycle network because it is dangerous, which shows the lack of PCC’s commitment to sustainable transport.

Rod raised the concern of too many junctions being optimized for motor users rather than cyclists and pedestrians. Mike discussed the impact of the removal of a pedestrian crossing at the Anglesea Road/Park Road junction near the university, requiring pedestrians to walk further and wait longer in traffic fumes at three other crossings to make the same journey. Ben mentioned at least one crossing on this route will prioritize pedestrians. More investigation of the current situation by air quality campaigners is probably needed. Rod called for the PCC to adopt the Precautionary Principle, which calls for greater caution in decision making particularly when there is uncertainty about the impact on public health.

PCC also mentioned they are considering measuring particulate air pollution against the stricter WHO limits. This is a welcome move since the law does not seem to have kept pace with scientific understanding.

Also in the news: BBC, “Illegal levels of air pollution linked to child’s death“, 3rd July 2018