2nd Air Quality Steering Group Meet – Is Portsmouth Being Ambitious Enough?

I just attended the 2nd Air Quality Steering Group meeting. It had more people in attendance then the inaugural meeting. Councillor Dave Ashmore welcomed everyone and Richard Lee (regulatory service manager) reminded everyone the purpose of the group was to share knowledge and ideas for solving the air quality problem in Portsmouth. They said the “focus points” were addressing the London Road corridor and bottom of M275 AQMA areas. This is already a cause for concern as any very local solution might displace traffic to nearby streets; a more holistic approach may be needed for tackling these two areas.

The tone from Richard Lee was the most constructive I’ve heard so far, saying “we need a plan”, that we need to make “difficult decisions” and we need to address the crisis in the “shortest possible time frame”.  This is in line with UK law and recent High Court rulings, which is great.

The meeting was scheduled to discuss solutions on a shortlist of 12 created by Portsmouth City Council (PCC). Rod Bailey (Milton Neighbourhood Plan) spoke saying we might be missing the bigger picture since new development could easily balance or overtake improvements to transport. We might end up in an even worse place then now, unless this is addressed. Claire Upton-Brown (City Development Manager) then spoke saying the relevant plans are considering air quality and the in-place processes would deal with it. I have my doubts in these assurances since these processes and planning methods led us into the current crisis! PCC shows little sign of realizing they need to do things differently than in the past. Claire also said some planning requests could be refused if they adversely affected air pollution, which was met with skepticism judging by reaction of a few people in the room. (Most likely, PCC will add an aspirational statement in an obscure report about air quality, which is then ignored in planning decisions.) Richard Lee concluded the response to Rod saying we need to improve air quality despite new growth. However, the attitude that we can deal with problems caused by new development at some later time is part of the short term thinking that permeates PCC.

Notably, they did not say that new developments have been refocused on reducing pollution, or they had modeled the overall effect of new developments. For this reason, I have little faith that Portsmouth City Council have really understood that development and air quality need to be treated holistically and quantitatively. As far as I know, the polluting city centre road scheme is still going ahead. Instead, we should be considering a halt on development until we can ensure any new development is within the “air quality budget”. We might need to take drastic action now to allow for new developments later.

PCC had collected and tabulated the ideas from the previous meeting. (I had an annotated copy by the wonderful Mike Dobson.) They listed 30 ideas they considered good, with a further 23 deprioritized as either impractical or already in progress. The first thing I did was to check which list contained the proposal for a charging CAZ. PCC saw fit to put in the impractical category saying:

Due to cost, timescales and resources that would be required to set up and run a congestion charging scheme, this would only be considered as a last resort. At this stage, priority is being given to robust measures which will bring about a reduction in air pollution, rather than looking to develop a congestion charge or Clean Air Zone.

This is problematic on several levels. Firstly the PCC has a legal requirement to bring air pollution down “as soon as possible” and a charging CAZ is recognized by DEFRA as the most effective means to do it. Any proposal must be at least as effective as a charging CAZ to be legal according to the High Court. A charging CAZ is the benchmark by which other measures are evaluated and therefore should be included as an option an any future plan.

Secondly, PCC cites cost as a reason not to implement a charging CAZ. The High Court specifically ruled out lack of resources as a reason not to comply as soon as possible with legislation, so this justification may be open to legal challenge. (Not to mention that a charging CAZ brings in revenue.)

Thirdly, saying the timescale of a charging CAZ is too long is nonsensical since without it, it is unlikely Portsmouth will reach compliance within the 2-3  years it would take to implement it. Again, PCC seem to be using wishful thinking to justify half measures.

Fourthly, they omit the real reason: political difficulty. People don’t like their routines disrupted. However, we need to constantly remind ourselves that our current lifestyles are not sustainable. Disruption is needed (and inevitable). My first thought is local politicians should just say “it’s the law”, pass the buck to central government, and implement a robust plan. I guess they worry their political positions could be taken by denialists, which is very unfortunate (for all of us).

The 30 “good ideas” were pre-selected to 12 prioritized ideas by PCC before the meeting. They were:

  • Investigate introduction of Car Club scheme for the city
  • Bus priority throughout the city
  • Incentivize the use of electric delivery vehicles, especially for goods yards
  • A freight distribution centre outside the city
  • Use of freight at Fratton Station
  • Consider incentives to encourage greater number of EV or hybrid taxis
  • Remove street parking to improve traffic flow
  • Designated loading/delivery times for businesses
  • Ban traffic except buses and bikes from AQMAs, either completely or at peak times/different points of the year
  • Introduce filtering measures such as bollards and trees for traffic-less areas
  • Consider one-way traffic systems
  • Pedestrianize precincts in AQMA6

Almost all the measures attempt to optimize vehicle usage rather than directly reduce it. Our group’s discussions mainly focused on pedestrianization, vehicle limits at certain times, and improvements to bus services. Things that did not make the priority list (apart from charging CAZ) include:

  • Infrastructure changes, such as priority for cyclists at junctions and improvements to support pedestrians, to encourage greater levels of walking and cycling (although PCC claims this is a work in progress)
  • More bike storage/lockers in the city (PCC says they will improve where possible)

So PCC will improve cycling but it is not a priority. This is a bad sign since cycling is one of the key ways to reduce car usage. Other ignored options include:

  • Consider workplace parking levies (within SME exemptions) – PCC gives no coherent reason why this has been discounted
  • Tramlines in key areas of the city – PCC cites cost and lack of space
  • Incentivize the installation of living roofs and green walls to help filter particulates in the air – already in progress
  • Greening the urban environment to make living streets – missing completely from PCC options list! This was proposed multiple times at the last meeting.
  • Charging CAZ

Most of these options have been discounted without proper thought and analysis. In one case, PCC seems to have dropped an option completely without tabulating it. We can add a few new ideas to PCC’s list as well:

  • A ban on new development unless they are pollution neural or better, at least until a quantitative plan has been produced for air quality.
  • A total/non-EV/diesel/older diesel vehicle ban on Portsea Island
  • Using resident parking schemes to limit car ownership (an idea from Lynn Stagg)

These are the most extreme options but we must think outside the box. Hamburg is banning older diesel cars so it is not without precedent.

My biggest concern is the doubt that the 12 priority measures are able to address the problem within a short enough time scale. Local pedestrianization and vehicle limits will just displace the problem. Many other proposals are just tinkering around the edges. PCC should be looking at broader and stronger solutions. Richard Lee said they plan to summarize the feedback they received at the meeting and shortlist about 5 top measures. These will then be modeled and checked for effectiveness before being put into a future air quality plan. Since the other measures have questionable effectiveness, we should include an option known to be effective in the modeling exercise i.e. a city-wide charging CAZ. Without that, I wonder what happens if the modeling report comes back at says none of the measures are ambitious enough?

I asked Dave Ashmore how he manages to balance the needs of voters with legal and financial constraints. Without directly answering the question, he implied that (in my interpretation) we need to educate the public to help reach compliance. This is similar to a comment by Lynn Stagg (at the first meeting) that we need to “bring the public along with us” rather than force them along the right path. I disagree since this is a public health crisis that needs to be urgently addressed. Educating the public about air pollution will take 5-10 years at least (and has already been tried with little success), while we need a solution in 2-3 years. Some compulsion will probably be needed.

One thing that was not discussed was DEFRA’s instructions about need for a Targeted Feasibility Plan, what PCC has sent as a response and what the next stage in the process might be. I am concerned (along with Mike and Rod) that DEFRA is distracting PCC by focusing on just the M275 rather than London Road and overall the big picture.

In conclusion, I welcome the clear language and direction Richard Lee used in introducing the issues but I am concerned that the measures under consideration are too weak.