Jo Gideon: Clean air is a basic need. Not a luxury

26 Sep

Jo Gideon is the Member of Parliament for Stoke on Trent Central

This year, the connection between our health and the environment has never been clearer. We have seen how wildlife trafficking and habitat loss are making animal-borne diseases like Covid-19 more likely. The cleaner air during the lockdown has also made us more cognizant of the harmful impact of traffic fumes. So it is timely that the Environment Bill is returning to Parliament soon, requiring the government to set targets for improving our environment, including the reduction of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – the most harmful type of air pollution. But ambitious targets must be backed up by action to make it easier for people to choose cleaner forms of transport, such as electric cars or cycling.

Clean air should be seen as a basic need, not a luxury. In the UK, air pollution is the leading environmental risk to our health, and is responsible for between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths each year. Public Health England’s conservative estimate of the cost of air pollution to our NHS and social care system in 2017 was £42.88 million, of which £41.2 million was due to PM2.5. This noxious pollutant is made up of tiny particles from fuel, tyres, brake discs and road dust. In the latest World Health Organisation report, 30 towns and cities in the UK exceeded the recommended limits on fine particulate matter, including my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent.

The public wants to see politicians taking action to clean up our air. Polling commissioned by the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) shows that 68 per cent of people in the West Midlands support the creation of car-free zones outside of schools during pick-up and drop-off time, even if this makes the school run less convenient. A majority are also in favour of the government offering incentives for people to change to an electric vehicle, as well as strengthening air pollution laws and investing in walking and cycling.

Accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and active travel will be key to building back cleaner air after Covid-19. Earlier this year, the UK launched a consultation to bring forward the phase-out date for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035, and I would urge the government to be even more ambitious by setting the date for 2030 if feasible in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s advice. Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, with annual sales of new EVs expected to reach 200,000 by 2021, and in the most recent Budget I was pleased that the Chancellor extended the Plug-In Car Grant to help people with the purchase costs.

The mass adoption of electric vehicles will require a nationwide charge point network. A mixture of public grants and private partnerships have enabled some local authorities to install charge points, but uptake is far from universal. The government has made great strides in addressing this issue. Yet at the moment with just nine charging points in total – equating to one public charging point for every 268 local EVs – Stoke-on-Trent is one of the worst areas for EV charging in the country. There’s no shortage of ambition from our council to rectify this, provided they have central government support, however. That’s why I welcomed the £500 million funding announced in March to help the rollout of high-powered, open-access charge points.

The government is also supporting councils to create more walking and cycling infrastructure, with a £2 billion funding package and a new strategy for cycling and walking – setting an ambition for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030. The West Midlands is already seeing the benefits of this: the new Starley Network, funded in part by the government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund, will join together 500 miles of cycle routes across the region. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have 18 miles of canal pathways which offer a unique opportunity for cycling routes.

And of course, underpinning all of this, must be a world-leading target to tackle the toxic PM2.5, committing in the Environment Bill to achieving the World Health Organisation’s current air quality standards. This would once again demonstrate the government’s commitment to having higher environmental standards than the European Union after Brexit. Achieving this standard – which is feasible according to the government’s own study – would also deliver annual health benefits of £6.8 billion.

As with our net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions, the UK would be the first major economy to make such a commitment, and it would complement our climate change target by encouraging the widespread uptake of electric forms of travel and heating.

Leaving the European Union presents us with a historic opportunity to create a healthier environment for ourselves and future generations. Let’s not waste it.

Meirion Jenkins: The lack of democratic accountability in Birmingham is worse than ever

18 Aug

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

One good thing that politicians might say about Covid, is that it will provide an excuse for so many failures that have little to do with Covid, or were destined to fail long before the virus appeared. And so it is with the Labour council in Birmingham. With the Birmingham Commonwealth Games now less than two years away, audit committee had classified the athletes’ village as a ‘red risk’. The athletes’ village is the only part of the games that is wholly within the control of Labour and, like most things that Labour’s Birmingham administration handles, it’s another shambles.

The village has now been cancelled. Goodness knows how much this will cost the taxpayers in Birmingham through unrecoverable sunk costs. According to the last business case, which increased the costs by £92 million, £226 million had already been spent by the end of March 2020 on this project. The council chose to fund the village itself with no central government intervention, using a complex finance arrangement and with a view to making a turn on the property development. It was just last December that Labour mysteriously rushed through the purchase of a National Express bus depot, refusing to allow scrutiny or call in of the decision on the grounds that it was urgent, despite paying eight times the budgeted price (£16 million) for the land.

Strangely, this ‘vital’ piece of land was not planned to be needed until the Games and, even then, was only to be used as a depot. It’s now not at all clear whether it will be needed at all. When the Games were taken on at short notice, the Conservative group suggested that the use of student accommodation would represent a lower risk and lower cost option, but the Labour leadership preferred the ‘legacy’ of the athletes’ village. This has now proved to be a disastrous decision and it will probably be student accommodation that meets a large part of the requirement.

The running of the council and lack of democratic accountability is as troubling as ever in Birmingham. Full council and the elected members have now reached the point of being an irrelevance. At the last council meeting (Teams of course), we found ourselves debating a proposal to spend £7,000 on joining a special interest group, whilst the real decisions involving millions of pounds are taken secretly behind closed doors with no scrutiny allowed. Lip service is paid to councillors but we are effectively prevented from doing the job that our residents elected us to do.

We have reached the stage where Labour cabinet members have said in full council “we don’t know what else the officers are hiding from us”. After the meeting when this comment was made and in a separate matter, it emerged that Birmingham had made a decision to pay £1,000 incentives to care homes to take patients regardless of their unknown Covid status. This decision was made as an ‘emergency decision’ and therefore outside of the usual scrutiny process. Senior members of the cabinet are also privately expressing frustration about lack of access to information and lack of consultation on important decisions. Rows break out in audit committee over the Labour administration’s continuing insistence on keeping audit committee in the dark.

I’m also not sure what I find the most remarkable: is it that the Leader of the council is not included in the group of officers that run the council, insofar as the exercise of emergency powers is concerned, or the fact that the Leader is happy to accept this situation? The emergency powers were designed to allow the council to take urgent actions and intended to last just hours or a few days at most. Four months on, we still don’t have the democratically elected leader of the council directly involved in the decisions deriving from the exercise of emergency powers.

I regret that many Labour members (with some notable exceptions) seem content with and motivated only by the status they associate with being a city councillor, but care little for the fact that the role is being diminished to the point of irrelevance. Attempts by me and my colleagues to persuade them to do the right thing and protect the role of the councillor fall on deaf ears. Whilst online meetings can be useful when there is no alternative in a crisis, they are in no way a substitute for proper meetings. Despite this, there is resistance from the Labour administration to re-convening even hybrid meetings, let alone a proper return to full accountability.

Labour Birmingham remains a fully paid up member of the anti-car club. Even when John Lewis decided to close their flagship store in the Bull Ring and we saw press reports about how the city-centre driving tax might have influenced this ( Clean air zone blamed for closure ), Labour stuck dogmatically to their plans to tax hard working motorists for bringing cars into the city. To whatever extent the plan influenced the closure, it is hard to deny that anti-business / anti-car policies will discourage investment. If the city centre is harder and less convenient to access, then this is bound to discourage shoppers and business people from visiting.

Labour seized on the Covid crisis to attempt to introduce a 20mph speed limit as a default throughout Birmingham. Fortunately, they couldn’t do this without the approval of the Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and their request was turned down. I wrote to him to object to Labour’s plans. Ironically, new reports show that one of the areas with worst congestion (and which is densely populated) is Birmingham’s ring road (e.g. Dartmouth Circus ). If Labour are successful in implementing their new tax under the justification of clean air, then they will be moving extra cars and pollution to some of the areas where air pollution is already worst.