Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
As West Midlands Mayor, I have made it my mission to drive improvements in the region’s public transport system, from trains and trams to buses and bikes.
The progress we have seen in recent years is helping to connect people to new opportunities, driving economic growth and is playing a major part in tackling the climate challenge – by persuading people to make fewer car journeys, and easing congestion on the roads.
However, while public transport is a core part of my job responsibility, control of those local roads continues to sit with our councils. Today marks the start of one of the most significant changes to the region’s road network, affecting Birmingham city centre.
Birmingham City Council today introduces its “clean air zone” charging scheme, which will charge motorists of “non-compliant” vehicles £8 a day to enter the city centre.
First of all, I think it is important to say that I support the principle behind the clean air zone idea. Birmingham is one of five cities required by the Government to set up a clean air zone, as part of plans to tackle illegal levels of pollution across the country.
There is no doubt that the city centre does suffer serious pollution at peak traffic times and that action needs to be taken. Pollution levels can be unacceptably high, putting people’s health and wellbeing at risk.
In 2019, a study carried out by Kings College London found that primary school children who grow up in Birmingham could lose half a year of their lives due to illegal levels of air pollution. The loss of life expectancy is worse in Birmingham than some other major cities in the UK including Manchester, researchers found.
Nobody wants to live in a congested and polluted city centre – the West Midlands might be the home of the car, but we also need to ensure people have a viable alternative to using it.
However, I do have serious concerns about the scheme in Birmingham. There is no doubt that the council’s charging scheme is a heavy stick which will come down hard – with a big increase in the cost of living for those affected.
The first question we must ask is: is it coming down unfairly hard? I fear it is. Let me outline some of my concerns.
The charges apply to older vehicles, which are more likely to cause pollution. However, there is a strong argument that, as a result, the scheme targets those least able to pay – people most likely to have older vehicles and least able to replace them.
I have real concerns that not enough has been done to mitigate the effects of the scheme on those who can least afford it.
Then there is the fact that it will operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week. There is a strong argument that, again, this is unfair. The fact is that pollution isn’t constant around the clock and hitting night workers with this extra charge when the roads are empty doesn’t appear to be helping the environment.
Then there is the question of timing. The clean air zone will hit a whole swathe of city centre small businesses who have already had an exceptionally tough year and are only just beginning to grasp what the future may hold post-Covid.
The entire spectrum of city centre businesses – from office workers to cleaners, from sandwich shops to taxi drivers, are in the process of getting back on their feet as the economy reopens.
Why not delay the scheme until we are fully out of lockdown and fully returning to work?
Finally, there is the question of what will be done with the income created by the clean air zone. This is a hugely significant step towards creating a cleaner transport system for the city, which has been driven by genuine health concerns. I believe a real chance has been missed to commit every penny of profit made from the scheme to additional transport improvements.
These are just some of the concerns that have been raised, coupled with questions about why more isn’t being done to clean the air in the city centre – such as through “greening” technology along the roadside.
If we want people to use their cars less, we have to provide a suitable alternative. I continue to be a passionate believer that the only way to tackle congestion and gridlock on our roads is to transform public transport.
That’s what my transport plan is all about. In my first term as mayor we increased investment in transport sevenfold, thanks to Government backing. Many of those projects are now well underway, and in the month or so since my re-election we have made more progress on the plan.
On rail, the ugly and unsatisfactory Perry Barr station has now been demolished and will be the next brand-new station in our region, joining the conveyor belt of completely new or replacement stations being built. It will be the station for the Commonwealth Games – underlining how the Games investment will deliver long term benefits to the region.
On our metro tram system, this week we start work in earnest on the latest new line – linking Birmingham city centre with HS2 and providing brilliant public transport through Digbeth, helping to drive the immense investment and regeneration happening in an area known for its creative quarter.
The investment being delivered by HS2 is game changing in economic terms, and we are determined to make the most of it. The construction of the new Curzon Street station, for instance, will provide almost 1,000 new jobs.
Work on the metro across the region continues at pace – just a couple of weeks ago the first new bridge was put in place as part of the massive Black Country metro expansion and the first of our brand-new trams arrived to serve the growing network.
And in the last few weeks we have seen the region’s bike share scheme continue to be rolled out, with Birmingham joining a swathe of other communities like Sutton Coldfield, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton and Walsall – plus of course Stourbridge where the Prime Minister was one of the early users.
But transport is not just about public sector investment. It is also about working with the private sector to improve choice and bring in its huge resources. Later this month bus service provider National Express is going to introduce a raft of significant fare cuts across its services – aligning with the end of lockdown. It will now be substantially cheaper to use the bus than it has been for years.
And not just cheaper, better. National Express continue to invest in its fleet, including its modern platinum buses which are cleaner, greener and more comfortable for passengers. On top of that, the region is seeing the ongoing rollout of emission-free electric and hydrogen buses.
Finally, on rail the all-important Cross-City line will be transformed with new electric trains, increasing capacity and improving the travelling experience for everyone.
The introduction today of a clean air zone in Birmingham has been hotly debated. While I support the principle behind the concept, I also understand the serious misgivings of those who fear they will be unfairly impacted by this attempt to reduce the number of local car journeys.
Ultimately, punitive charges like this can only be a small part of the solution to the transport challenge we face. The key is providing viable, attractive alternatives to the private car that people positively choose as their preference. The carrot, not the stick.
My transport plan is delivering those alternatives, as well as helping to kick start our region’s economy as we come out of the pandemic.