Steve Hamilton: How to tackle air pollution without punishing the poor

stevehamCllr Steve Hamilton is a councillor for Sands End Ward and the Conservative spokesman on transport.

An honest increase in revenue could be taken from increased Council Tax, but the Administration made an election pledge to freeze Council Tax – sorry, they actually made a pledge to cut Council Tax, but did anyone really expect them to keep their pledge?

Instead they have decided to introduce an stealth tax on a third of car owners in the borough – introduced under the cover of clearer air, but intended as a simple revenue increase – they have staggered the tax over a number of years, to reduce the headline figure to ‘just £20’ as they describe it.

This stealth tax is despite one of the recommendations of this Council’s Parking Task Group, which concluded “The Task Group supports the principle of encouraging residents to drive more environmentally friendly-vehicles through reduced parking fees for green vehicles, but not penalising drivers of older, less environmentally-friendly vehicles.”

The fact that this is a tax designed to increase revenue is clear from the cabinet papers – a green measure would talk about the reduced number of vehicles subject to the tax – instead, and I quote from the report “…this would increase the income from Parking Permits…” and “This will be taken account of in the council’s future financial planning.”

So it is a tax, pure and simple, but is there a point in charging more for a permit for a diesel car than a petrol car?

Diesel cars have been encouraged by government – it was the previous Labour government that decided that CO2 was bad, and anything that could be done to reduce CO2 therefore had to be good – including replacing CO2 with NOx – hence they encouraged people to buy diesel instead of petrol, and now people who listened to the Labour government are now to be punished for it by this Labour council.

We already tax people on their use of fuel, in the US you pay roughly 68 cents for a litre, currently about 55p – compared to £1.20 per litre here. This tax is directly proportionate to the amount of pollution a vehicle causes – more fuel in = more cost.

This is in direct contrast to this Labour stealth tax – which is the same if you leave your car at home all day, or if you drive up and down the streets of the borough.

In fact, it is even worse – the vast majority of journeys made in the borough are by people who do not live in the borough – so the Administration is taxing our residents, while leaving the majority of offenders alone.

Are the borough’s diesel drivers a major source of pollution?

As this is the Administration’s flagship policy for clearer air, you might expect local diesel drivers to be in the top 3 producers of NOx – but they are not – in the top 10 then? No, they are joint 13th – tied with taxis – for now at least, as when the TX5 is introduced later this year, a model launched by Boris Johnson as Mayor, we will see zero emission taxis.

So what are the top producers of NOx, and what is the council doing about them? Very little…

Construction is the biggest producer of NO2 – generally diesel from construction vehicles and from diesel generators – actually as the council is approving fewer homes, you might argue they are doing something to reduce their impact – but more could be done here – planning conditions could be used to encourage using grid electricity instead of generators and lower emission vehicles

In second place, diesel rail. The good news is that the Conservative government are doing something – the electrification of the Great Western line will enable diesel trains to be phased out from the line – possibly reducing a whole class of polluter.

In third place is non-domestic gas, and I know of nothing that the council is doing to address this.

Finally, in fourth place, are buses – as Mayor, Boris Johnson introduced the hybrid Routemaster bus to reduce pollution, which the current Mayor has decided to cancel. Boris had also started requiring zero emission buses be used on ever more routes – this is an area where the Council should be working harder with the Mayor of London, to set a timetable for all buses in Hammersmith and Fulham to be zero emission – removing all diesel buses from the borough would do more than removing all diesel cars, and it is achievable without introducing stealth taxes on our residents.

Some might say that it is just £20 per year, those who drive new flashy 4x4s can afford it, but that misses the point – most people with a new 4×4 will replace it in a few years, and can choose a vehicle that meets the emissions requirements.

As the cabinet report says – “those less economical [sic] well off, as these people are more likely to own older cars which are less emission friendly. As such the new permit structure and associated prices may have a greater impact on this sector of residents.” – not may – it will, as these are the people for whom an extra £60 per year is an unwelcome additional expense, but who cannot simply replace their vehicle.

H&F Council rejects allowing electric cars to use bus lanes

A Nissan Leaf

A Nissan Leaf

I wrote last week about the urgent priority to encourage motorists to switch to electric cars. At present air pollution kills 72 borough residents a year – as well as diminishing the quality of life for the rest of us. A big switch to electric cars would be transformational. A significant incentive could be allowing electric cars to use bus lanes. So it is disappointing that Hammersmith and Fulham Council has rejected the idea.

Edward Stubbing, a Transport Planner for the Council’s Transport and Highways Department writes to me to say:

“Modelling suggest that there is a eight fold increase in fully electric vehicle ownership year on year, as such the bus lanes are likely to quickly become congested with electric vehicles over time as the level of ownership quickly rises. Bus lanes are currently used by both buses and Taxi’s in recognition of the shared mode of transport they represent. Introducing other vehicles into these priority lanes would likely damage the effectiveness and advantage of these modes of travel.”

He concludes:

“As such at present it is the view of officers that the benefits of allowing electric vehicles into bus lanes, does not outway the disadvantages it would cause other road users.”

Now there can be a more general argument about whether bus lanes are an overall benefit in terms of traffic congestion and passenger journey times. In Liverpool most bus lanes have been abolished to ease traffic congestion for motorists. The length of time for bus journeys only increased fractionally and the number of bus passengers actually increased. At Holborn tube station passengers were asked to stand on both sides of the escalators – instead of walking on the left and standing on the right. This meant congestion was eased as capacity increased. One can see the same logic provides a case for getting rid of bus lanes.

On the other hand perhaps Mr Stubbing is correct and that allowing electric cars to use bus lanes would increase overall journey times. I think he’s wrong – but let us suppose he is right. What is more serious? That a bus journey takes a minute or two longer or that air pollution continues to cause us to die an year earlier than we otherwise would and means we are wheezing and spluttering before it finally finishes us off?

We need cleaner air in Hammersmith and Fulham

borisbikesPublic Health England estimates that 72 people a year in Hammersmith and Fulham die as a result of air pollution. They put the “associated life-years lost” at 1,070. That compares to two of us a year who die in road accidents. Also two of us a year being murdered.

Among the major causes of death in our borough are Cerebrovascular diseases (Male: 43.5, Female: 20.4 death rate per 100,000),  Chronic lower respiratory diseases (Male: 44.4, Female: 26.2) and  Ishaemic heart diseases (Male: 90.6, Female: 37.3).  Air pollution is a significant contributor to these. But it is insidious – it is less dramatic than being stabbed or knocked down by a car. One of the reasons I oppose road humps is the evidence that they increase pollution.

At present our monitoring of air quality appears deficient compared to other boroughs.

The good news is that since Boris Johnson became the Mayor of London the air in the capital has become cleaner. Planting trees and encouraging cycling have both helped.

Another initiative is dust suppressant spray.

The Mayor’s Air Quality Fund is providing £100,000 to pay for this in Scrubs Lane. Research has indicated that this treatment provides a significant reduction in PM10 – the dust which we inhale into our respiratory tracts and which impedes our lung capacity. Depending on the frequency of respraying and the type of site chosen air pollution is reduced by something between a quarter and a half.

Boris Johnson has issued planning guidance encouraging councils to include a requirement for this spraying in return for granting consent to construction projects.

I have asked Elizabeth Fonseca, the Environmental Quality Manager at Hammersmith and Fulham Council if this guidance will be followed.

She replied:

“We are in the process of reviewing this recently issued Supplementary Planning Guidance so that we may further develop our own procedures for addressing dust issues via the planning process.  However, I can confirm that if dust suppressant application is seen to be an appropriate mitigation measure, we would expect to agree details at the application stage else we would recommend a condition requiring its use at a development site by the developer; this is our current protocol where other dust abatement measures are deemed necessary.  We would not seek funding to allow us to undertake this work as it would be an additional burden on services which can and should be addressed by the developer.

“In addition to this, we also review Demolition Notices under the Building Act 1984 and place similar conditions on Counter Notices where we have similar concerns regarding demolition works.

I will pursue this. The cost is not that great – it involves retofitting a salt gritter which costs around £70,000 a time. It seems to me it would be worthwhile to have regular spraying of streets in the borough – even where major works are not taking place.