Air pollution: Why Edinburgh’s plan just isn’t good enough – Christine Jardine

Air pollution is an issue that has long dogged the city known as Auld Reekie as this image from 1969 shows
Air pollution is an issue that has long dogged the city known as Auld Reekie as this image from 1969 shows
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The UK and Scottish Governments need to invest in cutting fossil fuel emissions, given the pressing need to tackle climate change and improve air quality, writes Christine Jardine.

At times this past week it has almost felt like I was being stalked by a subject. It is one that is close, not just to my heart, but to so many people I meet every day. It is also vital to our future.

It first appeared last weekend at the celebration to mark my colleague councillor Robert Aldridge’s 35 years as an elected representative.

There among the mementoes of his career was a leaflet from two decades ago complaining about the levels of air pollution in Corstorphine.

The next morning I observed the traffic in the area’s St John’s Road – still one of the worst polluted roads in Scotland – and took comfort from the fact that at least this week the council was set to deal with it. Queensferry Road too – which is Scotland’s most polluted stretch of highway – would, I was confident, be entering a new, cleaner era.

The council’s plan would also, I hoped, make it possible – and affordable – for residents in the outskirts to come into the city without their cars or facing heavy charges. I had a few surprises in store.

But hold that thought.

On Thursday, I made my nerve-wracking debut on the BBC’s Question Time programme.

It was possibly no surprise that the subject which provoked my most passionate response was the environment and pollution. I appreciate that this is a topic I keep coming back to, but I believe it is one pudding that would be impossible to over-egg.

Clean air is one of the most precious commodities we have, and it’s only becoming more precious.

READ MORE: Air polluition killing more people than smoking in UK

But finally, thankfully, it seems that we are waking up to the reality of the dangers of air pollution, climate change and the need to take drastic action to address them.

Tinkering around the edges isn’t good enough. We need to be brave, and yes, we need to start spending money.

In Scotland, air pollution figures show that we are still above levels considered safe by the World Health Organisation. Our children are now making it abundantly clear that they do not believe previous generations have done enough to ensure the planet is safe for them.

And they are the ones who tend to be exposed to higher levels of pollution than adults. We need to listen to them and act now. They shouldn’t pay the price for our dithering. And we are dithering.

I still find it astonishing that breathing the air in an outer area of Edinburgh can often feel as bad – if not worse – as being in the middle of London.

As I said, we need to be brave and we need to be drastic. Which brings me back to my disappointment over the long-awaited plans for a Low Emissions Zone (LEZ) revealed by Edinburgh City Council.

The proposals – which are now to be put out to consultation – have managed the astonishing feat of satisfying the needs of neither those who live with traffic polllution, nor those who need to travel into the city from communities like Queensferry and Ratho.

Let me be absolutely clear the council has my full support for the idea of creating the zone. But it has to work, not just for some of the public, but everyone who lives in the city.

As it stands the plan would introduce a full LEZ in the city centre only, where the most polluting cars will be charged a levy to enter, with another city-wide zone which would only apply to buses, coaches and commercial vehicles.

READ MORE: Global air polluition study should shock us into action – leader comment

Some of the worst-affected areas of the city would be in the second category. For those who live along and around St John’s Road, Queensferry Road, and other hotspots across wider Edinburgh, there would still be queues of cars belching out toxic fumes.

For motorists on the outskirts, the plan offers no immediate or even long-term option to bringing in their cars and paying the charges.

Here there was a chance to take bold steps towards solving a decades-old problem, but somehow I have the horrible feeling it has fallen short.

The consultation opens this week so at least we will all have the chance to air our views. I’m hopeful that people will.

Of course, putting in place an LEZ wouldn’t be the end of the story, and it would need lot of other things to work too.

The most obvious is more investment in more effective integration of our public transport systems.

To offer an alternative to driving in and just paying the charges, we need something which works better than the currently inadequate provision of park-and-ride.

To be fair to our and every other council in the UK, this isn’t an issue which only requires action at a local level. Pollution doesn’t respect borders, and cooperation with our European partners is nowhere more crucial than tacking the environmental emergency.

The EU led the world in agreeing its ambitious climate targets, which were built on energy proposals originally drawn up by British ministers led by my colleague Sir Edward Davey.

Our Governments at Holyrood and Westminster are currently working towards those targets to try to reverse climate change and clean up our air. Part of reaching them will be effective action at local level. Action like an effective Low Emmission Zone in Edinburgh. But that takes investment. Money.

Over the next six weeks we will all have a chance to tell the council what we think of their plans, but I have a message for both of our Governments too: It’s time to splash the cash guys.

We need a solution and you need to help us fund it. The clock is ticking.