SNP U-turn on protecting Edinburgh's people from deadly air pollution is a disgrace – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

There is a popular misconception that the SNP-led administration that runs the capital cares about protecting our environment.

Exhaust fumes can be a killer as well as contributing to climate change (Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

This is driven in large part by the Spaces for People schemes, which have promoted walking and cycling as a response to the pandemic.

But these schemes only happened because the council was given millions of pounds to make physical adaptations to our communities, to allow social distancing and increased active travel in lockdown.

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I have written previously about how several of these schemes have potentially damaged a lot of the goodwill there had been for trying to do things greener. Unfortunately a recent decision by the council leadership has given the lie to their green credentials.

In the last parliament, a new Transport Act paved the way for the creation of so-called low-emission zones in Scotland’s cities. These LEZs mean fines for polluting vehicles that enter problem areas.

This was a critical and welcome move as toxic air pollution caused by vehicles leads to the early death of as many as 2,500 Scots each year. My own constituency of Edinburgh Western is home to two of Scotland’s most polluted arterial routes in St John’s Road and Queensferry Road.

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So, I was heartily glad when Edinburgh’s council administration announced their intention to introduce two low-emission zones, one in the city centre for all polluting vehicles and a second, city-wide zone covering goods vehicles, buses and coaches.

They consulted extensively on the two zones. Enforcement would be achieved through licence-plate recognition cameras and vehicles operating below certain emissions standards would face a hefty fine. I was encouraged by the widespread public support for the measures until the administration announced their final intentions last week. Reader, they bottled it.

Pointing to emissions data, collected by equipment installed in places like St Johns Road (half of which was recorded in lockdown), city leaders argued that we’re making enough organic progress on cutting pollution as it is. Whilst they’ll proceed with the city centre LEZ, it appears they think the wider zone just isn’t worth the hassle. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that is good enough.

On average, about one in 29 deaths in Edinburgh is caused by air pollution. This is a major public health issue. It’s also a massive environmental issue too. Vehicle emissions contribute extensively to our carbon footprint, and by extension, climate change.

I can’t help but think that SNP councillors, with half an eye on city elections next May have decided they don’t want to be bold with this. Perhaps they’ve had their fingers burned by the public backlash to some of the Spaces for People schemes but, ironically, these proposals enjoyed far greater public support across the city.

Climate change is by far the biggest threat to our way of life, far greater than the Covid emergency, and as such we need to be radical in our approach as to how we live our lives.

That starts with how we move goods around the city. The SNP are all over the place on this, not listening about the impracticalities of some of the Spaces for People schemes, but running to the hills on a wider city LEZ. Voters will find them out.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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