On 22 March the joint Transport, Health and Environment Select Committees launched their Air Quality Report, which I contributed to. It makes pretty stark reading. Independent health bodies estimate that 40,000 people per year die prematurely in the UK as a result of air pollution, the second highest number of preventable deaths after smoking. Pollutants such as Nitrous Oxide and Particulates are disproportionately caused by diesel engines, but all fossil fuel engines pollute the air.
I insisted on the report calling for investment to be prioritised where that would reduce the levels of local air pollution. For example, at the Norwich Road/Chevalier Street junction any measure that will reduce traffic will help save people’s lives. That’s the strongest possible argument for a new road north of Ipswich, which will take traffic away from that junction. And Labour has long argued for a much more radical solution to the St Helens Street problem, too, where air quality is unacceptable.
But just improving the layout of the roads is not going to deal with the problem on its own. Ipswich residents need to get into the habit of walking or cycling or taking the bus whenever it is convenient to do so. Obviously, that’s not always possible, but if everyone who could left their car at home, it would make a lot more space available for those who do need to drive – including buses. And we would all become a whole lot healthier – regular walking is one of the best ways of preventing obesity, and that is particularly true for younger people.
Another striking fact from the Report was that inside a car is one of the most polluted places to be – children in cars actually get a far higher dose of pollution than they would if they were walking. And children who walk to school develop their social skills and learn road safety better. Children who walk to school are actually LESS likely to be seriously injured in road accidents because they have got used to the way that traffic behaves. Parents really do need to weigh up the health consequences for their children before deciding whether to drive them to school every day.
But for longer journeys, and for many older people, walking the whole length of the journey is not feasible. For those, a good bus service is absolutely essential. I believe we should encourage children and young people to travel by bus too, to give them independent mobility. I regret the scrapping of the Explore card by the Conservative County Council which did just that.
In the last few months Ipswich Buses have been hit with the removal of the Park & Ride contract, reduction of their rural route contracts, reduction in the amount they pay for concessionary fares, and the cancellation of the Free Shuttle bus contract, all by the County Council.
The contrast between the County and the Labour-run Borough is stark. None of the at-risk bus services in Ipswich have closed, because the Borough Council has stepped up to the plate and supported them. Labour Councillors can see the value of encouraging people to travel by bus. Car-drivers benefit too because the roads are freed up from unnecessary traffic. Even the free shuttle has been saved, although its journeys have had to be seriously reduced. And Ipswich Buses has been investing in more reliable, greener, more fuel efficient buses.
I believe Ipswich Buses has turned the corner – despite the perfect storm of unhelpful decisions from the County it has dealt with its financial situation and will be with us for many years to come. Some fares have had to increase, but I think most people would prefer to pay slightly more for a bus journey, than not have a bus there in the first place.
One of the biggest problems for drivers and bus passengers alike is the continuing saga of the roadworks. Labour Councillors have called for years for a roadworks licensing system to encourage contractors to finish their work as quickly as possible. Other Counties can make such a system work – it is a mystery to me why we can’t do that in Suffolk.
It’s time we had an Ipswich Transport Forum which could discuss all of these issues and find some solutions which work. Leaving everything to the County Council clearly doesn’t work, and we need the Borough and the Bus Companies and cyclists and pedestrians to work together to improve travel in Ipswich and reduce the threat from air pollution.