On Tuesday, the Government published its draft Clean Air Strategy. They say they want to hear from “all interested parties” to help them write the final strategy later on this year, but my guess is that the final document will not be very different.
The aims of the strategy, and the importance which it gives to clean air, are very very welcome. Some people still don’t accept the overwhelming scientific evidence of Climate Change, or acknowledge that we need to stop burning fossil fuels if we are going to stop the whole planet from over-heating. But even they must surely be able to see and smell for themselves the air pollution from using oil and coal.
The number of children and young people suffering from asthma is a national disgrace. And older people are affected too. We aren’t absolutely sure what damage we are doing to ourselves, which is why one action in the Strategy is to find out, by doing the right measurements to give us the answers we need. The joint Select Committee on which I sat in March estimated that the number of people dying prematurely in the UK as a result of air pollution could be 40,000 per year. If that is the case, then we really do need to know what is happening, and do something about it.
But this is where I start to lose confidence in the Strategy. Because although it recognises that there is a problem, it does not propose the radical actions that are needed to stop us from poisoning ourselves. By far the biggest air pollution problem is from cars and lorries, and yet the government’s target for all new vehicles to be electric or non-fossil-fuel by 2040 is so far into the future that it will have virtually no effect. There are a lot of words of commitment to reducing transport pollution, but no commitment of funds to achieve that.
In Ipswich, a lot of us walk or cycle, but there are still too many awkward junctions, too many crossing lights that take ages to change, too many cars parked on the pavements, and too many cycle lanes which just fizzle out. Ipswich Buses is introducing newer cleaner buses, but there are still too many buses sat in queues of traffic rather than nipping through on dedicated bus lanes. And those who have to drive, or who are trying to make deliveries by van or lorry, end up in traffic jams where their exhaust fumes just collect in our streets.
Government must invest in transport infrastructure if we are going to deal with the problem. And I don’t just mean roads. I am certainly not convinced that building a bridge over the Orwell between Cliff Lane and Old Stoke, with the steep slopes on either side needed to get vehicles over the high arch, is going to do anything to improve air quality in Ipswich. And how can it possibly be better for the environment to force traffic to travel south and over the bridge and back up and over Stoke Bridge?
We do need a road to the north – I met with the Highways Agency last week, but they still say they can’t spend money on an alternative to the Orwell Bridge, despite the threat to Felixstowe. Unless we can keep A14 traffic out of Ipswich town centre, and provide a link between north Ipswich and the A14 at Bury Road, we will never be able to address the congestion and air pollution that threatens our town.
And the government needs to invest in the rail link to Felixstowe too. Getting more freight onto trains is more effective than trying to deal with too many lorries.
And we need the traffic restrictions in Ipswich town centre to be enforced. A week ago I met with the Police & Crime Commissioner, and raised the queues of traffic waiting to get into the Buttermarket, which prevent the buses from getting through. Mr Passmore indicated that he would find a way to enforce the “no queueing” rule there – I am hopeful that he will do so.
All of these things will cost money. If we can prevent any of the 40,000 deaths per year, that will be money well spent. And if like me you also accept the overwhelming scientific evidence of Climate Change, you will know that we have to make these decisions. So yes, let’s have a Strategy, but far more important – let’s have some action!