Clean air initiatives have been ‘weaponised’ amid an absence of government messaging, a top Bath councillor has told a Parliamentary select committee.
Bath & North East Somerset Council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for climate emergency and sustainable travel, Sarah Warren, also warned that councils are having to bid for inconsistent funding while not having all the powers they need.
Ms Warren was giving evidence via video link to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into air quality targets on 6th September, representing local government pressure group UK100 which campaigns for local-led transition to net zero and clean air.
Asked about a lack of public support for initiatives such as clean air zones by MP Cherilyn Mackrory, Ms Warren said: “I think that the clearer the messaging from government about the importance of this issue for people’s own public health, the more support we can build amongst the public.
“I think that sometimes these sorts of issues get used, somewhat weaponised, and I think that’s really not helpful.”
She called for a national effort to educate people on why clean air initiatives are being brought in.
She said: “We have had national programs of education around smoking that have been enormously successful and maybe this is the way forward for this issue too.”
Bath was the first city in the UK after London to bring in a clear air zone, following a government directive to improve air quality in the city. It charges more polluting vehicles, although not private cars, to enter parts of the city to reduce traffic’s impact on air quality.
But Ms Warren said that to tackle PM2.5 pollution, very small pollution particles that can get into people’s respiratory systems, the council needed the government to give them powers to restrict the kinds of fuel people could use in their homes.
She said: “If we wanted to tackle PM2.5s by doing more about wood burners, we don’t currently have powers to regulate the fuel that’s burnt or even to restrict the sale of damp wood.
“Again, around gas boilers in people’s homes, which of course put nitrogen dioxide out into the atmosphere, we don’t have powers or real clarity from government, or even have any ability to go into people’s homes and ask them to change their gas boilers.”
Echoing comments from Essex County Council’s climate czar Peter Schweir, who also addressed the committee, Ms Warren criticised the need for councils to keep bidding for short-term funding from the government.
She said: “If powers are to be devolved, it should be that the relevant amount of funding comes automatically to local authorities rather than specifically having to bid.”
Ms Warren added that more powers over public transport would also mean the council could give people more alternatives to using the car.
She told the committee: “Outside of London, it’s quite a different position in terms of public transport and our supported bus network locally in Bath and North East Somerset is really in many ways on the point of collapse.
“We don’t have a tube system. We don’t have powers to put in place the alternatives to the car that people need.”
The Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into outdoor and indoor air quality targets opened in May and aims to establish how adequate the current measures and targets about air pollution are at protecting public health and the environment.
John Wimperis, Local Democracy Reporter