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Where was the Mayor’s John Hancock?

Where was the Mayor’s John Hancock?

🕔18.Sep 2018

In the West End district of Boston, Massachusetts, there’s an unremarkable brownstone apartment building with a remarkable address: 42, Lomasney Way.  Remarkable, because No. 42 isn’t in the middle of an urban street, but completely isolated (see below). Chris Game reflects on the journey to cleaner air and asks if the West Midlands Mayor could have helped by putting pen to paper. 

[Come on, Ed, cut me some slack – there is a point, I promise….]

No. 42’s had a colourful life, as you’d guess from Boston’s Irish/Russian/Chinese/Mafia history.  And today, as the sole building surviving the district’s wholesale redevelopment, it’s quite a sought-after address.

My guess, though, is that few tourists like me or even resident Bostonians know much about Martin Lomasney, the turn-of-the-century Democratic state senator and political boss, of whom No. 42 is now the sole surviving memorial.

And I don’t know that much, but I have used, and am about to do so again, the single quote attributed to him:

Don’t write when you can talk; don’t talk when you can nod your head.

And this has exactly what to do with Birmingham, England?  Well, stay with me…..

Last Wednesday, Guardian readers were presented with not only a brief report of the PM’s visit to our city to address a Zero Emission Vehicle Summit, but a sizable picture of her entirely appropriately “inspecting electric vehicles”, accompanied by our West Midlands elected mayor, Andy Street – so instantly recognisable to ‘Guardianistas’ that he needed no identification.

Pic: Theresa May/Andy Street (c) Will Oliver/EPA

The Mayor wasn’t exactly nodding – more gawping, actually – but the picture alone answered a question that I’d contemplated blogging about for the previous fortnight.

Since the Bank Holiday weekend, in fact – a quadruply odd time, it seemed, and as The Observer had reported, for “17 mayors and civic leaders, representing 20 million people throughout the country,” to have signed an open letter demanding that Theresa May take “immediate action to fight air pollution, which scientists say causes at least 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK.”

Quadruply because this PM, as far as we know, (1) doesn’t do immediacy in anything, let alone (2) something in which she’s not that interested, (3) unquestionably not over a Bank Holiday weekend, and (4) absolutely not over one spent rehearsing for her African terpsichorean safari.

The letter, as summarized by Edie – the Environmental Data Interactive Exchange – outlined three key demands:

  • A new Environment and Clean Air Act, establishing “strong” air quality limits linked to World Health Organisation guidelines, and enforced by an independent statutory body.
  • Adequate funding for cities and towns to support the delivery of Clean Air Zones (CAZs), plus more Government investment for schemes to encourage walking and cycling, incentivise travel via public transport, and lower pollution from buses and taxis.
  • A targeted national vehicle renewal scheme to replace older vehicles with low-emission alternatives, while supporting local businesses and taxi fleets and maintaining accessibility to those on low incomes.

All three demands are clearly far-reaching and, if they sound familiar, it’s because they are.  They may be articulated in the leaders’ letter in tempered language, but they’re born, like the letter itself, out of acute frustration and anger.

Anger at a Government fully aware of both the actions required to improve air quality and the annual human and financial costs – those 40,000 premature deaths and £20 billion to the economy and NHS – of its own refusal to act without the delay and embarrassment of being dragged repeatedly through the courts first – a delay, moreover, for which some of the council leaders themselves are now being criticized.

And yes, although that’s over 500 words now without the B-word, it is absolutely another issue with a Brexit dimension.

For it was our cities’ powerlessness, in 38 out of 43 urban areas, to meet the EU’s 1999 NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) air quality standards, and ministers’ literal carelessness of that non-compliance for over a decade, that led to years of successive high court, Supreme Court and EU Court of Justice challenges and to judges’ eventual unanimous call for “immediate action” in the form of new EU-compliant air quality plans.

No, the UK was by no means the sole EU sinner, but it is an exceptionally serious one, with our high sales of polluting diesel cars driven by the tax breaks inherited and retained from Gordon Brown.

And yes, Mayor Boris had eventually called for a diesel scrappage scheme, but not until Oxford Street had registered the highest NO2 concentrations in the world.

That judicial call for “immediate action” came in 2015, but a year later the Government was back in the courts.

The good news: it accepted its own technical research findings (e.g. table, p.10) that a decent scale Clean Air Zone policy – ‘toxin taxing’ the most polluting vehicles to enter the most polluted parts of a city – is by far the most effective way to reduce NO2 concentrations, cutting 1,000 times more NO2 than even an electric-cars-for-old-diesels scrappage scheme.

The bad news: leant on heavily by George Osborne’s Treasury, and with an odd interpretation of “immediate”, Ministers confined their action plans to just six CAZs (London, Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Derby, Nottingham), all bar London (2025) to get their pollution below legal limits by 2020 – the earliest date at which it was cynically guessed the EU might start imposing fines.

No mention of Scotland (Glasgow?), South Wales, or the 30+ other offending areas; faulty projections from “over-optimistic pollution modelling”;  unpublished technical data; and altogether, to quote the judge’s summation, “far too leisurely.” Go away, and this time do it properly.

But why change the habits of a decade?  Soon ministers were back in court, pleading this time for a delay in publishing potentially controversial CAZ plans until after Theresa May’s increasingly tricky-looking General Election.

Finally, a step too far. The High Court’s patience was exhausted. In the West Midlands alone, according to Public Health England, 1,500 people were dying prematurely each year from exposure to air pollution, with levels in Birmingham city centre especially high. Publish draft plans next Friday!

The headlines did indeed appear, and finally, as with tricky policy announcements by all governments, the draft air pollution plan itself was unveiled at the back end of July, a week into the parliamentary summer recess. They really must think we’re completely thick.

This plan, apart from its labelling air pollution “an urgent health problem” (p.5), fell about as far short of radical as was politically manageable, essentially an exercise in buck-passing.

Yet Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, who shared the launch with Environment Secretary Michael Gove, just couldn’t stop himself. It was going “to deliver a green revolution in transport …”   Just not yet.

Conventional petrol and diesel cars would be banned, but not till 2040, as part of the Government’s intention for almost every car and van on UK roads to be zero emission by 2050 – and even then there was an unanticipated concession for hybrid cars.

But there was no naming of additional cities in greatest need of CAZs, no legislation for charges – which, contradicting the message of its own research, would be a last, not first, resort – and not even a diesel car scrappage scheme.

Indeed, the buck was passed very largely to individual local authorities, presumably on the grounds that, given their existing responsibility for improving air quality, this little matter of death-inducing pollution could easily be added.

And since none of any measures introduced were to have undue impact on the motorist, any additional funding would be limited, and aimed at tackling pollution hotspots with ‘surgical interventions’, such as improving public transport and road layouts.

The leaders of eight of our most polluted cities wrote an almost immediate protest letter to Gove, claiming the toothless air quality plan wouldn’t enable them to keep to their legal pollution limits, and that urgent legislation and a proper diesel scrappage scheme were required.

They probably guessed the likelihood of Government ministers listening, never mind responding positively, to a bunch of mainly Labour ‘local’ politicians. They’d far rather, the record suggested, top up the £370,000 of public money already spent fighting losing air pollution cases in the courts – and so it proved.

Come February of this year, and yet again they – sorry, their barristers – were back in the High Court being told their air pollution policy, in failing to require action from all 45 towns and cities with illegal pollution levels, was still inadequate and “unlawful”.  But then came, at least to a non-lawyer like me, the exceptional and exciting bit.

So fed up had the Court become with ministers’ obduracy that ClientEarth, the environmental group that had brought the successive cases, and the judges would henceforth, between them, take over.

If the Government persists in producing arguably unacceptable plans, ClientEarth lawyers now have the right to go straight back to the Court for a judicial ruling.

So where are we now?  Of the five cities (apart from London) mandated back in 2015 to establish CAZs in order to cut their NO2 emissions, Nottingham and more recently Derby now reckon they can meet EU standards by other means.

Leeds, Southampton and Birmingham have consulted on CAZ proposals, which in Birmingham’s case, after last week’s council debate and Labour cabinet vote, will now almost certainly be approved by the Government and come into operation in January 2020.

A major criticism running through what was an understandably acrimonious debate was of the apparent haste with which these proposals had been developed and rushed through.  Part of this post’s purpose is to suggest why on this occasion it would be tough to assign all the blame for such haste at our local politicians.

Which brings us (in case you’d forgotten it) back to that Bank Holiday weekend missive by the 17 mayors and civic leaders to the PM, calling for immediate relevant action on the air pollution front.

Not surprisingly, given the major urban areas they represent, they’re predominantly Labour, and the Morning Star, for one, reported it as a campaign launched by “Labour council leaders”.

The probably more reliable Environmental Data Interactive Exchange, however, had the letter’s orchestrators as the UK100 group of cities, a cross-party and UK-wide network of the leaders of (so far) about 90 local authorities committed to the goal of 100% clean energy by 2050, and the only such network, it claims, focused solely on climate and clean energy policy.

The leaders, hardly surprisingly, are predominantly Labour, but the three West Midlands members are Labour Birmingham and Wolverhampton and currently Conservative Dudley.

Similarly, the signatories of the PM’s letter were neither exclusively district/borough council leaders nor exclusively Labour. There were four mayors – Greater London, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions – and among the leaders, who included of course Birmingham’s Ian Ward, was John Holdich from Conservative Peterborough City Council, who doubles up as Deputy Mayor of also Conservative Peterborough & East Cambridgeshire Combined Authority.

WMCA’s Mayor Andy Street’s signature, though, was, to me anyway, conspicuous by its absence.

After all, he’s seemed keen from the start to appear a rather more committed reformer than his party leaders. His mayoral manifesto had contained a section headlining how he’d “Get a Grip of Air Pollution”, including implementing “the Clean Air Zone as [then] required by Government”.

And only this June he’d called for a West Midlands “Clean Air Revolution” – “a coalition to lead the way in tackling air pollution responsible for hundreds of premature deaths every year”.

Yet now we actually had a coalition of urban leaders attempting to do just that, who you’d imagine would have welcomed the additional support of a Conservative mayor representing a population of nearly 3 million, yet he, or at least his John Hancock, went missing.

A minor mystery – until I saw last Wednesday’s picture, and recalled Martin Lomasney’s recipe for political advancement: “Don’t write when you can talk; don’t talk when you can nod your head.”  And when you can nod your head to the PM, better still.

One concluding thought, though. How long do you see the May Premiership lasting?  And when she’s no longer around, to talk or nod your head to, mightn’t it be useful to be on talking terms with some of those other (Labour) leaders?

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