Professor Ian Williams discusses Southampton’s struggle to improve local air quality
Every year in the UK it is estimated that 29,000 premature deaths are caused by poor air quality. Approximately 6% of all mortalities in Southampton have been attributed to air pollution – almost 200 per year. (For a detailed explanation of how this new figure has been reached, please click here.)
In our complex and rapidly changing modern society, we – the people – have to have an open and honest discussion about what level of pollution is acceptable to us. We have to decide what compromises or costs we are prepared to accept to achieve an acceptable environmental quality, especially in our towns and cities where the majority of the world’s population is concentrated. When it comes to air pollution, Southampton is not a unique city with a unique set of problems that can be easily solved. To be sustainable, future environmental management in cities must become more about lifestyle choices and less about managing the pollution we generate. This may not be palatable to some readers but the harsh reality is that we – the city’s population – are part of the problem and part of the solution.
Traffic pollution in southampton
Air pollution is in the news. Recently, Dr Maria Neira, director of public health at the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva said, “We have a public health emergency in many countries. Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health.”
And – more importantly to local residents – Southampton has been named as being one of the most polluted cities in the UK, mainly because of pollution from road traffic. A recent blogpost has highlighted the launch of Clean Air Southampton and the announcement of the City Council’s clean air strategy. The plan for a Clean Air Zone in the city is well-intentioned but it will take years to implement and it is dependent upon people buying and using vehicles with appropriate technology. In reality, the only way for Southampton to rapidly improve its air quality is to reduce road traffic quickly – this means more people need to walk and cycle on their daily commute. This will of course give a health dividend too.
Local authority responsibilities
Ultimately, governments are responsible for providing road infrastructure, and for achieving agreed greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets and maintaining local air quality to within established safe limits. Typically, motorways and major trunk-roads are administered by central government agencies, whilst responsibility for all other roads is devolved to Local Government Authorities (LGAs). If an LGA considers that air quality objectives for pollutants are not being met, then an area must be designated an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA); with road traffic emissions being the reason for such designations in 90% of cases. LGAs must then implement a remedial Action Plan to improve air quality in the AQMA, and submit annual Action Plan Progress Reports to national government. According to the latest UK air pollution report, as of July 2014, 64% of LGAs (257 out of a total of 404) have designated one or more AQMAs. This percentage increased from 31% in 2003 to 59% in 2009, and has remained nearly constant at approximately 60% ever since.
Southampton City Council (SCC) has designated 10 AQMAs in Southampton, which are all related to heavy and congested road traffic conditions. A similar situation can be found in other nearby urban areas. For example, Portsmouth City Council has designated 5 AQMAs, and Winchester City Council has 1 AQMA covering the whole of the city centre. The figure below highlights an association between Southampton’s air quality management areas and respiratory-related hospital admissions.
Southampton City Council is the LGA responsible for the city of Southampton and its road network. SCC has an ambition for Southampton to become a world-leading low carbon city, as set out in the Low Carbon City Strategy (LCCS), which includes a target to reduce the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by 34% by 2020, compared to a 1990 baseline. As of 2012, a reduction of 14.8% had been achieved, and SCC felt they were on-track to meet their target. The LCCS will inform future transport interventions in Southampton.
In an attempt to cut the city’s emissions through transport interventions, SCC has been involved in numerous activities. An Air Quality Action Plan was produced in 2009 and has been regularly reviewed since then, progressing work on about 50 individual initiatives. These have included sustainable transport initiatives to encourage people to use less polluting modes of transport; road improvement schemes; Air Alerts; Port Master Plan actions; land use planning; the introduction of travel plans and private sector partnerships; and two successful bids for funding from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund.
These (and other) initiatives have delivered improvements alongside general reductions in emissions from the introduction of more modern vehicle engines. However, this has not been enough. The growth in the city and ongoing demands for mobility and services has outstripped capacity to deliver improvements to air quality in the city. So there is much work to be done by central and local government, business and industry – but let’s not forget that individuals in Southampton can make their own personal contribution to improved air quality by driving less and walking/cycling more.