MPs call for councils to have power to create clean air zones

MPs in the UK are finally coming to terms with the need to address air quality in our towns and cities. They ask that clean air zones should be introduced in UK cities to tackle the problems caused by air pollution, according to a new report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee.

The new report warned that air pollution is a “public health emergency”, linked to the early deaths of 40,000–50,000 people every year from cardiac, respiratory and other diseases, as well as harming the environment and agriculture.

It also found European Union limits on nitrogen dioxide pollution were breached in 38 out of 43 UK areas.

It’s all well and good for this call to come but it’s not going to be the UK Government, nor its MPs who set the policy or invest in the infrastructure needed. It will be the local councils, the Metropolitan authorities and city councils who will be tasked with that.

I blogged on this almost three years ago (see here) “here is no one solution – it will be a combination of many, many interventions. Every city taking this issue seriously will be looking at a range of options to tackle this problem – and some are easier to introduce than others. To inform those choices, it is important to understand in fine detail the sources of your air quality problem”.

These local authorities, at a time when money is short to invest and when they are wholly reliant on income from, for example, car parking charges, will be required to introduce policies which many of their electorate will find unpopular – such as restricting diesel vehicles in areas where pollution is already high. This might include taxis (wait for the Uber-lobby), buses (wait for the public transport lobby), trucks (wait for the Chambers and Business ‘leaders’ lobby) and, of course, the electorate to vote accordingly.

Interesting timing then, that this should be put on the table now, one week from local elections. How many people will choose who they vote for based on their commitment to improved air quality? Well, in London, Khan, Goldsmith et al are being pushed on it so it’s only a matter of time before other cities such as Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol, Sheffield all face it becoming a manifesto challenge.

For years local politicians have called for the Government to take the policy lead on this. If they do there will be nowhere to hide for local councillors and they will have no more excuses to put off measures that will see local air quality improve.

You can read my thoughts of some three years back (https://aardvarknoseface.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/sustainable-cities-need-low-emission-vehicles/). In summary though, local authorities have got to redress the balance between walking, cycling and the car. Investment in public transport (and not dirty 25 year old diesel buses) and infrastructure for refuelling low emission engines (preferably electric, gas and hydrogen) with the right policy incentives is absolutely central to this debate.

Who wouldn’t vote for a cleaner, pedestrian/cyclist friendly city centre afterall?

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Energy Services – energy as a service, not a commodity

There is a really great piece written by Elizabeth Shove and Matt Watson (No more meters? Let’s make energy a service, not a commodity.) that neatly summarises the concept of energy as a service, not a commodity published on The Conversation website today. Those of you that have ready previous blogs I have written will know that I have eluded to this in my thoughts on district heating and I find it interesting that the concept appears to be less attractive here in the UK whereas elsewhere, particularly the USA, it has greater traction and a stronger marketplace.

The authors rightly say We all pay energy bills and we understand that energy is delivered through wires and pipes into boilers, TVs, kettles and so forth. However, it is not the energy, as such, that consumers’ value. In paying energy bills, people are really paying for the services that energy makes possible: for thermal comfort, for entertainment or for a cooked meal. In other words, it is the ability to watch a favourite TV soap (while consuming a favourite TV dinner) and the cosiness of the home that really matters.”

It’s not just the home of course. Businesses now recognise the concept of the energy service more readily than energy purchase and the opportunity to spread capital investment costs over 10, or even 20, years is appealing in a resource constrained world. Public sector organisations like NHS Trusts and local authorities are well positioned given their relatively stable property portfolios (even with the purge of unwanted buildings under the Government’s austerity measures) giving them a long term view of investment. But others too, such as colleges, schools and universities share those same characteristics. If you’ve been where you are for 100 years, why not take a punt on being there in 30 or 40 years time and taking a longer term view of your property portfolio?

It’s those organisations with aging building stock that can benefit most from ESCO and energy performance contracting. But there are significant opportunities in investing in energy systems, energy centres and grids that support a whole range of existing and new buildings where the real money and opportunity is. If you can generate and use energy you have generated on site you can build in not just carbon and cost savings, but resilience to failures of grids outside your control. You can start to achieve standards ahead of the Government’s own energy strategies.

As the authors say “We are already seeing the emergence of Energy Service Companies (ESCos) which guarantee a fixed energy bill as long as the company can install efficiency measures in your home or office. Other providers offer multi-utility tariffs, bundling together rent, water and energy into a single bill. At the moment it is unclear whether these novel forms of “energy-plus” provision are forerunners of arrangements that are set to become the norm, of if they will remain niche solutions for a few. Whatever else, these moments of flux remind us that energy and energy services are never set in stone.”

Smart Cities – What role for local authorities?

It’s self evident isn’t it? How can a city set an agenda to become smarter without its local authority on board? At the very least there are issues of governance, public space, licensing, enforcement, regulations that a council would need to oversee.

In the space of a few days we have seen the UK Government both identify real weaknesses in the capacity of local authorities (by DCLG) whilst another Government department applauds sixteen local and regional authorities that are setting the standard in open data and transparency by the Cabinet Office’s, Francis Maude (Local authorities setting standards as Open Data Champions).

Is this just a case of un-joined up messaging from two departments who claim to be working hand-in-glove or, in fact, reality? Of course there are some local authorities who have embraced this approach. Bristol, Glasgow and London have all been funded heavily by both the Future Cities Catapult and private sector investment whilst other sizeable cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham have taken a lead in this area too – because they see it’s the right direction to be travelling. You’d expect, of course Cambridgeshire to be in the mix simply because of its world class university presence but who would have thought Sunderland and Devon would be included? Well deserved recognition in the face of adversity in the case of the former I would suggest.

But what do cities (and other urban and rural authorities) need to have in their armoury? “Without the right skills to innovate, the public sector will be unable to take full advantage of the cost efficiencies available from better – and smarter – ways of delivering modern services,” the report, Smart Places Today, finds.

As local authorities are further cut by budget cuts will they have sufficient gravitas to attract the forward thinking expertise needed to regenerate their cities – not with bricks and mortar but clicks of an app. The research, which aimed to assess the benefits and potential for ‘smart’ places, not just ‘smart cities’, found that the capacity to implement smart technologies is only in place in 15.2% of local public service bodies, though 45.7% have plans to address the gap.