This post is by Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network
Earlier this month the chancellor committed to deliver a green recovery with “concern for our environment at its heart”. He backed this up with a new £3 billion scheme to make homes, schools, and hospitals more energy efficient. This ambition is in tune with the public mood, as recent polling for the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) shows. But further measures will be needed in the coming months, especially in the transport sector, to ensure we truly build back greener, and for local and national government to reap the electoral rewards.
The majority of people want change
The electorate wants the government to seize this moment for change. Our polling reveals that a large majority agree that not tackling climate change as part of the recovery will ‘harm future generations’ (73 per cent), is ‘the wrong thing to do’ (71 per cent), ‘a sign the government has the wrong priorities’ (69 per cent), and ‘bad for the economy in the long run’ (67 per cent).
Improving air quality is a vital part of a green recovery. Air pollution is responsible for between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths each year in the UK. According to a new study from the Netherlands, it is also likely to be a risk factor for Covid-19 due to its weakening effect on our lungs. As well as improving our physical and mental well-being, cleaner air benefits our economy. Less air pollution means higher productivity from fewer work absences. It means growing the market for clean technologies like electric cars and e-bikes. And it means saving the NHS (and ultimately taxpayers) money as a result of better public health.
The drop-off in travel – the main source of nitrogen dioxide emissions – during lockdown caused a dramatic improvement in air quality. Many of us, especially those who live in cities like London, enjoyed the experience of breathing cleaner air. Some lung patients even reported that their symptoms had eased. And sales of bicycles have soared.
Progress has been too slow
To help preserve these falls in pollution and to give people safe ways to travel as lockdown is eased, the government recently announced a £2 billion fund to encourage more walking and cycling. They have followed this up today with a comprehensive new cycling and walking strategy, setting out how the funding will be allocated and a number of ambitious new policies such as an e-bike incentive scheme and tougher penalties for dangerous driving.
In London, the mayor and the boroughs have worked together to create new cycle lanes, widen pavements, and block residential streets to through traffic, to make cycling and walking more attractive options. Yet, progress on implementing these plans has been slow and recent analysis shows air pollution has now almost returned to pre-lockdown levels. Clearly a stronger approach is needed.
CEN’s polling shows there is resounding public support for more stringent measures, even when the cost to the taxpayer and potential disruption to driving in cities is taken into account. Of all the measures tested, there is joint highest agreement that ‘councils should create car-free zones outside of schools during pick-up and drop-off times, even if it makes it less convenient for some parents to pick up their children’ (70 per cent of British adults agree) and that ‘the government should strengthen air pollution laws, even if this means restrictions on driving in big cities’ (70 per cent). Clear majorities of Conservative voters and Leave voters also agree with both policies, as well as clear majorities of both rural and urban residents.
Politicians can afford to be bold, the public is willing
The next most popular measures are ‘the government should invest in electric and hydrogen buses, even if taxpayers’ money goes towards the cost’ (with 68 per cent agreeing), ‘the government should offer incentives for people to replace their old petrol or diesel car with an electric car, even if taxpayers’ money goes towards the cost’ (64 per cent), and ‘the government should invest in cycling and walking, even if this makes it slower for some people to drive’ (63 per cent). Politicians can afford to be bold: the British public is willing to accept some trade-offs for cleaner air.
Policy makers now need to translate this popular will into tangible action. Locally, councils need to accelerate their plans to construct new walking and cycling infrastructure and car-free zones around schools. To facilitate clean and safe travel during this current phase of the Covid pandemic, this should be done quickly and temporarily in the first instance. It should then be made permanent, following consultation with local residents and businesses. Ahead of local and mayoral elections in 2021, candidates should make building back greener and healthier streets a priority in their manifestos.
Nationally, the government should end the delay in bringing back the Environment Bill, which contains vital air quality provisions, to the House of Commons. Ministers should include within the legislation a commitment to achieve the World Health Organisation’s recommended limits for fine particulate matter. This target is achievable, would deliver substantial health benefits and drive stronger action on the most harmful type of air pollution. Finally, at the Spending Review and Autumn Budget later this year, long term funding for zero emission buses and cycling should be prioritised as part of the levelling up agenda, so that more people across the country have the option to use these sustainable forms of travel.
Expectations for a green recovery have been set high. They must now be met.
[Photo source: Jb Charleston]