Clean Air Day 2019: We must clean our air to protect those we hold dear

Cllr Tom Hayes, Oxford City Council portfolio holder for Safer, Greener, Environment, and SERA member, writes for SERA on Clean Air Day 2019 on the need for both government and our cities to take action to clean our air and prevent serious ill health. This is not an issue happening in a distant time or country, this is about the air you and your loved ones are breathing right now


You know the day will come and you dread it. It’s an inevitability about a diagnosis of dementia that, one day, your loved one will see you without knowing you. Many of us have lived through that moment. Many of us have known the heartbreak of seeing somebody we love disappear a little bit more with every day that goes by.

While much about dementia is inevitable, what isn’t inevitable is dementia itself. We reduce our risks of getting dementia, when we make practical changes to clean up the air we breathe. On Clean Air Day, we can all do our bit to stop dirty air leading to dementia, and lung and heart diseases, and some cancers, strokes, and asthma.

Toxic air isn’t something that just happens in some faraway country like China or India, it’s happening right here. Nor is smoky pollution stuck in some distant past like the great London smogs of the 1950s, it’s happening right now. If that moment of memory loss happens—perhaps as a result of breathing in the tiny dust particles and harmful gases that make up polluted air— that moment will happen right here, on a hospital ward or closer to home, and it will happen right now, not by some academic or abstract target date of 2030.

In Oxford, we care about clean air because everybody in our city has the right to be happy and healthy, yet all the health experts say that dirty air makes people sick. All we have to do is clean our air and—when the greatest threat from air pollution comes from road transport emissions—that means concentrating our efforts on reducing road transportation and cleaning up whatever vehicles remain on our roads.

Over the last two years, our Labour Council has cut harmful emissions by 38%, so that people living in our city are breathing cleaner air than at any given time in the last decade. We launched a Low Emission Zone in 2014 which required city centre buses to have cleaner engines, and this has helped to significantly reduce air pollution. Weeks ago, we announced an upgraded Zone, covering a larger area and requiring our buses to run even cleaner engines, as part of our Zero Emission Zone. And we have secured £2.3m to ensure 115 buses can comply with our new Zone.

We’re moving towards cleaner air because of our actions, but there’s more that we need to do to ensure Oxford’s air is not just cleaner, but safer to breathe. We have proposed a Zero Emission Zone to discourage polluting vehicles from the centre because we want to reduce the greatest amount of emissions when there is the greatest number of people inhaling them. By listening to our Black Cab drivers, we’re supporting them to meet the goal of driving 100% clean taxis by 2025 by installing electric vehicle charging points for their exclusive use, and more. We’re also installing more than a hundred EV charging points in the next few months to ensure people feel comfortable converting from polluting vehicles.

In a healthy democracy, air pollution policy has to deliver something invaluable for businesses and citizens to make better decisions—certainty. Setting the goal of a Zero Emission Zone has spurred innovation at every level, with Oxford’s first zero emission Black Cab arriving on our roads and the world’s largest hybrid battery coming to Oxford to install 100 rapid charging points and electrify our own fleet. British ingenuity has kept Oxford at the forefront of science and engineering for centuries, and setting ambitious goals is building British know-how and creating jobs around the UK and inspiring the next generation.

Forced to fix problems with less money than we truly need, our councils are doing all we can to tackle dirty air for the places and people we hold dear. We can’t wait for the money and powers we need from Government because every year that action on air pollution is delayed is another year when people die. That’s why, this Clean Air Day, I hope our cities take more of the practical steps that can clean our air, prevent ill health, and save families from the worst heartbreaks they will know.

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