This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 04/07/2017.
Croydon’s Air Quality Action Plan: answers are blowing in the wind
All talk and not much action: will this Air Quality Action Plan affect Croydon’s pollution levels?
Consultation on Croydon’s Air Quality Action Plan was recently kicked off at a ‘summit’ attended by councillors, council employees and members of the public. The consultation runs until Monday 21st August – so if you care about your air, take a look at the draft plan and make your thoughts known.
Our air quality could certainly stand for some improvement. Air pollution shortens lives. Croydon is in breach of recommended nitrogen dioxide levels and although we don’t do so badly on particulates, the other main air pollutant, there’s no safe level for these, so reducing them further must be a positive. There can surely be no disagreement that we should be doing something; what that something might be is the question.
Doing something illustrates the complexities of our system of government. This is a plan for Croydon, but Croydon Council has powers over only some of the factors affecting air quality. The Mayor of London has more powers, especially over transport. Central government holds power over what’s left. Our council can do some things on its own, but must rely on at least the support of the Mayor and central government to do others. Coincidentally the Mayor also has a plan out for consultation.
Lower levels of government spend too much time talking about those things for which they’re not responsible
The danger – too often realised – is that lower levels of government spend too much time talking about those things for which they are not responsible and not enough about that for which they are. Layer party politics on top and we find that each layer spends most of its discussion time on the responsibilities of the layer(s) above, which is of a different political stripe.
Take our council meetings. Far too much time is spent by our (Labour) council criticising the (Tory) government, very little on answering questions on its own activities. Now that we have a Labour mayor, little time is spent on what the mayor might do differently, the opposite of when Tory Boris Johnson held the position. Just in case that sounds like a party political comment: I don’t have high confidence that the dialogue would be significantly different if we had a Tory council.
We in Croydon must play our part in contributing to matters London-wide and across the nation. Our council needs to lobby the layers above, but what Croydon Council itself can do to improve things for the people of Croydon should be the priority for action and public discussion time.
It seems sensible for Croydon to concentrate on lowering nitrogen dioxide levels
Apply that principle to air pollution. A significant proportion of the particulate matter in our air comes from outside of London, and even outside of the UK. This is not the first place to look for preventative action by Croydon (mitigation measures are different). It is a very different story when it comes to nitrogen dioxide, the pollutant over which we have most influence and for which we exceed national guidelines. Whilst not excluding action on other pollutants, it would seem sensible for Croydon to concentrate its preventative efforts there.
There are numerous suggestions in the draft plan. This list will expand during the consultation. Our problem will then be deciding on which to pursue, and which not to pursue, at least for the moment: the eternal problem of prioritisation and allocation of resources.
Prioritisation, put simply, is asking yourself for each possible project: “What bang do I get for my buck?”. Here our problem is not so much the buck, but how we measure the bang. Far too many of the suggestions are described as having potentially significant but unquantifiable benefits. I’m sorry, but that is just not good enough. Precise quantification may not be possible, but as a minimum, a qualitative judgement must be made. How else can we sensibly chose what to pursue?
The only thing that this plan promises in regard to performance measures is that a steering group will meet every quarter
Having decided what to do, we then need to understand whether what we are doing is working and, if necessary, change things. Here the draft plan is weak to the point of non-existence. There are no proposed performance measures against which to measure whether the plan is working. The only thing that we are promised is that a steering group will meet quarterly and that there will be more frequent meetings of some other groups. If holding meetings solved problems, we would have solved many more of them by now.
So here is my input to the consultation. Gather all the ideas on how we can reduce or mitigate the effects of air pollutants, especially nitrogen dioxide. Let the public see which have been selected and why, and what we might expect to see if what we are doing is working. Give us an annual report that shows how things are progressing, warts and all, and reveals what’s working and what isn’t. Change things in response to information on performance.
That is the way to make our air more breathable. That is the way to engage public interest on an ongoing basis. The alternative is the glossy report telling us that everything is going well, skating over what isn’t and blaming the layer of government above which is led by another party. My hope is not a strong one that this will happen, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.