Opinion

Keeping up with London’s clean air policies

Jonathan White, KPMG’s UK head of infrastructure.

Pollution is a blight on urban areas across the UK, yet Clean Air Zones are stalling in cities beyond London. Jonathan White, KPMG’s UK head of infrastructure, argues that regional mayors must push for the autonomy to tackle the problem.

London faces some of the most severe levels of pollution in the world. The city has endured illegal levels of air pollution since 2010 and in terms of nitrogen dioxide emissions, levels in London are severe in contrast to other capitals such as New York or Madrid. In fact, they are nearly as high as those endured in Beijing and New Delhi.

Yet London remains streets ahead of other UK cities when it comes to putting measures in place to cut pollution levels. Sadiq Khan, the city’s mayor, put fighting air pollution at the top of his agenda when he was elected in 2016. The capital’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ), designed to cut fumes, was introduced in April 2019 and there are talks of rolling this out beyond London’s central areas in 2021.

But pollution isn’t just a pressing issue in the capital – it’s a significant problem in large cities across the UK, too. Despite this, the introduction of Clean Air Zones in Birmingham and Leeds has been delayed. Both cities have been identified as likely to fail legal air quality levels by 2020, yet the government recently announced that delivery of a vehicle-checking software tool required to make the zones operational would be delayed. It means Birmingham’s new clean air zone will now come into force in July 2020 at the earliest.

The pollution will always be particularly acute in large cities – volumes of diesel vehicles are more concentrated here and other types of transport also emit harmful emissions. However, current UK policy hampers cities’ ability to tackle the issue. Funding for infrastructure, for example, is often ad-hoc in its approach. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) highlights this point, stating the need for a five-yearly budget – in line with the certainty provided to Network Rail and Highways England – to allow for more strategic planning.

Devolving powers could help to ensure progress is implemented evenly and at a sustainable rate across the UK. Fiscal devolution would raise the overall amount of funding available for cities, and now is the time for regional cities to act as one and push for more funding and greater control of spending, particularly when it comes to transport. 

Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has been particularly vocal about moving away from London-centric decision-making on transport spending. With regional mayors banging a collective drum, calls for devolved regional powers are more likely to be heard.

 While it’s unlikely that regional cities will have the same powers to the extent that London enjoys, city leaders in the regions should still push government to grant them more autonomy so they can take quick, effective action to cut harmful pollution. 

Only by acting as one voice to lobby for reform outside of London will regional leaders be able to put forward a compelling proposition to government and emulate the strides being made in the capital.  

Jonathan White is KPMG’s UK head of infrastructure.