Clean Air for Bristol

Annually, between 28,000 and 36,000 people die as a result of toxic air pollution in the UK. In Bristol, that figure is estimated to be around 300. Last month, an inquest found that air pollution was a factor in the heart-breaking death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who had severe asthma and lived close to London’s South Circular Road. Since Ella’s death, her mother, Rosamund, has become a leading figure in the campaign for clean air.

Last week, I joined Rosamund Kissi-Debrah at a roundtable event hosted by UK100 on air quality and black and ethnic minority communities.  Rosamund spoke powerfully about the disproportionate impact that air pollution  has on these communities.

71% of Bristol residents think air quality and traffic pollution is a problem locally. On a map of deaths attributed to air pollution, there’s a peak in central wards.    Gentrification of central areas complicates and has undeniably helped drive this particular debate up the political agenda. However, other, intersecting issues that adversely impact on minority ethnicity communities are not talked about, such as the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and ethnic minority  and deprived communities.  

In Bristol, like in many other cities, we face the challenge of rapid urbanisation, a growing population, and an economic model that relies on systems that pump out pollution. We also know that transport is a key driver of air pollution in the city.

Our air quality challenges are largely  a result of decades of non-decision and non-investment in public transport. This neglect has also seen little meaningful alternative to the private car and we remain the only Core City without mass transit.   We continue to work towards introducing a low-carbon, mass transit system that will transform the way our citizens move around.

League tables that show which cities have done ‘the best’ in terms of reducing pollution are of very limited value as no two cities are alike.  Most of the cities that have done well, however, show historic investment in transport in a way Bristol has failed to do. Delivering an effective mass transit system in Bristol could cost around £4bn, a necessary investment to  further accelerate public transport use in our city.   We have also called on government to invest in green infrastructure and to work in genuine partnership with us to deliver viable and meaningful solutions.

We also need to overlap the action we take on air quality with action on social justice. Ensuring that social and environmental justice can go hand-in-hand has been a priority of my administration. We face climate, ecological, and air pollution emergencies – but we do not have the luxury of turning a blind eye to other simultaneous crises affecting our communities. Poor air quality kills, but we know poverty is a killer too. We have been right – every step of the way – to try our utmost to protect low income households from the unintended consequences of steps to clean up our air.

We have worked with Bristolians to try and change behaviours and yet it may be necessary to introduce a charging clean air zone for a time, to accelerate change. While doing so, we will introduce mitigations, such as exemptions for low income workers and financial support for people to change to a cleaner vehicle.   As well as cleaning up car emissions, we must take action to deliver cleaner air.  We are calling for powers to tackle solid fuel burning, industrial pollution, and bring non-mobile construction equipment to compliant standards.

We have a legal and moral duty to reduce pollution to legal levels in the shortest possible time and we will do so.   Government have directed Bristol and other major cities to do this though a Clean Air Zone (CAZ).  We are currently analysing air quality and traffic data. If the data shows that air pollution will return to pre-pandemic levels we will have to submit a case for a CAZ to Government.   A CAZ would need to be introduced by October 2021 and we will advertise mitigations and financial support well in advance.   

We cannot take on the task of delivering clean air alone. We need all of Bristol’s help if we are to protect each other from dangerous pollution and toxic fumes. Go to the Clean Air for Bristol website to find out what we’re doing to improve air quality and how you can help too.

View the UK100 roundtable air quality event: