Oxford unveils plans for UK’s first local air pollution targets

The move comes as Defra is developing new national air quality targets under the Environment Bill

The local authority has this week published its draft Air Quality Action Plan, headlined by a target of limiting the annual mean concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) to 30 milligrams per metre cubed (µg/m3 ) by 2025. Concentrations of NO2 would be measured at all council sites. From 2021, the new local target will be reviewed annually and progress will be reported publicly every year.

The UK’s national Clean Air Strategy is legally binding and sets a 2025 target to limit the annual mean concentration of NO2 to 40 µg/m3. The Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs claims this target, and the wider strategy, is ambitious. But Oxford City Council has argued that this limit is “not safe” and that lockdown has presented an opportunity to raise ambitions and accelerate action.

“By setting a stricter target than the Government’s own target, we believe we are doubling down on our commitment to clean air, public health and social justice,” Deputy Council Leader Cllr Tom Hayes said. Numerous studies have proven that low-income and otherwise marginalised communities are at a heightened risk of air pollution exposure in the UK. 

Oxford City Council has called its proposed target “both stretching and realistically achievable”. The Air Quality Action Plan will come into effect in 2021 after consultations.

Four priority areas have been defined in the plan, under which, action could deliver the greatest reductions in NO2 levels and in particulate matter. They are developing partnerships and improving public education; supporting the uptake of low-emission and zero-emission vehicles; reducing emissions from industry, services and domestic heating; and encouraging modal shift in transport. The latter covers both reducing the need to travel in the first instance and increasing the uptake of public transport and active travel.

Oxford City Council will also work with its partners on the plan to call on the government to set more ambitious national air quality targets and better supports for meeting them. The government has been defeated three times in court over the adequacy of its plans. Defra is now planning to introduce new legally binding targets for air quality from 2022, under the Environment Bill.

Supporting initiatives

The local authority said that it will not meet its local ambitions without the introduction of the Oxford Zero Emission Zone and Connecting Oxford. The former of these initiatives will charge drivers of non-Euro-six-compliant vehicles £10 each time they enter the city’s “Red Zone” between 7am and 7pm, seven days a week, from a date to be confirmed. Residents living within its boundaries will benefit from a 90% discount. A broader “Green Zone” and related tariffs will then be developed.

Connecting Oxford, meanwhile, is the Council’s plan for reshaping transport systems through to 2025. It outlines potential traffic restrictions, a workplace parking levy, new and improved bus routes and new and improved walking and cycling infrastructure.

Levels of NO2 are down 26% on 2013 levels, on average, across Oxford. A 31% decline in PM10 and 36% decline in PM2.5 has also been recorded during the same period.

Like many local authorities, however, Oxford has faced delays implementing its plans due to Covid-19. Councils in Bristol and Leeds are reportedly considering shelving their clean air zone plans if emissions reductions realised during lockdown can be maintained otherwise. 

Sarah George

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