Next week, the City Council’s Scrutiny Committee will meet to finalise Coventry’s air quality plan – a set of actions laid out aimed at reducing NO2 emissions.
The plan was proposed as a means to circumvent the Government’s proposal to introduce a clean air zone and associated congestion charge for motorists in the city centre and surrounding main roads.
The proposal was met – and rightly so – with firm resistance locally from the Labour Council and residents, but now the Council’s replacement risks falling short.
A clean air zone would have undoubtedly been effective at reducing emissions long-term, but the immediate economic impact on commuters would have been detrimental for many, making life a lot more expensive for vast swathes of Coventry.
The Council’s renewed air quality plans centre around a segregated cycle route between the city centre and Coundon which, while a welcome and well-thought-out scheme, falls well short of doing what a congestion charge would have.
The plan’s other schemes include making changes to the city’s road network aimed at, in the words of Councillor Patricia Hetherton, “encouraging behaviour change”.
These schemes appear far too relaxed and fail to grasp the opportunities that were presented coming out of a national lockdown, when car usage remained low for months and Coventrians increasingly took to the street by foot and bicycle.
An entirely car-free inner city centre springs to mind – freeing up space to keep safe distance from others and improving air quality in what is one of the most-walked areas of the city.
Cllr Patricia Hetherton admitted, “clearly, the impact of COVID-19 has caused delays” in implementing the Council’s air quality plan.
Despite scepticism at the overall air quality plan, notable work has been done by the Council on the electric vehicles front, both targetting individuals and commerce.
As of May 2020, Coventry has the fifth most electric vehicle charging points nationally, coming just after Greater London which took fourth place. The placement of the charging points appears to be well considered, with many being located in suburban areas rather than centrally.
The Council is also in the process of procuring 70 electric vehicles, mostly vans, which will operate as a major part of the their own fleet, while also being available for local businesses to borrow and trial on a ‘try before you buy’ basis.
Another scheme – a pilot project – is offering Coventry drivers £3,000 a year in transport vouchers to ditch their cars, in an effort to ease traffic congestion and improve air quality.
Those who scrap their cars will receive between £1,500 and £3,000 worth of credits to spend using a smartphone app or Swift travel card, on public transport, taxis, bike shares or a car club.
The pilot is part of a West Midlands Combined Authority £1m scheme which could be rolled out across the region if successful.
But, as Councillor Jim O’Boyle admitted, the pilot project is about “encouraging change without imposing it” – a nice sentiment, but with deaths linked to exposure to poor air quality on the rise in Coventry, tackling emissions needs action, not mere encouragement.
If Coventry is to meet its emissions targets, radical thinking and innovations must be allowed to thrive through continued collaboration between local government and private enterprise.