Making clean air a priority

The new city council should make clean air an early priority, argues Claire Miller.

Inevitably, since the council elections on 4 May, there has been a lot of focus on how the city council should be led.

However, the test of any new council, whatever its make-up, is how it improves quality of life in the capital.

There is a major challenge looming right now, in the quality of the air that we breathe. It is hard to think of anything more basic than the right of citizens to breathe clean air, but, because it is not as visible as polluted rivers or littered streets, it does not yet command the same attention.

Earlier this year, in a report to the Transport and Environment Committee, council officers laid out the scale of the problem. There are some hotspots which the council must address, such as West Port and the Cowgate, London Road and Nicolson Street in the city centre, while further out in the city, Queensferry Road, St Johns Road and Glasgow Road also have unacceptably high levels of pollution.

That is why I am pleased to see my Green colleague Chas Booth call for urgent action on air pollution at this week’s first meeting of the new council. His motion seeks council backing for Edinburgh to host Scotland’s first “Low Emission Zone” (LEZ).

LEZs work by restricting, or in some cases, charging, high-polluting vehicles (for example, large diesel trucks) from entering an area where air pollution is a problem. They can be based on simple markings on vehicles which highlight a standard classification of engine type and performance.

There are dozens of LEZs in place in European cities but none, so far, in Scotland. However, the Scottish Government has said that it will fund one LEZ as a trailblazer by 2018. Since the new city council in Glasgow, with a newly-enlarged group of seven Green councillors, is known to be keen to act on air quality, there is a bit of race to be first to the Scottish Government with a worked-up proposal.

That is why I’m very pleased to see this motion coming to council on Thursday. It may be that it cannot be heard on technical grounds, but it is urgent all the same. Four of the five parties in Edinburgh, with over 70% of councillors, have made public commitments to LEZs, so there is a political mandate on top of the pressing need to act in the public interest.

So, it is incredibly important that the council looks beyond political negotiations and ensures that it works to benefit all residents. Councillors have an urgent duty to residents to move ahead with an Edinburgh Low Emission Zone before the opportunity passes.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News.