Council to Examine Government Air Quality Proposal

Reading Borough Council will examine the detail of the Government’s proposed air pollution plan before considering options for a local scheme to further improve air quality in the town.

Following a recent High Court ruling ordering the publication of the Government’s plan by a May 9th deadline, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published its draft air quality proposals on Friday last week (May 5th). It has announced it will consult on plans to allow towns and cities across the UK to set up ‘Clean Air Zones’ – amongst other measures – aiming to support Councils in improving local air quality.

While welcoming a consultation on the proposed new powers for local authorities, Council officers will now take some time to analyse the detail behind DEFRA’s announcement before considering a response.

Particular consideration will be given to the level of funding that will be made available to local authorities to carry out the necessary feasibility studies, before looking at options and future funding bids to implement a local scheme.

While Reading Borough Council has already implemented many of the measures outlined in Friday’s DEFRA announcement – including bus priority corridors, clean buses and encouraging cycling and walking  –  there is also concern that local authorities are being asked to consider the removal of some traffic calming measures. Many traffic calming measures are only implemented locally following consultation with local residents.

Under the Government’s Clean Air Zone proposals, Councils could either restrict vehicles which emit the most harmful pollutants from the zones, or introduce charges. Reading was one of 40 local authority areas listed by Government which could benefit from the new powers.

In common with most successful towns and cities, transport emissions have long been the main source of pollutants in Reading. Increases in population, large new housing developments on the outskirts of town and businesses relocating to the area have all fuelled car use. Reading’s location next to the M4 encourages car travel, with many commuter and visitor journeys starting and ending outside of the town. It’s also home to one of the busiest train stations on the national rail network, which continues to be served by polluting diesel trains.

The Council’s efforts to date have focused on encouraging the use of alternative forms of transport – particularly public transport, walking and cycling – with some considerable success. The number of cars entering central Reading has fallen by 6% from 2008 to 2016, public transport use has risen by 19% in the same period and bus trips increased to 1.2 million last year, bucking the national trend. Reading Buses – the Council owned bus company – continues to be at the forefront of technology using low emission buses.

Tony Page, Reading Borough Council’s Lead Member for Strategic Environment, Planning and Transport, said:

“The Government has acknowledged that the problem of air quality is a national one, and that a national solution is needed if we are to deliver air quality to the standards that residents rightly expect.

“The next step is very clearly for DEFRA to provide clarity on the level of funding available to local authorities to investigate feasibility of local schemes and future funding to implement those schemes. Along with 40 other Council areas, we look forward to that detail.

“While Reading is already delivering many of the measures outlined in today’s announcement, there is also initial concern that local authorities are being asked to consider the removal of some traffic calming measures. In many instances traffic calming measures are only introduced in response to genuine safety concerns expressed by local residents. Again, Council officers will examine the detail of this particular proposal before considering a response.

“Most urban areas are blighted by pollution and Reading is very much victim of its own success in this respect. It is a major employment hub, and without doubt the economic capital of the Thames Valley region. That brings with it population growth, new housing development in the surrounding area and new businesses, all of which have an impact on air quality, as does Reading Station and the town’s location near to a major motorway.

“As well as future funding details, we await more recent air quality data – when released by DEFRA – which may well show variations about where local hot spot areas are.”

Many Council-led initiatives already delivered as part of Reading Borough Council’s existing Air Quality Action Plan, mirror the guidance provided in DEFRA’s draft consultation document. They include:

·        Reading Buses – the Council owned bus company – has the highest proportion of hybrid or CNG powered buses (nearly 50%) of any fleet in the country.

·        Building two new park and rides at Mereoak and Winnersh, with a total of 1,000 new parking spaces.

·        Building two new public transport interchanges to the north and south of Reading Station

·        Opening Reading’s largest cycle hub last year, with space for 600 bicycles

·        A dedicated new bus lane on the A33, speeding up bus and car journey times and complementing the new Mereoak P&R

·        Opening Christchurch Bridge, the Council’s popular new pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Thames

·        Installing thousands of solar panels on Council and community buildings – with more to come – to reduce both emissions and energy bills.

·        Introducing Readybike – the town’s own cycle hire scheme – this has more than 10,000 subscriptions.

As well as improvements already delivered, looking forward the Council has secured funding for a new railway station at Green Park, and is working with the Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership to secure funding for a dedicated bus route to the new Thames Valley park and ride, which if built provide help alleviate congestion at Cemetery Junction by providing an alternative and quick route between central Reading to east Reading.

Tony Page
Cllr Tony Page

Other initiatives recently announced include a public information campaign to discourage idling, securing agreement as to the standards of Council-licenced taxis via the adoption of a new taxi emissions policy and upgrading the Council’s own fleet to newer, lower emission and some electric vehicles, alongside installing electric charging points at the Civic Offices.

Cllr Page added:

“We have had big success in recent years by encouraging real alternatives to the car. The Council-owned bus company goes from strength to strength, both in terms of passenger numbers and as the greenest fleet in the UK. We have opened two new public transport interchanges at the station, the town’s largest cycle hub, two new park and ride sites at Mereoak and Winnersh, and opened Christchurch Bridge – the new pedestrian and cycle bridge at Caversham.

“It is clear that the Council cannot deliver the solution on its own however, and it is important to note some issues are entirely out of our control. Delays to Network Rail’s electrification project have an effect, and we need train operators to quickly move forward with their investment plans and cease the use of polluting diesel trains which start and stop at Reading Station. We also need Highways England to recognise the huge impact on congestion and air quality in the town whenever the M4 shuts and motorway traffic is diverted onto Reading roads.

“Pre-2010 Reading Borough Council – alongside neighbouring authorities – carried out significant work behind the scenes around introducing a Low Emission Zone in Reading as part of the Government’s Transport Innovation Fund (TIF). TIF was scrapped by the new Government in 2010 and replaced with the Local Sustainable Transport Fund. It is worth noting that seven years later the Government is now a suggesting a similar solution to Reading’s proposed LEZ in the form of DEFRA’s Clean Air Zones.”

Oscar Mortali

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