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Transport & Environment policy should really be the same thing

Friends of the Earth Scotland

In this modern world there are four things citizens require access to in order to live a high quality of life. Transport, clean air, housing and jobs. Here, I’ll be discussing the primary two.

All over Europe, many cities are exceeding the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended threshold for concentration of fine particulate matter — which for the purposes of my article will be used as a measure of air pollution — set at 10µg/m3. We see that even cities in countries considered “progressive” including Amsterdam and Copenhagen have air pollution levels high enough to be hazardous for their inhabitants and tourists. London sits in with 15µg/m3. That’s 150% of the safe limit suggested by the WHO.

What does this mean for us, the people that breathe this air? A quick look at the WHO website and we can find a number of infographics. Air pollution is attributed to seven million deaths per year, worldwide, with women and children most at risk; and 92% of people are breathing air so polluted that it’s considered unsafe. Most premature deaths that can be traced to poor air quality are due to pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer. We have on our hands possibly the worst public health epidemic and it’s going unnoticed.

It falls to us to use this information to drive a new agenda for change. An agenda that radically changes how we go about our lives to promote clean air that doesn’t send seven million extra people to their graves every year.

As liberal Conservatives we understand that policies that put the environment and planet Earth first don’t have to come at the expense of the economy, in fact they may even boost it. A key strategy that has worked well in central London is the use of road pricing that now should be extended to other metropolitan areas across the country. Traffic in central London has decreased by nearly 25% over the last ten years and the charge has allowed for increased investment in the public transport infrastructure of the city without any extra cost to central Government. If modelled in other densely populated cities such as Manchester and Birmingham we will be able to invest even more in public transport services across the country. Crucially, these investments must be for transport options that run on renewables. Electric buses and trains alongside major expansions to cycle networks are required, in addition to increasing awareness of the public transport choices that passengers can make. Of course, any Conservative respects the need for a balanced financial approach, which is why these decisions must be made locally with the money raised from expansion of road pricing schemes across UK cities to be ringfenced with no additional borrowing allowed for these investments.

Road pricing is certainly not the only way forward. The UK hasn’t majorly updated its rail policy since the privatisations of the late 1990s, and therefore a rethink is necessary. Selling British Rail has resulted in enormous benefits to rail users with passenger numbers increasing from an ever-downward trend; as well as a consistent decrease in rail subsidies since 2000, saving money for the taxpayer and decreasing traffic on the road. However, more needs to be done as outside of London the experience of rail passengers is all too gloomy. Delays, cancellations and strikes are far too common. I attribute this to the disconnect between the operators of the rail lines and the state-owned control of the tracks. In short, Network Rail needs to be broken up and sold to the operators of the lines. This will bring much-needed improvements in efficiency of the service provided to ensure a smoother running of the trains. Additionally, the Unions are wreaking havoc on the lives of honest commuters so we need to legislate that rail services operating under peak times are to be considered an ‘Essential Service’, effectively banning strikes during rush hour so that workers can get to their jobs on time. This may seem like a tough stance to take, but I’ve heard many stories of people losing their jobs as a direct result of not being able to get to work due to rail strikes. This must end now.

Bringing together transport and environment policy will enable us to have a greater sense of the need for improved and cost-effective public transport services. It’s urgent we address flaws in the current systems to ensure we can continue increasing rail passenger numbers and cut congestion in our mighty cities. My proposals come at no extra borrowing cost to the taxpayer, and I believe have significant potential to bring down air pollution to safe breathing levels. This is something we need to act on now, for our future’s sake.

Let me know what you think of my proposals in the comments section. Would you do anything differently, or go even further?