Cllr David Renard, Chairman of the LGA’s Economy, Environment, Housing and Transport Board and Leader of Swindon Borough Council, outlines here how new vehicle technologies and other measures can help combat the impact of fossil fuels
The way we move is about to change, perhaps in the most fundamental way since the rise of the car. New technologies like connected and autonomous vehicles could change the way we think about mobility and our increasing awareness of the environmental impacts of fossil fuel is making it clear we need to make a change. The previous government made the future of mobility one of its grand challenges through the industrial strategy. In local government, we share its vision of transport technologies being used to open mobility to more people. Councils have trialled a number of innovative transport technologies. Milton Keynes has been at the forefront of trialling autonomous vehicles on their streets and Transport for the West Midlands have been trialling mobility as a service.
Councils have also been working on delivering cleaner air and reducing carbon emissions and are introducing clean air zones across the country. Swindon currently has an Air Quality Action Plan for a particular part of our road network. This action plan contains 18 clear actions to improve air quality and having been endorsed by the cabinet, is now being finalised with DEFRA. Some of the simpler actions are already in train. One major action, that of putting in place a Traffic Regulation Order to prohibit heavy vehicles from the problem area, is well into the planning stage and this is expected to remove up to 30% of the excess nitrogen dioxide from that road.
In the meantime, further monitoring and modelling work will be done to inform the plan and the council’s public protection team has also extended its network of routine monitoring devices to increase its awareness and understanding of current or emerging air quality issues around the rest of the borough. This will be reported through the Annual Status Report to DEFRA.
Councils are also tackling idling and delivering important public health campaigns on the damage poor air quality can do to our health. Our approach is working with significant reduction of NOx after the introduction of London’s ULEZ. However, we know that there is a pressing need to go further to reduce emissions from road transport. As a sector, it contributes 21% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. The levers to do this are mostly at a national level. The previous government indicated that it wanted to see a large-scale electrification of the vehicle fleet.
However, the tax incentives that will make low emission vehicles attractive to fleet buyers are national issues. The level of investment needed to create a comprehensive network of electric vehicle charging must either come from private investment or national government. As a sector, local government cannot afford to be delivering the comprehensive network we need alone.
That is not to say that councils do not have a role. We highlighted what councils can do in our recent publication “Councils in charge: making the case for electric charging investment.” This publication is intended as a guide for councillors to help them understand the current landscape for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and engage with their officers, colleagues and the wider public with more confidence. We believe that we will be key partners in the roll-out of infrastructure.
Despite the exciting ways in which technology and electrification are changing transport, there is a risk that we miss the wood for the trees. There is an existing transport technology that is zero-emission, completely free and accessible to the vast majority of people. That is walking and cycling. If we are going to meet the challenge of reducing emissions, improving the nation’s health and embracing new technology in a socially equitable way we need to design places that encourage active travel.
That is a long-term challenge that councils need to embrace. Councils need long-term guaranteed infrastructure funding in order to fund the improvements we require. The new government must respond to the National Infrastructure Assessment, and we recommend it immediately seeks to enact its recommendation that councils should have five-year guaranteed funding plans to allow us to plan infrastructure maintenance and improvement in a comprehensive and long-term way.
The only way that we can design the transport networks of the future that embrace new technologies, reduce carbon and encourage active travel is if we have control of our own destiny. We must be trusted by the new government rather than waiting on sporadic government funding pots tied to specific priorities. Councils are ready to deliver the transport networks of the future; we just need to be allowed to get on with it.