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Cleaning up and greening up the UK’s second city

Published: 16th Mar 2022

Councillor Waseem Zaffar MBE, Cabinet Member for Transport and Environment, talks about why cleaning up Birmingham’s air remains a top priority.

We’re not talking about clean air just for the sake of it- it’s a threat that we need to remove from this city. In 2019 Public Health England described air pollution as the biggest environmental threat in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long term exposure. In Birmingham air pollution accounts for around 1,000 deaths a year. And there is strong evidence that air pollution causes the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, lung cancer, and exacerbates asthma. Air pollution is preventable so we cannot continue as we are.

One of the single biggest steps we have taken to address the issue of air pollution is the introduction of the Clean Air Zone, which came into force at the beginning of June last year.

We have recently published a report that examines the impact of the Zone on air quality and traffic volumes in its first six months of operation. This report highlights that the rate of compliant private vehicles increased from around 70% before the launch of the zone to nearly 90%. Improving the rate of compliance is a useful guide as to whether or not the scheme is creating the desired change i.e. encouraging the owners/drivers of the most polluting vehicles on the road to avoid the area. But, the primary measure of success for the scheme is its impact on the levels of nitrogen dioxide in the city centre. Based on its first six months of operation we have seen an average reduction of 13% in the levels of NO2 within the zone (when comparing 2019 to 2021 results). It remains very early days for the scheme but we see this as a positive start and something that we are keen to build on so that the whole of Birmingham can benefit from improved air quality.

In January of this year we published Birmingham’s Air Quality Strategy, which sets out a series of priorities and pledges for improving air quality. Critically, we recognise that this the transition to a clean air city is not something the Council can do on its own. We will need to work closely with schools, businesses, and other stakeholders across the city to make good use of the data and design new initiatives that encourage and support sustainable change.

A good example of this locality-based activity is our work to encourage cleaner, greener, healthier travel to school. Schools can join Modeshift STARS to complete a travel plan and earn accreditation and recognition for their efforts. Modeshift schools in Birmingham have access to many great offers and resources, completely free of charge – there are even grants available to schools for initiatives to increase sustainable travel. A project in schools which I’m especially proud of is the car free school streets scheme which, we are continuing to expand. This scheme creates safer spaces for children and families without the worry of idling cars and the pollution these vehicles create during school drop off and pick up times.

Air pollution is a public health issue. But it is also important to remember that the air we breathe has improved over time. The introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956 was a response to the Great Smog of 1952 and included a number of measures, such as the mandated adoption of smokeless fuels, especially in high pollution areas, and set to address the significant impact this issue was having on public health. Our understanding of the impacts of the various air pollutants on health has developed over time and while we no longer have the ‘pea soup’ smogs of the 1950s air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter remain of significant concern.

The primary source of the air pollutant is road transport. So, while the introduction will help to encourage the owners and drivers of the most polluting vehicles to upgrade their vehicles or do something different we still want to encourage even more people to simply leave their car at home.

I have made my own pledge to walk more, cycle more, drive less and make better use of the excellent public transport networks we have in our city.

Now is a good time to start thinking about what you can do in your daily life. Could you be driving less? Could you spend a bit of time each week learning more about air pollution and helping to educate others? Could you make more active and economical choices with your life style to benefit yourself and the environment?

I would encourage those who want to make a difference to support conversations about air pollution in our city and join our clean air pledge campaign.


Councillor Waseem Zaffar MBE

Cabinet Member for Transport and Environment