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Open Forum questions and answers

Answers to some of the questions from the Open Forum on 26 October 2020.

Last updated: 8 February 2021

Questions on air pollution

Q. Alicia, Angela and Fawad - What is the council doing to reduce air pollution?

A. Improving air quality across Westminster continues to be a priority for the council, and we are undertaking a huge variety of actions and projects to improve the air we all breathe.

This includes:

  • putting sustainability and the environment at the heart of our work to reopen and revitalise the city in light of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • continuing to grow the UK’s largest electric vehicle charging network
  • providing all Westminster’s schools with air quality audits and funding to implement measures to reduce pollution around schools
  • drawing up and implementing ambitious plans to reduce pollution in the West End and Oxford Street, including through our pioneering plans to consolidate waste providers
  • reducing emissions from new development through our new City Plan and a forthcoming update to our best in class Code of Construction Practice
  • addressing vehicle emissions from our own operations and those of our contractors
  • continuing to work in partnership with the Mayor of London and national government, while also lobbying them for more action where we feel it’s needed
  • and much more

You can find out more about all our work on air quality and all our actions in this area by visiting the council’s website.

Q. Arabella and Hugh - How does Westminster propose to deal with the traffic congestion and consequential rise in pollution caused by the road space lost to cycle lanes? 

A. Bicycles do not emit pollution and are a key travel mode to reduce overcrowding on public transport. The introduction of cycle lanes provides a safe means of travel for those who would not normally feel comfortable.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a huge uptake in cycling with some as high as 200 per cent while vehicle traffic is down approximately 30 per cent. Cycle lanes do not create traffic, as that traffic has/always will be there. Cycle lanes provided more people with the freedom to travel along the street than they would in a car or bus. Other factors play a greater role in congestions such as taxi / private hire vehicle and increase in online deliveries, which the council is looking to tackle through a variety of means.

Q. Barbara - Why doesn't Westminster charge more for parking in order to reduce traffic and improve air quality?

A. In setting parking charges, we need to balance various competing demands. This includes the climate emergency and our commitment to improving air quality. We also need to  consider as the needs of local residents and business to access parking facilities, social inclusion (particularly of those with mobility issues), and the support of the city’s vibrant economy.

Fees are reviewed annually by the cabinet, striking a balance where possible. The council already operates a city-wide diesel surcharge that means drivers of pre-2015 diesel vehicles pay a substantial premium to park. The council is also investigating further options to expand this scheme to other more polluting vehicle types.

Q. Caroline and Jennifer - What is Westminster doing to counter Heathrow airport's plans to push for Independent Parallel Approaches (IPA), and to ask for the decision on a third runway to be overturned?

A. The council is committed to monitoring developments related to Heathrow airport. The evidence related to air quality emissions from aviation is not clear, particularly once aircraft reach the altitudes at which they would fly over Westminster. Data available to Westminster for air pollution shows that air quality pollution related to aviation in the city is negligible, however this is an ongoing area of research.

The council is exploring options for a new Noise Strategy that will include noise from transport sources including aviation in its scope.

Q. Daria – I have noticed that the air quality in St John’s Wood has worsened in the last six months. What is being done by the council to tackle this?

A. Westminster has seen a dramatic reduction in pollution levels across all our automatic monitoring sites since the introduction of the Covid-19 related lockdown in London in March. While levels have started to increase over the summer, pollution levels across the city between March and September 2020 are around 50 per cent lower than the equivalent data for 2019. In addition, the GLA have recently published independent analysis of London’s pollution levels which shows a similar story across the capital.

Read the GLA's pollution report

However, we do not have the resources to monitor at every location and we recognise that reductions in pollution will not be uniform across the city. We are therefore conducting diffusion tube monitoring at all schools across the city which will give a picture of more localised pollution levels. Where this data shows issues (such as potentially in St John’s Wood) we will be able to react accordingly, in the first instance through our Schools Clean Air Fund, which is providing air quality audits and recommendations to every school in Westminster.

Q. Emily - What plans are there to keep the reduction in traffic and CO2 emissions which have been so good for the residents over the last six months?

A. The council is adopting a sustainability focused approach to the reopening of the city and is implementing several place-specific policies and interventions to ensure that the reduction in emissions associated with Covid-19 seen over the last eight months continue moving forward. For example, we have introduced several vehicle restrictions around schools through our Active Streets programme, increasing cycling lane provision and introduced additional space for pedestrians throughout the city. There is also a Low Traffic Neighbourhood planned for Paddington and The Hyde Park Estate to cut out rat-running traffic through residential streets. More detail can be found on the Hyde Park LTN website.

There is evidence that some of the reduction in air pollution since March can be attributed to only to the Covid-19 related lockdown but also to London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which has introduced daily charges for older and more polluting vehicles when they enter central London. The council has long supported the expansion of the ULEZ to over all of Westminster; this expansion will take place next year and should result in a further reduction in road transport emissions across the city.

Q. Julie - Can you make the hybrid buses switch from electric to fuel at 20mph rather than the 5mph that happens currently?

A. The London bus network is operated by Transport for London (TfL) and as such Westminster City Council do not have any direct control over the types, models and operational aspects of the London bus fleet.

There are a range of different models and types of hybrid buses used across London, with differing technical specifications. Proportionally, most emissions from vehicles occur during accelerating, braking, and stopping and starting, and the average bus speed in London is currently around 9mph. As a result, the current speeds at which most London hybrid buses operate in electric mode capture a large proportion of bus emissions.

We have actively lobbied TfL and the GLA on many issues related to emissions from buses, including pushing for more hybrid and all electric buses to be used on routes that pass-through Westminster. This resulted in one of London’s 12 Low Emission Bus Zones incorporating part of Westminster.

We are also looking to utilise new ‘GPS geo-fencing’ technologies to require vehicles to enter zero emission zones upon entering certain parts of the city and are exploring how we can adapt this to new asks of TfL with regards buses on Westminster streets.

Q. Maria - Are there plans to keep in place the restricted access of parents in cars to drop and pick up their children?

A. As part of the council’s measures to safely support the lockdown, we accelerated the roll-out of our Active Streets programme to provide new and additional space for children and families to get and stay active as well as encouraging more walking and cycling. Any schemes that will be made permanent will provide the opportunity for schools, residents and businesses to provide feedback through consultation.

You can find more details on the Active Streets programme on the Active Westminster website.

Q. Samantha - Why are commercial buildings not encouraged and/or required to have some sort of foliage on their walls (for example, vertical gardens), which improve air quality and appearance?

A. We do encourage buildings to install green walls wherever possible at the moment and the draft City Plan 2019 - 2040 supports and encourages all new developments to contribute to and enhance Westminster’s greening, through incorporating trees, green walls, green roofs, rain gardens and other green features and spaces into their design. There can be technical and ongoing maintenance issues with green walls meaning they are not appropriate in all locations, however. For existing buildings, green walls often have the greatest benefit when they are at ground level providing a barrier from pollution sources such as roads. Westminster has supported schools across the borough with the installation of ground level green walls and other green infrastructure and will support any similar appropriate projects by other organisations (including commercial properties).