Last week, I enjoyed joining an event hosted by PolicyBristol which focused on how we can improve Bristol’s air quality. I was eager to make the point that in order to successfully tackle the problems of air quality, we must look beyond Bristol itself across the whole of the region. Bristol’s travel to work area goes far beyond Bristol’s city limits, and much of our major infrastructure and industry are in other council areas, and yet the city itself suffers the most. By having a Combined Authority covering the wider West of England urban area, we are best placed to take a strategic regional view and implement the best solutions for improving air quality for all our residents.
The pandemic and lockdown gave us the opportunity to enjoy improved air quality across the region. However, this came with the economic impact that we are now facing, underlining the difficult choices and balances required to rapidly tackle air quality while also ensuring prosperity for residents. Seeing this stark choice has emphasised why it is so important to promote sustainable growth across the region. I am convinced that it is possible to have ambitious plans to improve air quality while also promoting much-needed economic growth and supporting our recovery.
One of the key reasons for our air quality problems is the historic chronic under-investment in our region’s infrastructure, despite the fact that we are both prosperous and growing. Since my election in 2017, putting an end to this has been my priority. I have overseen investments of over £130m allocated to much-needed transport infrastructure. £123m of this is going towards sustainable public transport options, giving residents new opportunities to leave their cars at home and reduce pollution and carbon emissions.
For example, we are progressing at pace through the required planning process before we begin construction to complete our new MetroWest suburban rail network. These new lines and stations will give more than 80,000 people access to the railway network that they simple don’t have at present. That means you will soon be able to turn up at Clifton Downs station and easily get to Bath without having to plan ahead, meaning that this inter-urban journey will become far quicker than sitting in traffic on the A4.
When it comes to buses, we’re expanding our Metrobus network which, earlier this year, had already attracted 100,000 passenger journeys each week resulting in 19,000 fewer car journeys. We have also worked closely with our regional operators such as First Bus and welcomed their investment of 99 new biogas buses, which is already having a hugely positive impact on reduced emissions and improved air quality right across the region.
With a push for social distancing, this is also a golden opportunity to accelerate my plans to invest in creating safe walking and cycling routes across the region. The Combined Authority has recently committed £13m of new funding – £3m for immediate short-term measures such as pavement widening, and a further £10m for longer term solutions to create a lasting legacy. This new funding will accelerate existing plans for improved walking and cycling infrastructure, and also enable the development of new schemes across the region.
Finally, not forgetting the West of England’s global reputation as a centre for innovation, we are investing in research and innovation projects to develop the next generation of technologies which will create a more sustainable future, right across the globe. This includes the Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) project and the Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS). By making these investments now, we will not only be securing new jobs and our future prosperity. We will remain at the cutting-edge of new globally-important technology that will help improve sustainability and air quality in both our region and far beyond.