24 September 2021
This Sunday’s car-free day in Guildford is the first ever and is certainly to be welcomed.
Highways England recently reported that the A3 through Guildford has the worst nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution in the country (https://highwaysengland.co.uk/our-work/environment/air-quality-and-noise/air-quality/air-quality-reports/).
And the WHO has just announced that its recommended limits for nitrogen dioxide are to be slashed by 75% from 40 to 10. The A3 figure is 90 and Shalford and Compton 40!
Nationally, about 1,800 people die in road accidents each year, while an estimated 40,000 - 22 times as many - die prematurely owing to air pollution, mostly related to traffic.
Even a single car-free day, therefore, is welcome for raising awareness and encouraging people to switch to electric transport. But it is largely symbolic. Traffic and fumes diverted from Guildford town centre on Sunday will just end up elsewhere, including Shalford, Chilworth, Compton and Jacobs Well.
And expecting the public to take part in short-term initiatives will not be effective unless official support is consistent. Surrey County Council, for instance, says it will install 200 new charging points for electric cars but then threatens users with parking charges while using them. With electric cars exempt from road tax, the government meanwhile seems more interested in finding ways such as road charging to bolster its falling revenues than in reducing car traffic by providing better public transport.
Cllr Ramsey Nagaty believes that GBC would do better to look at more imaginative steps, such as a clean-air zone to discourage transit traffic on the A3, or ways to get at least some freight from the South coast to Heathrow and the Midlands diverted via the M27 and M3 or onto trains.
Council leader Joss Bigmore has rightly commented that “decades of failure to address the infrastructure deficit in our borough is potentially leading to poor health outcomes for our residents due to exposure to NO2.” But air pollution is caused as much by Guildford’s excessive local development as by any local infrastructure deficit. Guildford’s leaders need to tackle both – preventing pollution and not just mitigating it.
What’s the point of tokenistic feel-good events like car-free days if we continue to load traffic onto the A3 by building thousands of new houses at sites such as Garlicks Arch, Blackwell Farm and Wisley? Not to mention the CO2 released when constructing new buildings.
The development targets set by the outdated 2019 Local Plan have been discredited by the ONS admitting their data was flawed, and the relentless drive to meet them needs to be fundamentally rethought.