Picture the scene of a man stood atop a tank breaking a Palestinian flag over his knee, familiar imagery from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip? No, this was Park Street in Bristol in July 2014. The story: a Free Palestine march coming face to face with a Resident's Parking Zone (RPZ) protest to create one of the most remarkable unplanned photo opportunities in Bristol's recent political history.
Two things stand out. Firstly, that in these times of the Lobbying Act restricting charity's rights to fight for what they believe in, it is perfectly legal to drive a tank around a city in a political protest. Secondly, the issue creating the most tension and anger was not the atrocities being perpetrated in Palestine but the public outrage at someone trying to fix what most agree is Bristol's biggest issue - it's diabolical transport system.
In taking on the commuters, Bristol's Mayor, George Ferguson has faced a storm of criticism beyond anything that could have been imagined. He has, for many, become persona non grata alongside First Bus and cyclists as enemy number one. Yet this is against the backdrop of some of the worst air quality of any city in Europe. A report commissioned by Bristol City Council in 2014 estimates that each year more people in Bristol die prematurely from transport related respiratory conditions than they do in road traffic accidents. Using 2010 data, it is estimated that the cost in Bristol alone was around £83m per year.
In April this year, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the public has a right to clean air. After years of failing to meet EU standards that could prevent up to 29,000 premature deaths per annum (Public Health England data), Government and Local Authorities must now implement plans for tackling air quality. One of the predominant causes of these deaths is nitrogen dioxide, a by-product of diesel engines. Bristol already has an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA), its boundaries set according to breaches of annual NO2 limits. The most recent report from 2014 also points out limits being exceeded on Blackboy Hill and Whiteladies Road, currently outside of the AQMA. But it's hardly surprising that Bristol is exceeding NO2 limits when many of the Councillors who approved Bristol's Air Quality Strategy then failed to implement it, and are the same ones who now criticise the Mayor for his own efforts to tackle the problem.
So was the Mayor right to embark on his ambitious plans to save lives and unclog our streets. Absolutely. Has the case been made? Not yet. Partly because reducing city centre commuter traffic is merely one step in fixing the bigger problems which were not adequately explained prior to implmentation. In order to make the scheme fairer, I would also have made the first vehicle permit much cheaper, and the second permit much more expensive. For the record, like many cyclists I am a vehicle owner and I pay road tax, but I choose to cycle everywhere whenever possible. Frankly, it is quicker, easier and keeps me fitter.
Parking your vehicle near your house is of course convenient, but other than for those with particular needs, it is far from a 'right' let alone a need. Clean air should be a right, and now is, as ruled by the most senior judges in the land. It should have been the commuters, i.e. non-Bristol voters, who were most caustic in their complaints, but I suspect they are well aware that they have been enjoying free parking for years. It is no wonder our Park & Ride scheme is under-used!
The tank it seems was hired by event organiser Tony Miles, on behalf of Clifton traders who claimed the RPZ would dent their profits. This story rumbles on (sorry), fuelled by anti-George activists, and despite some shop owners suggesting the RPZ may even have had a beneficial effect. However, senior business leaders regularly state their belief that Bristol's unique selling point is its quality of life - defined not by its shops, but by the amount of green space, culture, and its cycling & walking. Bristol is a vibrant, energetic, creative city held back by its transport system. To succeed, we don't need more cars. What we do need is better public transport, that is publicly owned and run for passengers, rather than profit.
In the run up to the recent elections, local parliamentary candidates seemed to agree wholeheartedly on a number of transport issues including the need for a West of England Transport Authority, the equivalent of Transport for London for Bristol if you will. It would mean we might finally have our very own "broyster card" that enables people to hop on and off trains and buses irrespective of who owns them (one is planned but currently only on First Bus, I'm led to believe). Secondly, there was general agreement for a city centre Low Emissions Zone and pedestrianisation of the old city, along with improved local rail services and better infrastructure to cope with the increased levels of cycling and walking (shared space is misnomer). We even all agreed that Bristol's traffic is always a lot better in the school holidays; the elephant in the room of transport policy.
It is essential that local politicians at all levels of democracy to join forces to create a broad consensus for Bristol's efforts to radically improve our transport system. We also need the devolved powers necessary to raise investment and spend it on the transport system that Bristolians want, rather than the one Government tells us to implement. The bellwether of success is parents feeling sufficiently confident that they will happily let their children cycle or walk to school. The context can be health, safety or just good business, but either way, we have to build on the leadership that the Mayor has brought to the table. If other politicians lack the will, a group of us are beginning the process of investigating our local rights to clean air and plan to support efforts to make the legal case for change here in Bristol. I hope many others will also lend their voice in making the case for the public to better understand the need for change. After all, it is often said that politicians don't lead, they follow.