London Air Pollution – Why the government must do more

Some 9,000 Londoners will needlessly lose their lives in 2017.

A killer is on the loose. Weaving its way through the darkened streets of Central London. Anyone is a target.You’d be forgiven for mistaking this as an opening line of a Sherlock Holmes investigation. Or a history book into the life of London’s most infamous murderer, Jack the Ripper. The culprit is in fact among us, day by day, an omnipresent force that is everywhere but cannot be seen.

London’s air pollution crisis is to blame, now at its worst level since the 1952 toxic fog disaster, and the lives and health of citizens across the capital are now at risk.

In an age of advancements with eco-friendly cars and machines, a Central London congestion charge, and a relatively efficient public transport system. It seems crazy to suggest that air quality is worse for Londoners now than it arguably ever has been.

With Particulate Matter (PM) at double the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines and air pollution exceeding that of smog-infested Beijing on 23rd January of this year, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan must act now to prevent serious harm or death to the civilians, workers and children inhabiting his city.

On average 9,000 lives are lost per year in the capital as a result of poor air quality, with PHE reporting 7.7% of deaths in Kensington and Chelsea are attributable to the quality of air in the surrounding area.

Figures like this are comparable to lives lost in the whole of the Ukraine Conflict and the 2015 Nepal earthquake. It is a figure that would equate to six Titanic sinkings, and is three times the figure of the lives lost in the worst terrorist attack on US soil on September 11th 2001. Two historic events which led to a dramatic change in perceptions and safety measures.

The 1956 Clean Air Act, introduced by Parliament after the 1952 smog crisis, led to the development of smoke control areas where only smokeless fuels could be burned. The act also pushed to relocate power stations away from cities and for chimney heights to be increased to push the smog away from Central London.

So why is the government and the Mayor of London doing so little to help Londoners with the modern-day crisis?

Khan has committed an extra £875 million to improving air quality over the next five years. He has also promised the introduction of a T-Charge from 23rd October from this year, a new scheme which will see vehicles that do not comply with safety measures receiving a fee on top of the current congestion charge, putting the price of driving on the capital’s roads at £21.50 per day.

The promise of a new Ultra Low Emission Zone in 2019 might seem like a nice touch by Khan, but with a small catchment area, what gains are really going to be felt? With pollution levels not set to drop below legal levels until 2025, Khan must look at the long-term legacy of his actions rather than ticking short-term inefficient boxes to fulfil his duty as Mayor.

Yes, it is vital to introduce short-term measures to prevent the European Court slapping the nation with a £300 million fine, but the bigger picture also needs to be considered.

With the capital breaching EU commission rules, what is the fate of the nation post-Brexit? With no-one to hold the government to account in dealing with the air pollution crisis, things could spiral out of control and above the already dangerous state in which it currently sits.

Khan must therefore put his efforts into securing the safety of Londoners beyond the trigger of Article 50 and Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations.

Instead, Khan has started weakly with minimal and inefficient gains. His refusal to ban diesel vehicles from the streets at the expense of an increased charge means that only inner city boroughs, around 300,000 people in total, will reap some sort of benefit from the new T-Charge; not the three million Londoners that will still be living in polluted and dangerous areas.


Smog-infested London as seen from Hackney. Credit – David Holt, Flickr Creative Commons

Furthermore, researchers at Kings College London found evidence to suggest that the introduction of Ken Livingstone’s Low Emission Zone in 2008 has had little to no effect on overall pollution levels, so surely Khan’s new schemes are not going to be tackling the problem head on either.

With 1,000 schools situated just 150 metres or less from busy, highly polluted main roads, as well as 438 schools directly located in areas which exceed legal pollution levels, the safety of the city’s children is now at risk. A dangerous prospect when considering that increased nitrogen levels do increase the risk of heart and lung diseases later in life.

But should we as a city really care about air quality? The answer is yes.

Experts may argue that the air is safe; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) argue that between 1970 and 2015 there was a long-term decrease in UK emissions of all air pollutants. But this isn’t the point.

London is a thriving city, arguably the world’s capital and one which welcomes visitors from across the United Kingdom, Europe and the world on a daily basis. Although, it will be interesting to see how long that status can be retained if air quality cannot be kept to safer levels. People are being put off the city’s culture, charm and wonder because they no longer feel safe.

The tragic tale of how one student suffering from asthma had to give up on studying for her PHD in London illustrates how bad things have become. The quality of air in the capital is damaging people’s lives and must be stopped, and fast.

Feature Image – David Merrigan, Flickr Creative Commons

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