Ken vs the black snot

London’s new Low Emission Zone is the kind of sophisticated, targeted legislation I love. Neither a blunt instrument nor an ineffective swipe at the problem of air pollution, Ken Livingstone’s latest initiative will start to tackle a problem that most Londoners are unaware is chipping away at their lifespan every time they take a breath.

He knows how to generate headlines does Ken. In Los Angeles for a star-studded shindig to launch a collaboration between the ‘Large Cities Climate Leadership Group’, which he chairs, and Bill Clinton’s modestly named ‘Clinton Climate Initiative’, he boldly announced that, “The most polluting lorries will be charged up to £1,000 per day to enter the zone”.

In fact, this amount will be the fine levied on coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) that fail to pay a daily charge of £200 but - exaggeration apart - the LEZ still has the potential to make a real difference to our exposure to lethal particulates.

These tiny particles of soot are mainly put into the air by diesel engines and are responsible for thousands of extra annual deaths in the capital. Their bigger cousins are the cause of the black specks Londoners find in their hankies after a big blow. My own snot always returns to a shade of pale green when I leave the ‘big smoke’ for a few days. OK, with a sample size of one, it isn’t scientific proof of filth in London’s air, but coincidence? I think not.

Effectively a congestion charge for lorries, the LEZ scheme is designed to remove from London’s streets all the older heavy goods vehicles that haven’t fitted filters to remove particulates from their exhausts. Newer vehicles and those with up-to-date pollution controls won’t pay a thing.

Of course the Mayor isn’t doing this out of goodness alone. National and regional governments are legally obliged to take steps that will bring air quality within EU targets or face fines that will make £1,000 look like loose change. London is already in breach of these laws, which came into force on 1st January 2005, so action is urgent.

The LEZ isn’t perfect. It will reduce exposure to particulates only by around 20% in 2010, while people in many areas are now routinely exposed to levels more than four times ‘safe’ limits. Targeting lorries and coaches alone won’t achieve the targets either, as the Mayor is happy to admit, and this is why he is also bringing in a higher congestion charge for highly polluting private cars and denying licences to taxis that don’t meet emissions standards from 2008.

The revised LEZ, announced by the Mayor in Los Angeles, also include several concessions to the lobbying that groups like the Road Haulage Association put into a consultation earlier this year. These include delays in implementing the scheme for smaller ‘light goods vehicles’ and a delay in applying the charges to lorries that don’t make more recent emissions standards. ‘Car-like’ small vans, used mainly by small businesses, will not be included at all.

Campaigners and community groups in the areas of the capital most affected by air pollution are only now catching on to this issue. Public pressure – noticeably quiet so far – is starting to come to the boil at last.

Recently I spent an illuminating hour talking to Simon Birkett of the Knightsbridge Association after the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s and his group were both name-checked in a recent Observer article about the filthy air in some of the poshest and most tourist-friendly parts of London.

He is concerned that, for something that reduces life expectancy by almost as much as a serious smoking habit, remarkably little is done to even measure the problem. There are only 94 pollution monitoring stations in the whole of Greater London. Coverage is patchy, they are operated by a range of different authorities, don’t all measure the same pollutants and aren’t placed in locations where valid comparisons can be made.

The scrutiny Simon has been giving to the figures produced by the three stations on his patch has highlighted the serious inadequacies of the current system.

The monitoring station outside Harrrods on Brompton Road, for example, is 400 metres away from a junction where 12 lanes of traffic converge (where common sense would put it) and the station on nearby Cromwell Road is hidden in bushes in the garden of the Natural History Museum. There is no wonder that the figures from these stations don’t match those at London’s flagship pollution hotspot on Marylebone Road, where the measurements are taken within a metre of the worst traffic.

Noise from London residents most affected by filthy air may be about to reach a crescendo. The Knightsbridge Association’s recent submission to Defra’s consultation on our national air quality strategy was circulated to seventeen other ‘amenity groups’ in central London, fifteen of which replied immediately to endorse its call to meet EU and World Health Organisation air quality standards.

Amenity groups aren’t just talking shops for the well-heeled residents of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. They have real statutory powers and a say in the planning process. As I talked to Simon about the future of his campaign to clean up the air in Knightsbridge, it became clear that councillors, retailers and developers may soon find themselves forced to take the problem more seriously.

Businesses are naturally complaining about the LEZ but, with people like Simon on the case and the new ‘Londonair’ website at last providing pollution data in an accessible form (previous versions were virtually impossible to use), people are starting to take notice of the high levels of pollution near their homes.

Shops that rely on visitors to the capital will suffer when word gets out. Once tourists start to make other plans when they hear they will breathe in a month’s worth of pollution in an afternoon on the King’s Road, this will have a far worse effect on retailers’ bottom lines than the cost of bringing their lorry fleets up to date.

Ken Livingstone is showing courage by taking on the road lobby and central London retailers, both of which hate the Congestion Charge and are unhappy with the LEZ even after winning concessions. Gordon Brown is not so brave. In 2000 he backed down on his green commitments and scrapped the fuel duty escalator in the wake of protests by hauliers and farmers. With more than 39,000 annual deaths in the UK caused by particulates and awareness growing fast, central government needs to follow London’s lead and tackle this hazard now.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Why Theresa May is a smuggler's best friend when it comes to child refugees

Children prefer to disappear than trust the authorities.

On Monday, Theresa May abolished the post of minister for Syrian Refugees. On Tuesday, a House of Lords select committee report found there were 10,000 migrant and refugee children missing in the EU, of which Britain is still technically a part. And smugglers across the continent raised a glass.

Children do not stay still. In 2013, Missing Children Europe reported that half of unaccompanied children placed in reception centres vanished within the next 48 hours. One explanation is that they fall prey to the usual villains – pimps and gangs. 

But there is another explanation. Refugee and migrant children have so little trust in the authorities that they would rather disappear and put their faith in the underworld. 

One reason for this is that under EU law, asylum seekers are returned to their first point of entry, which is likely to be an overcrowded Greek port rather than a city with education facilities and job prospects. 

Children will go to extreme measures to disappear. The report noted:

“We were particularly troubled to hear of children in Italy and Greece burning or otherwise damaging their fingertips in order to avoid registration, in many cases because they were afraid of being detained or forcibly returned to transit countries having reached their final destination.”

Children are also desperate to find their families. The EU’s Family Reunification Directive should in theory reunite families who have successfully sought asylum, but the UK has opted out of it (and now the EU altogether). Other EU member states have moved to restrict it. The UK has opted into the Dublin Regulation, which allows for family reunification. 

This is partly due to a suspicion that family reunification acts as an incentive for families to send children first, alone. But the report found no evidence of that. Rather, it is usually a case of parents trying to protect their children by sending them out of a dangerous situation. 

The process can be achingly uncertain and slow. Smugglers understand how impatient children are. Two MEPs told the select committee about the port in Malmö, Sweden:

"Traffickers await the arrival of minors, telling them that: 'Well, we can get you to your family much quicker than if you go through the system here' and that 'Getting a guardian will take ages, and then they do the age assessment, which is intrusive. Don’t do that. Just go there, call this guy, take this mobile and they’ll take care of you.'”

In his brief time as Syrian Refugees minister, Richard Harrington brought the topic of unaccompanied minors to MPs again and again. He promised to improve the speed at which applications under the Dublin Regulation were processed. On 13 June he told MPs: “We are doing our absolute best to speed it up as much as we can.”

His role has now been absorbed into the Home Office. No. 10 described it as a temporary position, one no longer needed now the resettlement programme was underway. When the UK finally triggers Article 50 and begins Brexit, it can also leave its EU obligations behind as well. May, the former Home secretary, voted against allowing in 3,000 child refugees.

This does not bode well for asylum policy in Brexit Britain. Meanwhile, with no fast legal route to family unification, smugglers can look forward to the kind of bumper profits they enjoyed in 2015

The consequences can be fatal. Masud, a 15-year-old unaccompanied Afghan, travelled to Calais in the hope of reaching his sister in the UK under the family reunification rules. 

As the report put it: “Masud died in the back of a lorry while trying to reach the UK just before the New Year, having lost hope that his claim to join his sister would ever be heard.”