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.