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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle