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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder