Boris Johnson is missing a historic opportunity to clean up London's air. Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson set to leave a toxic legacy on air pollution

The Mayor has finally woken up to the scale of the capital’s air pollution crisis, six years late.

Clean air should be one of our most basic rights. Without it we would die. Yet in London that is exactly what is happening, the air is so bad that new estimates last week suggested that 7,500 die each year as a result of air pollution.

We all know Boris Johnson is a master of hot air – his ability to pontificate on matters unrelated to anything is as impressive as it is useless. Clean air however is a very different story.

Since the Mayor came to power in 2008 air pollution has all too often been absent from his agenda. For years we have known air pollution is the capital’s silent killer, now we know just how bad the situation has got. Previous estimates that suggested 4,300 Londoners die prematurely as a consequence of air pollution were shocking enough. The fact that the real figure is nearer 7,500 it is truly catastrophic. Quite frankly, if these new figures don’t cause the Mayor to wake up and take action, nothing will.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s Report "Action on Air Quality" this week debunked the Mayor’s claims to have cut air pollution. The report heard that “there has been no change” in levels in London.

One area particularly concerning the Committee was the impact on children whose schools lie close to pollution hotspots.  In London, thirteen schools lie within 150m of main roads with average daily traffic flows of greater than 100,000 vehicles. Indeed last year schools in Enfield took the decision to keep children inside at break-time because the levels of pollution were so dangerously high. When asked what he thought about the pollution Boris said, “it seemed perfectly fine to me.”

The Mayor has however got a solution. An Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), relatively similar in concept to his predecessor’s Congestion Charge zone, but six years late. Boris Johnson has finally woken up to the scale of the capital’s air pollution crisis.

The ULEZ is an important proposal and one which should in principle be supported, but it needs to be done right. What the Mayor is proposing though is a watered down version of what is needed. The ULEZ only covers central London and still allows the most polluting "dirty diesel" vehicles to enter for a price. Then, when it was revealed that hundreds of the Mayor’s prized Routemaster buses would fail the air quality emissions target, he exempted them too. This shouldn’t be about raising money or a long list of exceptions; it’s about getting cleaner air. Unless the Mayor recognises that he is missing a historic opportunity.

Londoners want to see the proposed Ultra-Low Emission Zone made bigger, stronger and more effective. As a first step, the Mayor should allow boroughs to opt-in to an expanded ULEZ instead of leaving outer London to suffer from his toxic legacy. Sticking to plans to exclude over half of London from the ULEZ would leave Boris’ record on air pollution even more discredited than it currently is.

Not only are the ULEZ proposals lacking in ambition, they are designed to leave the problem for his successor to grapple with, not coming into force until 2020 – four years after Boris has left City Hall.

By 2020 air pollution will have contributed to the death of around 35,000 more Londoners. There can be no more hiding, spinning and veiled threats to scientists. This is Boris Johnson’s final opportunity to deliver a better air quality legacy before he heads off to Westminster.

Murad Qureshi AM is Labour’s London Assembly environment spokesperson

UPDATE: 12 December 2014

The Mayor's office has been in touch, and gives this response to this article:

It is clear from Murad Qureshi’s piece that, despite chairing the London Assembly’s Environment Committee for a number of years, he has somehow missed the huge number of actions the Mayor has taken since being first elected in 2008 to improve the capital’s air quality.

The Mayor has implemented the most ambitious and comprehensive set of measures, including the first ever taxi age limits to get the older and more polluting vehicles off the road and a huge bus retrofit programme resulting in London’s buses now being the cleanest large fleet in the world. Energy efficiency measures have been installed in over 400,000 buildings across London, reducing emissions from boilers. All this action has led to a real-world measured 12 per cent reduction in NO2, the pollutant of particular concern, and we have halved the number of Londoners living in areas which break legal NO2 limits.

We accept that London’s air still isn’t good enough and to tackle this the challenge the Mayor is proposing the Ultra-Low Emission Zone for central London. This will be a game changer for the capital’s air quality and will halve pollution emissions in central London and have a transformative effect on the rest of London.

Matthew Pencharz 
Senior Advisor – Environment & Energy to the Mayor of London

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.