Boris Johnson is missing a historic opportunity to clean up London's air. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.