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

Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.