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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide