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

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.