London hums with activity. It is always doing more, never stopping to draw breath.
Or so I thought until last night. At 6.30pm, two hundred protesters lay down in the middle of the thronging Euston Road during rush hour and brought traffic to a halt. The aim was clear: to make a poignant statement about the inadequate measures currently in place to address air pollution in the Big Smoke.
“Boris’s policies are failing us. It’s a no-brainer – Boris needs to get the most polluting vehicles out of the most polluted places”, said Alice Haworth-Booth, spokesperson for Climate Rush.
The die-in itself was a moment of clarity in the midst of six-lane chaos. Having met in Soho Square – where large numbers of police had also gathered, intrusively filming and photographing everyone present – the crowd set off through the streets of Central London, many wearing the red sash that has become a tell-tale style of a Climate Rush action.
On reaching our destination, we forged forward, onto the road, ‘dying’ for fresh air, and for several minutes we owned that patch of tarmac; no cars, lorries, motorbikes or buses could stop us. The police were not happy, one in particular taking it upon himself to pick up people’s bikes and lug them off sans-owner, tussling with people if they tried to hang onto their trusty steeds. His colleagues followed suit but the protesters were unperturbed, not willing to let themselves be distracted by those paid to keep the streets clear of political protest.
As we lay on the road – an incredibly odd experience at the best of times – nurses drew chalk silhouettes around us, marks aptly doused in car exhaust fumes minutes later, marks that sustained our message even once we had gone. And that message is a clear one: “atmospheric pollution is an invisible and unacceptable health hazard that few in power are taking seriously”, said Mark Blake, cycling off into the traffic on his way home.
Air pollution in London is a two-fold problem. On the one hand, it poses significant problems to human health. On the other, it is leaving us vulnerable to extensive EU fines for failing to comply with legal limits. Where public health is concerned, NHS reforms have been under the spotlight recently as austerity measures have spread their suffocating tentacles into the far-reaching corners of some of the most fundamental of services. What has been apparent throughout is the misguided political will, which favours corporate profits and privatisation over quality and equality of services. The minority at the top – the Sir Philip Green’s of this world – benefit from significant tax avoidance while the rest of us need to accept the closure or restructuring of local health services that play a critical role in our communities.
Where the economic aspects of air pollution are concerned, the UK is currently paying out approximately £2bn annually to address air pollution, with much greater fines in the pipeline if we do not start to address the issue head on. This is not what we need at a time when financial instability reigns. Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s scrapping of the Western Extension Zone is a perfect example of the way in which people-pleasing – particularly of those who live in the wealthier Conservative constituencies – has taken precedent over the overall social and economic health of London’s population.
Nearly 5% of all annual UK deaths are attributed to poor air quality yet what is being done about it? Green Party candidate for London’s Mayoral elections Jenny Jones was there last night making it clear that there are things that can and should be done immediately to improve London’s air quality, including establishing very low emission zones and pushing ahead with Stage Three of the Low Emission Zone. Demonstrations such as the die-in push the issue into the public arena, as Haworth-Booth made clear:
“With the support the Roadblock got from the public, the media and from mayoral candidates Jenny Jones and Ken Livingstone – who sent us a message of support via Twitter – a spotlight has been shone on the public health emergency caused by poor air quality in London. We’re incredibly impressed by the number of people who showed up and we will continue to put pressure on Boris until meaningful progress starts to be made.”
So, are our politicians and Mayor going to do the right thing? Unless air quality improves, you might just have to hold your breath.