Air pollution in London is set to haunt Boris Johnson again

Air pollution in London will haunt the Mayor of London once again, as his appearance at parliament's Environment Committee today marks an annus horribilis for air quality in the capital.

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“B*llocks” Boris Johnson tweeted, as he responded to findings from one of the country’s top emission scientists, Dr David Carslow. The outburst was the Mayor’s unique response to evidence that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in Oxford Street were unparalleled in the world. The Mayor’s appearance before members of parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee today will likely be followed more closely than most and not simply by those waiting for the Mayor to push the boundaries of the English language. Following his recent announcement that he intends to return to Parliament, the commentariat will be watching closely to see how the Mayor fares in his likely new stomping ground from 2015.

Despite initially trying to dodge the appearance by telling Committee Chair Joan Walley MP his schedule “makes it impossible for me to attend” the Mayor will today face parliamentary scrutiny. Aside from the hubbub created by the Boris Johnson PR circus arriving in Westminster, there will be many who will be watching the Mayor and feeling deeply uneasy about what little progress has been made on tackling London’s silent killer. Many of these concerns will endure as the Mayor’s attention is inevitably taken by loftier ambitions.

Air pollution, and the Mayor’s failure to really get to grips with the issue, has dogged his administration from the very beginning. The "flagship" Low Emission Zone  has been progressively watered down and the Mayor’s latest proposal for an Ultra Low Emission Zone won’t even be implemented until 2020 – something that I have advocated bring forward. Despite the fanfare the ULEZ now bears little resemblance to the original promise of a “scheme that would aim to ensure all vehicles driving in the centre of the capital during working hours would be zero or low emission”. As part of the project, the Mayor has unveiled plans to allow vehicles that do not meet certain European green standards into this supposedly “ultra low” zone for a £10 fee. Whilst this will act as deterrence to some, it will still allow some of the dirtiest and most polluting vehicles into the very heart of London. The message seems to be, you can drive the dirtiest vehicles, but only if you can afford to pay.

All this comes at a time when the scientific evidence of the health impact of air pollution is growing day by day. It is a matter of scientific fact that, by adulthood, a child growing up by a main road in London will suffer markedly reduced lung growth compared to the average person. As well as respiratory conditions, this has a whole array of knock on health impacts including links to stroke, heart disease and lung cancer.

Yet in spite of this evidence the Mayor has sought to play down London’s air pollution crisis. Commenting during this spring’s two smog episodes he said “I'm urging people just to have a little balance here, I cycled this morning and it seemed perfectly fine to me". The Mayor’s comments came just as it was confirmed by Defra that London was experiencing ‘Level 10’ air pollution –the worst possible.

When Boris Johnson was first elected, solving London’s poor air quality was one of the biggest policy challenges facing the city. As he sets his sights on pastures new it seems we should expect little more from this Mayor. As a consequence of the toxic mix of acquiescence, botched policies and watered down proposals, air quality will sadly remain London’s biggest environmental challenge and one that will be high in the in-tray for the next Mayor.

Murad Qureshi AM is Labour’s London Assembly environment spokesperson