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Rosamund Kissi-Debrah: “Without Ulez expansion, more children are going to die”

The air pollution campaigner on her daughter Ella’s death and why Keir Starmer was wrong about London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Few topics have dominated political debate this summer as much as air pollution. With London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez) expansion being enacted on 29 August, controversies are bound to continue.

Though disagreements over how to reduce the UK’s domestic pollution levels, which regularly exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, are causing renewed tensions between – and within – the major parties, the issue is nothing new. A decade ago, in February 2013, nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died following a severe asthma attack. Ella lived with her mother and twin siblings on the doorstep of the car-heavy South Circular road in Lewisham, south London, where levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide emissions exceeded annual legal limits. Following an inquest in 2020, a coroner ruled that the polluted air she had inhaled from traffic emissions “made a material contribution” to her passing.

Ella was the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. In 2021, the coroner urged the government to lower the UK’s legal limits for harmful pollutants, bringing them in line with WHO levels, which it is yet to do.

“Nobody I have met has said: ‘I don’t want clean air,’” Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, Ella’s mother, who has become a vocal campaigner on air pollution, tells Spotlight in a café a 15-minute walk from her family home – the same house Ella grew up in – where we are hiding from afternoon drizzle. “But what people need is support,” she adds, to get out of their cars.

Last November, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, confirmed that the capital’s Ulez scheme, which charges road users with the most polluting cars £12.50 a day, would be expanded across all London boroughs. This July, when Labour narrowly lost the by-election in the London constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Keir Starmer attributed the defeat to Khan’s decision to expand Ulez, and called for the mayor to “reflect” on the policy.

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Kissi-Debrah, for one, does not agree. “Where is his proof that [Labour lost] because of Ulez?” she snaps over her decaf latte. She believes that the by-election result was more a referendum on Khan. After Starmer initially backed the expansion, then later strayed from that position, Kissi-Debrah believes the Labour leader needs to “believe in the health argument” for schemes like Ulez. “I think Keir is a decent man,” she says, “but he needs to be careful to not give the other side ammunition… Was I annoyed with him? Yes, because I didn’t think he should sell out the Labour Mayor.”

Despite neglecting her scrambled eggs on toast in favour of riffing on politicians, Kissi-Debrah, her grey raincoat hiding a blue Millwall Football Club tracksuit, insists she is “not even political”. Air pollution, to her mind, is not about partisan politicking; it’s an urgent health crisis.

“Air pollution doesn’t have any borders,” Kissi-Debrah explains. “The pandemic meant less people died from respiratory [illnesses] because there was cleaner air. [But] as you can see,” she gestures to the busy main road outside, “everything’s back to ‘normal’.

“We need action, and we need it now. The coroner [on Ella’s death] was very clear: unless the government takes this matter seriously, more children like my daughter are going to continue to die.”

A host of recent studies highlights the omnipresence of harmful pollutants. Almost every home in Britain is exposed to levels of air pollution that exceed WHO guidelines, according to research from the non-profit group Central Office of Public Interest (Copi) and Imperial College London.

The research found that 97 per cent of households exceed WHO limits for at least one of three key harmful pollutants (PM2.5; PM10 and NO2), while 70 per cent of residences breached all three. Between 2010 and 2019, the UK – by its relatively lax standards, internationally – largely met its own obligations to limit most pollutants, but failed in its requirements to limit harmful nitrogen dioxide emissions.

[See also: My borough shows low-traffic neighbourhoods are a roaring success]

Ulez-style clean air zones (CAZ) have been suggested as one of the best ways to clean up the atmosphere across the country, particularly in cities. But these haven’t proved popular. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, has, despite initially supporting the introduction of a CAZ in Manchester city centre, postponed plans. He explained that while he is “committed to cleaning up the air our residents breathe”, he wants to do it “in a way that helps people to make the change [to greener vehicles], and does not put jobs, livelihoods and businesses at risk”.

Clean air is “going to require behavioural change, and it’s going to cost a lot of money”, cautions Kissi-Debrah. She believes that transitioning costs for residents should be subsidised by national and local government schemes. There also needs to be “massive” capital investment in outer city and rural areas that have “dire” transport provision: “People want clean, safe, affordable, reliable public transport. I can’t believe that in parts of this country, there’s only one bus that runs every hour – what’s that about? People have places to go and things to do.”

The reason that Ulez and other CAZ initiatives often fail to resonate with the public, Kissi-Debrah says, is simple: it’s being incorrectly framed as an environmental issue, meaning it struggles to “cut through”. The case for cleaning up Britain’s air, in her view, needs to be seen as the public health emergency it is. Just because “you can’t see particulate matter with the naked eye”, doesn’t mean it is not impacting human health. “You can find black carbon in the placentas [of] pregnant women, in dementia patients at the end of their life,” she says. “It’s linked to cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, low birth weight, suicide and depression.”

Once the drizzle subsides, Kissi-Debrah and I walk down from the top of Mountsfield Park – a green, hilly pocket with the South Circular road at its foot. The park was an alternative route Ella and her mother sometimes took to and from school.

This spot is where a life-size statue of Ella – who was 4-foot 6-inches when she died – will be built next year. Ella “loved” rollerblading around the park, her mother tells me. Her daughter was “massively into her football” and a Millwall fan. “Exhaustion” was the overwhelming feeling Kissi-Debrah recalls at the conclusion of a February memorial event at London’s Southbank, which marked a decade since Ella’s death.

Kissi-Debrah, a former teacher, now works full time in advocacy. She set up the Ella Roberta Foundation in 2014, in her daughter’s memory. The charity’s demanding slogan is: “Clean air for all”. This is a direct reference to the growing body of evidence that air pollution systemically affects marginalised communities more. Black people and those from immigrant communities, and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are more likely to live in the most polluted areas in London. Those from the poorest backgrounds emit the least emissions – but are most affected by harmful pollutants in the atmosphere.

And while, during the first decade of this century, progress in cleaning up Britain’s air has generally been “substantial”, researchers note that for concentrations of nitrogen dioxide “the rate of improvement has been slower for the more deprived [communities]”.

This is also why certain “anti-car” schemes are not as clear cut as they first seem. Recently, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak positioned himself on the “side” of drivers by ordering a review into low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), another policy that has proved controversial. LTNs reduce traffic on quiet residential streets and encourage cycling and walking instead. Kissi-Debrah is an unlikely advocate of Sunak’s plan. She describes LTNs as “the most racist” policy – given that traffic from leafy, rural backstreets (which may have higher populations of white and affluent residents) would be redirected to already-congested and polluted main roads, where more people from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds might live.

Before Kissi-Debrah and I part, we exit the bottom of the park and arrive at a side street by the Catford Gyratory, a large roundabout approached by seven single-carriageway roads, which forms part of the South Circular system. It is, of course, filled with cars. Opposite is Holbeach Primary School, which Ella used to attend.

“I have to believe in the science that removing dirty vehicles is going to lower emissions,” Kissi-Debrah concludes, as she begins to tread home, towards the South Circular. “You have ten lorries driving down here… and you can imagine what they’re chucking out,” she says. “If they change to being electric, yes, you still have the tyre and brake wear causing emissions – but the air will be cleaner, and less kids will die. It’s that simple for me.”

[See also: Rishi Sunak can’t save the British motorist]

This article is part of an ongoing series on major health crises. See here for more.

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