Ahead of the House of Commons debate on London's air quality on Tuesday, secured by Diane Abbott, Cllr Julian Bell (Chair of London Councils’ Transport and Environment Committee and Leader of Ealing Council) writes about air pollution.
The quality of London’s air has worsened noticeably in recent days and this polluted air contributes to the premature deaths of 3,400 of our fellow Londoners annually.
As someone who cycles almost everywhere I go, I breathe dirty air every day. It’s clear to me even through the smog that London needs a joined-up air quality strategy, with action taken at all levels of government and business. However, it’s not just in the West End where this must be addressed, but in the outer boroughs and beyond London.
The European Commission is currently conducting legal proceedings against central government over its failure to meet nitrogen dioxide targets and the resultant fines could exceed £300 million. The previous government brought in laws allowing it to pass on these fines to London's boroughs. But to do so would be unfair, unreasonable and disproportionate — air pollution does not respect local government boundaries, nor is it generated exclusively in London.
Heavy traffic and congested streets don’t help, but it will surprise most people that around 40% of one of the most dangerous pollutants found in London’s air is emitted outside the capital. This makes it impossible to solve the problem borough-by-borough. As with so many of the capital’s big issues, a co-ordinated approach is called for, urgently.
In the meantime, boroughs are at the forefront of efforts to improve air quality. My own council, Ealing, is one of a number encouraging cycling as part of a wider effort to encourage a shift away from cars. In Croydon, a 26% cut in deliveries to construction sites, required to implement a logistics plan, has resulted in a decrease in emissions and congestion. Car clubs are active in 25 boroughs and are working together with TfL to share best practice and encourage other areas.
Since 2012 boroughs have legal responsibility for improving the health of their residents — as a result they set up Health and Wellbeing Boards. The health and care sectors work together with boroughs to tackle a range of health concerns, including air quality.
In Hackney, school pupils have monitored local air quality and used the findings to get their families more engaged. Croydon, Lewisham, Merton, Richmond and Wandsworth have jointly developed a schools programme to get school kids thinking about pollution and help them avoid the worst areas.
Boroughs are doing good work, but they urgently need the money to do more to tackle poor air quality — not the threat of enormous fines hanging over their heads as councils brace for further austerity. Saddling local communities with huge fines for an issue that is beyond their direct control will not solve the problem — what it will do is make it harder and more expensive to fix.
London’s boroughs have welcomed the Mayor’s proposed Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) but believe that it could, and should, go further. Download London Councils’ response to the Mayor of London’s consultation (PDF).