London Boroughs Need Help, Not Fines, To Tackle Air Quality

By Londonist Last edited 35 months ago
London Boroughs Need Help, Not Fines, To Tackle Air Quality

Photo by Terry Moran from the Londonist Flickr pool

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).

Last Updated 08 June 2015


We need to start being honest about the damaging effects of vehicle emissions on our health. People's brains simply refuse to acknowledge it because they can't contemplate giving up their car. There's an incredible amount of inertia surrounding it because they've been clogging up our streets for so long now, but now that we know how dangerous vehicle emissions are, we just need to stop.

We enacted a public smoking ban because it wasn't fair that one person's choice to blow carcinogens out of their mouths was affecting the health of everyone around them, but when a car constantly spews out carcinogens it's assumed that the situation is somehow unavoidable. Selfish people who choose to cause cancer-causing particulates into our air when they have plenty of alternatives should be prevented from doing so. It makes me furious that London's selfish car users are slowly killing the rest of us and are allowed to continue to do so.

Beth Williams

Whilst the politicians talk nothing gets done and the air quality in London worsens. One immediate measure that could be taken would be a massive tree and shrub planting programme across the entire city. Trees absorb significant quantities of carbon dioxide and other noxious gases. London would also look a lot nicer too!