Air Pollution (London)

Mark made the following contribution to a Westminster Hall debate tabled by fellow London MP, Diane Abbott. 

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on her mayoral manifesto—sorry, on introducing a subject that is close to all our hearts. For the avoidance of doubt, Oxford Street is in my constituency, although it may one day be in her constituency. However, she is quite right about the problems on that thoroughfare, about which I also have a lot to say. As the father of two young children, living in the increasingly congested Victoria station district, the issue of air quality affecting everyday living is critical.

London is the largest, most established post-industrial city in Europe. It is no surprise that many competing interests jostle with air quality for priority. Our capital is proud to be a global city and it is the epicentre of the UK’s economy. Constant new investment in all our transport infrastructure is required for it to thrive, including—at times—roads. Only then can London maintain its position as a global leader.

More than 1 million people come to work in my constituency alone every day and the congestion this causes inevitably has a major impact on local air quality.

The 10-year age limit on taxis from 2020 should be welcomed, as these vehicles are responsible for a relatively large proportion of emissions in central London. It is essential that a taxi scrappage scheme is introduced to help drivers upgrade their vehicles.

It is worth praising TfL for its efforts on ultra low emission zones, which are set to be introduced in 2020, although that is perhaps a little bit further in the distance than many of us would like. Investment encouraging pedestrian, electric cars and cycle lanes is also welcome, but I fear that it is insufficiently radical properly to address the heart of this issue.

In a bid to tackle climate change, successive Governments have, through taxation, incentivised drivers to switch to diesel on the basis that it produces less carbon dioxide than petrol. I am sorry to say that this has helped compound the problem. The lobby group, Clean Air in London, led by my indefatigable constituent and good personal friend, Simon Birkett, continues to campaign for a new Clean Air Act to deal with diesel engines, which emit some 20 times more polluting particulates than their petrol equivalents. Clean Air London is rightly calling for a scrappage scheme to remove diesel vehicles from our roads and for widening the congestion charge beyond London, with charges set purely on the basis of emission levels. Drivers may need to be charged far more to drive diesel vehicles through the most polluted areas during rush hour and the ultra low emission zone should be expanded to include the heavily congested north and south corridors.

Diesel engines are dismally failing to meet nitrogen dioxide emission standards, by an average of some 4.4 times per kilometre in real-world driving conditions. Much of this is caused by the impact of congestion and speed humps, which are inexplicably not variants in the industry standard norms. As a result, nitrogen dioxide levels soar whenever a car’s accelerator is used. This is borne out by the UK being in breach of the EU’s mandated air pollution levels for nitrogen dioxide in no fewer than 38 out of the 43 air quality monitoring zones. These levels were meant to be met some five years ago, as the hon. Lady said, and that situation triggered the legal action that she mentioned. I suggest that, paradoxically, the EU-wide regulatory failing regarding diesel engine emissions has led to this problem.

In my constituency we have a number of hotspots, not just Oxford Street: Marylebone Road, parts of Knightsbridge and the area around Victoria have previously recorded the highest nitrogen dioxide levels in the world and this is causing major problems. Clean Air in London is rightly calling for Oxford Street to be pedestrianised to a large extent and for shops and offices to be fitted with regularly maintained air filters to help reduce nitrogen dioxide levels. I am told that regulations for issuing fixed penalty notices for unnecessary idling of vehicle engines have so far proved ineffective. That needs to change.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the City of London, which suffers from the highest average levels of air pollution. According to an Evening Standard campaign last Friday, the City was advising people not to go jogging during the day because of the pollution levels.

There is much more than I should like to say, but I appreciate that other hon. Members want to speak. I finish by mentioning one of my favourite hobbies: walking in all corners of London. I know from personal experience, having been to Dalston and Stamford Hill and other parts of the hon. Lady’s constituency, which are less polluted than bits of mine, that there is none the less a pollution issue there as well.

The problems to which we refer are by no means limited to the city centre or the area around Heathrow airport, although I am sure that that is an important issue for many fellow London MPs. I dread to think of the damage that is being done to the lungs of huge numbers of children and asthma sufferers, of whom there are now a staggering 5.4 million in the UK.

I am delighted that this debate appears to be building momentum across the media. I give particular credit to the Evening Standard, because its campaign is important and will run for months and years to come. I hope that the Minister will consider seriously a lot of what is being said today, because this is and will continue to be a major issue for all Londoners that will unite the political class within London across the House, and we need to deal with it with some urgency.