Clean Air Day and the Fight Against Air Pollution

Despite World Cup fervour gripping the country, I am sure it will not have escaped your attention that today is Clean Air Day! To mark the occasion, I thought I would share some recent thoughts on a subject very close the hearts of many residents and one which I am regularly asked about.

The negative health implications of air pollution are well documented, with nitrogen dioxide and particulates responsible for an estimated 40,000 early deaths each year in the UK. Although air quality has improved significantly since 2010, sixty years on from the Clean Air Act, air pollution is still shortening lives and damaging our economy and environment. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that the annual cost of health problems resulting from exposure to air pollution exceeds £20 billion, and I dread to think of the untold damage that continues to be done to the lungs of huge numbers of children and asthma sufferers, of whom there are now a staggering 5.4 million. Alarmingly the Cities of London and Westminster is within the top 40 areas in the UK deemed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to have harmful levels of particulate matter. With more than a million people traveling into the constituency every day for work and leisure via planes, trains and automobiles, tackling air pollution must be at the top of our agenda.

Westminster’s Conservative-led council has admirably led the fight by finding innovative solutions to what is a multifaceted problem. In March, it released its Air Quality Manifesto which outlined pledges that will progress its cleaner air agenda in preparation for the publication of a detailed strategy and action plan at the end of the year. The Council has already implemented or trialled a range of initiatives such as its anti-idling campaign, #DontBeIdle, and a 50 per cent diesel surcharge for problem-vehicles entering Marylebone which has contributed to a 14 per cent reduction in the number of high-polluting vehicles. The money raised by the surcharge has now been used to create a £1 million fund to which local primary schools can apply to establish their own no pollution zones. This fresh approach from Westminster is just the kind of original thinking required if we are to bring about the changes of habit necessary to protecting our most vulnerable.

Of course, Westminster’s enterprise alone will not resolve this pan-London problem. Indeed, many of the most polluting vehicles on local roads belong to Londoners living outside the borough. In a bid to improve air quality, successive Mayors have supported and looked to extend emissions-based charge zones, and although any action which discourages the ownership of older, more polluting vehicles is to be welcomed, the effectiveness of the T-Charge has been found to be negligible at best. Whilst there is merit in City Hall’s plan to introduce a central-London ultra-low emission zone by 2019, the Mayor’s desire to extend it to the North and South Circulars come 2021 seems less logical. The adoption of such an approach to a problem which, outside central London, is mostly confined to major roads and motorways seems to me to be needlessly imprecise. More constructive would be to allocate resources to the installation of more rapid charging points and the purchase of hybrid or zero-emission hydrogen buses, as these are currently the single most polluting form of transportation on our roads. These more cost effective alternatives would deliver the same improvement on air quality without the punitive impact on ordinary Londoners and small businesses. As such, City Hall would be wise to give them serious thought. 

As for the Government, it recently published its draft Clean Air Strategy which, alongside 2017’s roadside nitrogen dioxide plan, forms a key part of its twenty-five year programme to improve the environment. Whilst the nitrogen dioxide plan focuses on reducing this damaging emission, the Strategy focuses on tackling five of the other most harmful air pollutants: ammonia, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and sulphur dioxide. This multi-angle approach is encouraging as it acknowledges the complexity of the issue and looks to get to the root of the matter, rather than promote a quick fix solution. Ambitious in its aims, the Strategy looks to halve the number of people living in locations where concentrations of particulate matter are above the WHO limit, legislate to give councils more powers to improve air quality and ensure only the cleanest domestic fuels can be sold.

Naturally, there will be detractors who ask whether more can be done sooner, and I concede that a twenty-five year program might not scream urgency to some! The Government’s commitment to phasing out the sale of conventional diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and taking them off the road altogether by 2050 is one such pledge which has come under particular scrutiny given the recent promises made by the French and Italians to implement similar bans by 2030 and 2024 respectively. On this, I would remind critics not to forget the complexity of the issue we face and the importance of developing the right policies. It was not long ago that the public were encouraged to buy diesel as the more environmentally friendly alternative to petrol, only for it to transpire that its emissions were, in fact, far more toxic. Today, we still suffer from the effects of this mistake and must now devise a way to remove diesel cars from our roads without burdening those who acted in good faith and can least afford to replace their car or van.  

I make no secret that the task of improving our air quality will take time and patience, nevertheless, I am confident that we are on the right path to achieving this aim. As I said at the beginning of this piece, air pollution has improved markedly over the last eight years: nitrogen oxide emissions are down 27 per cent, sulphur dioxide emissions by 60 per cent, particulate matter emissions by about 11 per cent, and volatile organic compounds emissions by 9 per cent. There is, of course, much more to do but it is encouraging nonetheless to see the Government thinking long-term and taking bold steps. Let there be no doubt about this Government’s commitment to going further and faster than any before it to meet one of the biggest public health challenges we as a city currently face.