Why is Boris Johnson a bystander when London gets hit by dangerous smog?

The mayor and government are bystanders during a public health emergency.

Jenny Jones is a member of the London Assembly for the Green Party

The pollution currently smothering London is a toxic mix of local and European vehicle emissions and dust from the Sahara. The mayor and the government have both issued warnings to the vulnerable to avoid exercise outside, but there is no advice to the drivers who cause the pollution to stay indoors and avoid using their cars.

The mayor knows the health risks and he should resurrect the emergency measures policy he stripped out of his air quality strategy, an essential key to restricting non-essential and the most polluting vehicles from the capital.

In the first draft, the consultation proposed the following policy: ‘Under extreme circumstances there may be a role for more stringent special measures used intensively for short periods of time which primarily affect how many and which kinds of vehicles can travel to and through the relevant area’.

However, in his final air quality strategy that was published in 2010, this statement, as well as Policy 6 – Action Days and Special Measures was removed.

The mayor and government are bystanders during a public health emergency, whilst other European cities have at least tried to ‘think big’.

For instance, the recent decision of Paris to have free travel on public transport and to restrict traffic during their major pollution alert, showed how politicians can take responsibility. We can debate the pros and cons of individual measures, but it is the attempt to do something significant that provides a direct contrast with our own mayor of London.

Both Boris Johnson and the government continue to stand idly by while millions of Londoners are exposed to pollution that can permanently damage their health.

The emergency measures that the mayor should be considering:

Imposing restrictions on vehicles that are the most polluting and restricting non-essential personal car journeys. Electric, hybrid vehicles and those carrying at least 3-4 passengers would be exempt.  

Encourage business to avoid peak times journeys and more out of hour deliveries. Along with employees being encouraged to work from home. Partly as a result of working with businesses the 2012 London Olympics were the least polluted of recent times.

Sending Mayoral pollution alerts to the 1,148 schools in London that are within 150 metres of roads carrying 10,000 plus vehicles per day and a total of 2,270 schools within 400 metres of such roads. The mayor’s airtext service could be adapted for this purpose.

Ban school runs during pollution episodes. Encourage schools in high pollution risk areas with the help of police community officers to enforce school run bans. Alongside more rigorous adherence to school travel plans with information for children and parents to avoid pollution exposure.

Regional weather updates should include information about harmful to human health particulate and nitrogen dioxide levels.

Alongside putting in place the package of emergency measures to reduce and manage air quality, we also need action days that change the way people think about travelling in and experiencing the city. These action days or events across the city would be similar to the New York ‘Summer Streets’ events. They encourage people to walk and cycle by restricting vehicle access to parts of the city at certain times.

The long-term impacts of breathing polluted air day after day are even worse than the occasional episode where it hits 10/10. We can solve both the long-term and short-term problems by reducing traffic and discouraging diesel vehicles.

What we can’t afford is a mayor (any mayor) who believes that new roads, more traffic and more pollution is a credible policy.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.