The mayor's lethargic response to air pollution has failed to stop this silent killer
The dangers of exposure to air pollution are well documented. Responsible for thousands of deaths every year, polluted air has been linked to cardiac problems, including heart attacks and strokes, as well as respiratory conditions.
Recently, while I was preparing for my second annual City Hall roundtable on air pollution, I came across a map. It was a highly colourful plan depicting Waltham Forest with large expanses of blue depicting the series of reservoirs and wetlands that make up the Lower Lea Valley.
My attention was drawn to the yellow and orange hues that criss-cross the borough with alarming regularity. Those yellow and orange hues show the annual mean NO2 air pollution from 2010 along all the borough’s main roads.
Produced by Barts NHS Trust, working with the local council and the charity Global Action Plan, the map is designed to increase awareness among residents of the local pollution hotspots so that they can take action to reduce their exposure.
Projects such as this map have real value when it comes to raising awareness, particularly among those most vulnerable to exposure. But, aside from increasing their knowledge of the dangers surrounding air pollution, there’s little more that Londoners themselves can do to tackle this growing problem.
If we’re to stand any chance of eliminating this silent killer, we will need leadership.
That is why when I recently brought together campaigners, councillors, academics and policy experts to my second annual City Hall roundtable our discussion was focused on the need for more action from mayor Boris Johnson.
Our theme was the past, present and future of air quality policy in London. We looked at the latest scientific evidence, assessed the Mayor’s legacy and also looked at what policies should be pursued in the future.
I was struck once again by the passion and dedication there is to this cause. It came through in every contribution and is reflected in increasing coverage of the issue by the media, with on-going campaigns being run by the Evening Standard and Sunday Times.
London’s air quality is an issue I’ve been campaigning on for many years and the level of interest and activity has never been higher. From communities organising Clean Air Routes to Schools to find less polluted roads for their young lungs to London Boroughs calling to be included in an expanded Ultra Low Emission Zone, there is a new policy development every day.
But there is one link in this cause that is noticeably lethargic – the mayor of London. It’s increasingly clear that the mayor woke up far too late to the problem of air pollution and Boris Johnson’s actions in recent times suggest he realises this too.
The last few years have not been uneventful on the air quality front. There was the parliamentary select committee inquiry into air pollution he tried to dodge, the angry letter to King’s College after they spoke openly on Oxford Street’s toxic air, the obfuscation over plans to expand the upcoming Ultra Low Emission Zone and the comments that children should be bussed in to breathe London’s air.
When the mayor finally did appear before a parliamentary select committee the mayor gave his strongest hint yet that he believes he should have acted earlier. There was even a hint of contrition. When asked what his advice would be to the next mayor he replied, ‘Take the tough decisions early, take the heat, and it will all pay off’.
Boris himself did none of those things, something reflected in the 2020 start date for his proposed new Ultra Low Emission Zone and his failure to retro-fit the bus fleet.
While Londoners are coming together to find innovative solutions to the air quality crisis, Boris Johnson couldn’t even bring himself to attend a debate in his new workplace –the house of commons- and defend his environmental legacy.
When I look at the ingenuity and collaboration which led to the creation of this pollution map of Waltham Forest and I think about the eight wasted years of a Boris Johnson mayoralty, it seems clear to me the biggest obstacle to tackling the problem has been the mayor’s inaction.
Boris Johnson may soon be gone from City Hall but his air pollution legacy will hang over London for many years to come.
Murad Qureshi AM is London Assembly Labour Group environment spokespersonLike 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.