London’s air pollution costs 10,000 lives a year – radical change can’t wait any longer

No one should stand in the way of Sadiq Khan's air quality proposals


Last week, Sadiq Khan’s first budget as mayor of London was passed by the London Assembly. This came despite a last-ditch, feeble attempt to stop it in its tracks.

At the heart of this cynical endeavour by some Assembly Members was an attack on the mayor’s toxicity-charge, better known as the T-charge. While this was a display of desperation by those determined to pick apart the mayor’s well-considered budget (luckily, they didn’t succeed), it laid bare a failure among some to acknowledge the true scale of the problem of air pollution.

It also laid bare an unwillingness to take the radical action needed to tackle this silent killer.   

Opposition to the T-charge forms part of a wider effort to obstruct the mayor’s plans to address poor air quality in the capital. It is coupled with opposition to the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the North and South Circulars, with some refuting the need to broaden the ULEZ beyond the current Congestion Charge Zone.

But if we drill right down to the nucleus of this opposition — and it isn’t hard to do — what we’re actually looking at is a willingness to put political point-scoring before the health of Londoners. A willingness to overlook the need to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our city — including children — and take decisive action to address one of the greatest injustices of our time — London’s toxic air.

To understand just how cynical and poorly-judged these attacks are, we must first understand the full scale of London’s air pollution crisis.

It is estimated that 10,000 Londoners die prematurely every year due to poor air quality. That is tragic and it is shameful. Many more people suffer damage to their health. Children, because they are often closest to the source of pollution, are particularly vulnerable. Toxic air is known to stunt lung growth, cause problems with brain development and lead to respiratory conditions such as asthma.

Black alert

The situation is so desperate that in January the mayor issued a ‘black alert’, the highest ever warning we have had concerning our capital’s toxic air. Londoners —including those who are physically fit — were warned that they may need to take precautions to protect themselves, and schools were advised not to allow children to play outside.

We are faced with a public health emergency. And in these circumstances, there is no choice by to throw everything we have at tackling this silent killer.

What’s more, most Londoners accept the need to take decisive action. Those that want to attack Sadiq Khan say that the T-charge won’t have any meaningful impact. Yet this is at odds with the 81 per cent of Londoners who have given their support to the T-charge.

It’s not just ordinary Londoners who are in favour of robust action. A recent editorial in London’s premier newspaper, the Evening Standard, stated in no uncertain terms that ‘Mr Khan’s proposed toxicity charge must be implemented’.

Businesses in central London have lent their support, despite claims that the mayor is imposing a ‘punitive charge’ on drivers. London First, John Lewis Partnership and the New West End Company, have given their backing. Indeed the long list of supporters of the T-charge includes London Boroughs, health charities such as Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, and environmental organisations such as Greenpeace.

But the misguided attempt by those seeking to undermine effective action should come as no surprise.

Eight wasted years

Boris Johnson’s eight years in City Hall were effectively eight wasted years. His jokes about bussing in Norfolk school children to breathe in London’s ‘clean air’ were eventually followed by serious plans for an Ultra Low Emission Zone, pieced together in the eleventh hour.

Yet we needed a bigger and better ULEZ than that Johnson was offering. And that is what Sadiq Khan seeks to deliver. We can only assume that those who cling so steadfastly to the former Mayors proposals do so because they are so utterly devoid of any real solutions of their own.

The only ‘alternative’ to the Mayor’s expanded ULEZ, has been the ‘ULEZ Plus’. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But in reality, when you consider the details (and there isn’t much to consider), what is actually being advocated is a return to the smaller ULEZ proposed by Boris, with a few ‘pollution hotspots’ thrown in for good measure.

Those opposing the Mayor’s ‘bigger and better’ ULEZ are quick to complain that it will result in a 10% improvement in air quality – which they believe is not worth the pain for London’s economy. Yet 10%, when you are talking about a large swathe of London, is a very considerable improvement.

It’s a real shame that those wanting to return to the smaller ULEZ model are willing to back improvements for the 136,000 Londoners living in the Congestion Charging Zone, but not for the 3.8 million Londoners who would benefit from Mayor Khan’s ULEZ. But this is where our differences lie.

Sadiq Khan made a promise to be a Mayor for all Londoners, and that is exactly what he is doing. Conversely, you have those that will oppose his every endeavour to improve air quality, all for the sake of protecting the interests of a privileged few.

When you start applying rigid cost-benefit analysis to an issue like air quality, you start effectively putting a price on the health of Londoners. You put a price on the value of life that is prematurely snatched away by toxic air. You put a price on the lungs of our children.

Mayor Khan has put forward the most ambitious proposals for tackling air quality London or other cities have ever seen. Those looking to stand in his way risk entrenching existing inequalities in access to clean air. It’s time they stopped playing cynical games. If they don’t, they risk finding themselves on the wrong side of history.

We need radical action. The health of Londoners depends on it. Nobody should be standing in the way of the mayor’s proposals to take such action — and take action as early as possible.

Leonie Cooper is the Labour Party’s environment spokesperson on the London Assembly 

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.