Sadiq Khan's clean air plan isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a start, writes Clive Lewis MP.
It’s a big week for action to curb dangerous pollution in the UK. Following years of Tory government indifference to illegal levels of air pollution in our towns and cities, my colleague Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, has taken matters into his own hands.
On Monday, the Ultra Low Emissions Zone came into force, meaning the dirtiest vehicles now have to pay an extra fee to drive into central London.
Right now, children at over 400 schools in the capital are struggling to breathe the city’s toxic air. Research shows that children forced to breathe air this bad day in, day out, cannot grow normal, healthy lungs, leaving them with permanent physical impairment that will knock years off their lives. Over four fifths of these schools are classed as deprived. London’s poorest communities are on the front line of Britain’s air quality crisis.
But they’re not causing it. London’s most deprived households are five times less likely to own a car than the city’s least deprived households. Meanwhile, London’s most ethnically diverse areas are also its most badly polluted. In fact, data show that the whiter the area of London you live in, the cleaner the air you breathe.
The Mayor’s ULEZ plan isn’t perfect. But it’s a hell of a start, when we have a Tory government in Westminster that has preferred to fight – and lose – three successive court cases rather than lift a finger to tackle this crisis.
Sadiq has also done his best to help Londoners who rely on their vehicles for their livelihoods, making a £48m diesel scrappage fund available to both tradespeople and low income households to help them level up to cleaner cars and vans.
Londoners are the lucky ones. The government’s air quality strategy is simply a scam for passing the buck on to local authorities who are on their knees after a decade of brutal Tory austerity – handing them new duties, but no new powers or resources. London enjoys a world class public transport system with many reliable alternative options for getting around. Meanwhile regional cities are stuck with Mayors who don’t have the same powers as City Hall to fix their fragmented and dysfunctional transport systems – leaving them vulnerable to predatory lobbyists apparently keen on keeping children in harm’s way.
Sadiq’s experience of trying to implement the ULEZ has wider significance too, as a microcosm of what climate politics will have to confront at the national scale in the coming years.
Tory Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has weaponised the ULEZ in his bid for power, pledging to scrap plans to extend it to Greater London in 2021 if elected. This line of attack can work, because the ULEZ is designed to put an end to commonplace activities to which many people feel entitled. Telling them that they don’t need to change, that everything will be fine, is wrong – people are dying – but it’s a seductive message. Old habits die hard.
The climate crisis is even more profound and dangerous than urban air pollution, and demands far more radical policies to stop crisis becoming catastrophe. Consider that even with a rapid, wholesale switch to electric vehicles, overall traffic miles travelled in the UK will need to be reduced by anything from 20% to 60% by 2030 in order to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement. But the Tories don’t even plan to stop sales of new petrol and diesel cars until 2040 – at least ten years too late.
Taking the climate emergency seriously demands political courage of a kind not seen in this country for over 70 years. Inspirational new climate policy initiatives like the Green New Deal being pushed in the US by superhero congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement offer an exciting way to reimagine a rapid transition away from fossil fuels as a means to right historical wrongs, and to improve the quality of life for the vast majority of ordinary people. I’m backing calls for similar plan here in the UK, and pushing my party to make this the central plank of our next manifesto.
But rising to this epic challenge is going to be a fight for every inch of progress against reactionary forces who are only too happy to mislead the public about what is at stake.
I believe that ordinary people will only start to treat climate and environmental breakdown as a crisis when governments start treating it like one. That means politicians leading from the front, so I salute Sadiq for the ULEZ: a first step on the long road ahead to a truly sustainable society.
Clive Lewis is Labour’s Shadow Treasury Minister for Sustainable Economics and MP for Norwich South.
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