Apr 08 2014

Last week’s air pollution was a taste of the future. Yet Boris and the Government do nothing


APRIL 8TH, 2014 16:03

Last week’s air pollution was a taste of the future. Yet Boris and the Government do nothing

Jenny Jones has been a Green Party member of the London Assembly since 2000, is a former Deputy Mayor of London and sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb. She’s a former archaeologist and a Eurosceptic.

Get used to it

When reading Boris Johnson’s paean of praise to London’s air I felt as if I were in an alternative reality. Or unreality. Both he and the Prime Minister seemed like bystanders as last week’s air pollution episode led to a surge in emergency 999 calls for breathing difficulties and many asthma sufferers had to stay indoors. Boris cycled around a bit and said it was fine; David Cameron cancelled his jog but described it as a naturally occurring event. Yet the Sub-Saharan dust appeared to know how to read an A –Z, as official monitoring websites showed the pollution was at its worst on all the main roads.  The people who could have done something about it just looked the other way, as vulnerable Londoners were trapped inside by a toxic cocktail which included a lot of home grown pollution.

If the Mayor had followed through on the emergency plans he proposed in 2010 instead of dropping them, then vulnerable Londoners would have been better protected during the recent high levels of pollution. And Government advice was for the vulnerable to avoid exercise outside, but there was no advice for car drivers to keep their polluting cars off the roads. The immediate impacts of air pollution can include strokes and heart attacks, as well as serious respiratory problems. With people’s health and lives at risk you would think that the authorities had a plan with teeth, which includes restricting both the most polluting vehicles and also, non-essential car journeys. We have nothing.

These episodes are fairly frequent, but you wouldn’t know that from Government advice. Their policy up to now has been to issue one air pollution warning a year, around spring time, just to remind any Britons returning from abroad that we are a green, but polluted isle. Air pollution may get as bad, or worse, than it was last week, but the authorities would prefer if you didn’t hear about it from them.

The reason is that the Government has spent years downplaying the seriousness of the problem and systematically misleading both its own population and the European Commission. I have spent over 14 years listening to people telling me that it is getting better, but in reality the improvements have been marginal.

There are official warning systems you can sign up to such as “Airtext”, but hardly anyone does. A recent study of London schools showed that barely three per cent of them were signed up, despite hundreds of schools being within 400m of a road with more than 10,000 vehicles a day passing by. A medical study of such children showed that they are much more prone to developing asthma and can have lungs which are up to a fifth smaller in size.

Both the Government and Mayor have spent millions trying to dodge the bullet of European fines, as 15 English regions are over the legal limits for NO2 that we were meant to meet in 2010. In London, money has been wasted on pot plants to catch the particulates and gluing the pollution to the road to stop it being monitored. They tell the European Commission that Madame Tussauds on Marylebone Road is the most polluted spot in the country, yet according to their own modelling, there are a few dozen London roads that are even worse.

Unlike the Government, the London Mayor does at least have one big idea for doing something, his Ultra Low Emission Zone, which will only allow the cleanest vehicles into central London. However, it is due to start in 6 years’ time and only deals with seven per cent of the London roads which will still be over the legal limit in 2020. Boris Johnson is basically proposing a solution for the next Mayor to carry out, which deals with a small fraction of the problem.

There are plenty of things that we can do immediately to improve things, such as making air pollution a regular part of the weather forecast and discouraging parents from driving their kids to school on bad air days. However, the simplest step would be to cancel the massive road building programme and put the money into schemes to support public transport and cycling instead. More roads will mean more cars and more air pollution. What a depressing outlook for the UK and our health.