London exceeds European pollution limits even with loop hole

Smog City: The view from City Hall in April 2011

Air pollution is easy to understand.

It is bad for you, causes long term and short term health problems and it accounts for an estimated 4,000 premature deaths a year in London alone.

Unfortunately, the European rules which govern how nations tackle air pollution, are complicated and hard to understand.

For example, it is hard to understand why the European Commission allowed the UK government a time extension despite the clear failures to meet pollution limits and the mayor’s backward steps.

It seemed even more bizarre that the European rules allowed the mayor to pollute more this year than either next year, or the previous five years of illegal air.

This loop hole is the only thing which has stopped the UK being subject to legal proceedings at the European court, which could lead to an estimated £300m fine.

However, the real problem is when the complexities of the regulatory system are exploited by the UK Government to cheat that system.

Despite the extra pollution allowance which London has been granted this year, the provisional figures from the Neasden Lane monitoring site show that it now recorded more than the 35 bad air days allowed for PM10.

Neither the mayor, nor the UK government will regard this as a problem as neither of them will officially tell the European Commission that Neasden Lane exists, when they do their annual air pollution report.

The mayor will say that it is the Government’s job and the Government will say that the monitoring station ‘may not’ meet the criteria set out in the European directive. It is a clever formulation of words, which means that if the Government doesn’t officially ask, then they can’t be told.

Dr Gary Fuller of Kings College London, the organisation which runs the London air quality monitoring network, was quoted in the Times in January 2011 as saying that the Neasden Lane site does meet the European criteria.

The European Commission have previously written to our government to enquire about other monitoring stations which are producing results higher than the Marylebone Road, which is the UK government’s benchmark site.

The UK government have given them the brush off and the Commission have told me that the rules are clear. They can only officially ‘know’ what the UK Government tells them.

This has been one of the worst years for air pollution since the pollution spike in 2003.

The UK and the Mayor are only likely to avoid being taken to court and to get away with an appalling failure on air pollution because they are refusing to give the European Commission the full picture.

That leaves Londoners breathing in polluted air around Neasden and throughout large areas of the capital.

Darren Johnson represents the Green Party on the London Assembly.