After two years of taking backward steps on air quality Mayor of London Boris Johnson is now stumbling while the verdict is still out on the new Government’s approach to air quality.
The coalition has got off to a bad start, for example, by: defending the hiding of information relating to legal action over breaches of air quality laws; choosing to drop a Liberal Democrat manifesto deadline of 2012 to seek full compliance with air quality laws; and trying desperately to delay the need to comply with air quality laws for dangerous airborne particles (PM10) until 2011 and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) until 2015.
Before we look at his failings, the Mayor is to be congratulated for one air quality achievement. After escalating media interest, the Mayor published, albeit three months late, his Health Study providing crucial background to his estimate of 4,267 premature deaths per year due partly to long-term exposure to dangerous airborne particles.
The document is very important both for showing the scale of the public health challenge and because London is the first city to produce such detailed information. It shows for 2006: some 1,500 premature deaths in inner London (where air pollution is worst); and about 2,800 in outer London (where pollution is lower, in general, but borough populations tend to be much bigger). Not surprisingly, there has been strong local media interest across London.
That’s the good news but, as I said above, the Mayor is taking backward steps on air quality.
He’s launched public consultations on his draft Air Quality Strategy (draft AQS) (and has had to extend the deadline for commenting until 13 August after releasing more information) in late March; and, in May, the postponement until 2012 of Phase 3 of the low emission zone (LEZ3) and the proposed removal of the western extension of the congestion charging zone (WEZ).
The draft AQS is riddled with wishful thinking and fails to show how air quality laws will ever be complied with in London; and LEZ3 was designed to protect over 15% of those worst effected by poor air quality in London from October 2010.
However, the wooden spoon for the ‘daftest’ of the Mayor’s ‘daft’ transport policies has to go for his proposal to remove the WEZ.
If it’s removed Transport for London (TfL) will lose £55m per year of net income; congestion will rise by 15-21%; harmful emissions will rise by 3-8% (or perhaps more on some roads); 48,000 people will lose their 90% discount to drive in the remaining zone; it will take years for the benefits of the WEZ to be regained; and air quality standards will be breached having been attained (e.g. near the Brompton Oratory) which is not allowed.
The Campaign for Clean Air in London (CCAL) has therefore joined Environmental Protection UK (formerly the National Society for Clean Air) in condemning the Mayor’s proposal to remove the WEZ and invited leading NGOs to make a similar call.
It is already starting to come apart at the seams for the Mayor and the new Government on air quality. In recent weeks the UK has received a second and final written warning for breaching air quality laws on PM10 in London (every year since they entered into force in 2005); the Olympic Delivery Authority admitted recently, in response to a Freedom of Information request from CCAL, it has modelled 30% reductions in background (i.e. non-Games) traffic for two months in 2012 (after earlier suggestions from some that there would be little traffic disruption for Londoners); and it is clear London faces further legal action from October 2011, in the run up to the Olympics, for breaching air quality standards for NO2 by a factor of two or more.
Even if the UK obtains a time extension until 2011 to comply with PM10 laws, it will have to do so from 1 January 2011 (and that seems highly improbable).
We need the Mayor to regain his balance and leap forward on air quality.
First, the Mayor should announce a major campaign to build public understanding of the dangers of poor air quality, explaining how people can: protect themselves (adaptation); and contribute to reductions in pollution for themselves and others (mitigation). Second, he should announce ‘u-turns’ on the postponement of LEZ3 and the removal of the WEZ.
The £55m per year net income from the WEZ would finance easily: the £30m ‘one-off’ cost to operators of implementing LEZ3 within weeks; cleaning up emissions from London’s buses and taxis; and the introduction of one or more additional inner low emission zones (as some 40 German cities had by the end of 2009). Finally, the Mayor should publish an Air Quality Strategy that is ‘fit for purpose’.
With a few words and some urgent and simple decisions, the Mayor could ensure London deserves a standing ovation at the 2012 Olympics for showing the world how to tackle air pollution and sustainability in its biggest cities.
Simon Birkett is Founder of the Campaign for Clean Air in London