Politics is a fickle thing… a year after entering City Hall, it’s astonishing how Sadiq Khan has successfully come to completely own London’s air quality challenge and moreover the measures the previous administration put in place to address it.
Because it is worth remembering that the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, whose implementation Sadiq is likely to move forward 17 months to spring 2019, was originally put in place by Boris Johnson. The ULEZ is a genuine world-first, demanding some of the strictest vehicle standards across the widest area in the world and it will halve vehicle pollution emissions in central London.
As our understanding of the impacts of air pollution develops, so the tempo to improve the air we breathe has increased.
Sadiq has certainly done that; he has decided to make improving air quality one of the key priorities of his administration and it is only right that he is seeking to bring forward measures and expand the zone sooner than originally considered possibly as early as 2021 to the North and South Circular roads.
But again, it is worth remembering that back in September 2014 the Boris Johnson administration suggested that the current motoring tax regime should be reformed with road tax and fuel duty abolished to be replaced with pay-as-you drive charges.
This could be dynamic depending on congestion and other factors, for example local air quality. Such a radical reform nationally would surely only be feasible if it could be shown to be fiscally neutral to motorists.
But the Government had better get on with it: a Policy Exchange report published last month stated that because of increasing vehicle fuel efficiency tax receipts from motoring could be £9-23 billion lower in 2030 than the Office for Budget Responsibility currently assumes. That represents a loss of £60 – 170 billion in tax receipts over the period.
We have been here before: over a decade ago the then Labour government’s drive on road user charging was forced off the road by, among other things, the petition with the largest number of signatories in UK history.
But I believe things have changed since then and I am not alone – two Conservative ministers, sadly both out of government now, agreed stating that we had grown up as a country and are ready for that conversation.
I hope that is true – but what is certain is that London under its three mayors has been growing up: Ken Livingstone brought in the Congestion Charge and Boris Johnson brought forward the concept of emissions charging with the ULEZ.
Now Sadiq Khan, in his recently published Transport Strategy, has proposed formally what the previous administration had only suggested – that road use should be priced according to the impact of individual journeys.
The myriad different charging schemes – Congestion Charge, Low Emission Zone, Ultra-Low Emission Zone etc. – should be integrated into a unified scheme, which would take into account the impact on health, the economy, environment, safety and perhaps most importantly fairness, while being mindful of social inclusion.
Essentially the Mayor is calling for a “pay as you pollute scheme” with dynamic charging depending on the time of day and on local air quality or even perhaps around sensitive areas such as clusters of schools or hospitals.
It would be a smart, fair and indeed cheaper system both to enforce – you would need far fewer cameras – and to comply – it would give drivers the power to mitigate the charge paid by driving better and at more sensible times.
And happily, the technology to deliver such a scheme exists, which won’t depend on the clunky and expensive camera-based system, which belongs firmly in the last century.
Since leaving City Hall I have been consulting to Tantalum, a connected vehicle technology company, that developed real-time carbon emissions estimation from a device connected to the vehicle’s on board computer.
We have now received a grant from Innovate UK, the Government’s innovation agency, and the Centre for Connected & Autonomous Vehicles to develop real-time NOx emissions estimation from that same connected device. NOx leads to Nitrogen Dioxide, a pollutant which irritates the lungs and affects lung development in children.
Some streets in the capital break annual legal limits within a week and policies such as the ULEZ are designed to reduce Nitrogen Dioxide levels.
Working with Imperial College we will build the technology to be able to deliver – in just a year – the capability to deliver an emissions based road user charging scheme depending on a combination of CO2 and NOx emissions and the location of the vehicle so that people pay on the actual environmental impact of that journey.
Such a scheme would be another world first, following in the footsteps of Ken Livingstone’s Congestion Charge and Boris Johnson’s original ULEZ proposal.
It would reduce emissions to improve health, it would manage congestion and it would make our roads safer through better driving.
And it would fair.
And where London leads, others will follow as the network of ULEZ – style Clean Air Zones across the UK come in to deliver the smarter, healthier and cleaner cities we deserve.
Sixty years on from the implementation of the Clean Air Act, which followed the Great Smog of 1952, the UK would again be at the forefront of dealing with air pollution.