Cllr Jonathan Glanz is a member of Westminster City Council.
Recently there have been reports of Greenpeace activists scaling some of London’s most iconic statues, including Nelson’s Column, to affix giant gas masks to the faces of those atop the plinths. Whilst these minor acts of trespass and vandalism are of course to be discouraged, these activists do focus attention on one of the most serious issues facing our capital: air pollution.
Anyone who has walked around the West End or central London can identify the hallmark taste and smell of exhaust fumes. For those who live in or regularly commute to Zones 1-2 it is simply a given, but it need not be. London is a global centre of commerce, culture and politics that leads the world in many aspects of society, yet in our management of air quality we lag far behind many major cities. In both North and South America, several great cities have taken positive action to reduce the levels of pollution. In Atlanta, a joined-up approach between planning, transport, health and housing agencies has achieved significant success across the city. Mexico’s capital has substantially improved since its 1992 UN designation as the ‘most polluted city on the planet’ and through a series of practical policy decisions, including the implementation of ‘no drive days’, is bringing its emission levels back under control. (A recent spike in pollution levels has seen meaningful action taken by the Mexican Government to expand the driving restrictions in the capital).
In March, pollution levels in the city reached their highest peak since records began. A toxic cocktail of dirty air from mainland Europe mixed with London’s regular exhalation of fumes raised levels of particles known as PM2.5 to wildly unsafe levels, yet most Londoners were oblivious to this fact until media reports days later. The EU guidelines that theoretically govern the UK’s emissions output mean nothing to a country that has been in breach of these guidelines for the last five years. In the West End, annual “safe” levels were exceeded just eight days into the New Year. So what is being done?
Boris Johnson promised an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in the city by 2020, but four years is too long to wait. In January of this year, figures from Public Health England showed that the percentage of premature deaths attributable to exposure to air pollution had risen across England. In London the death rate is already significantly higher than elsewhere in the country. More information is needed for those living, working and travelling within the city and a wider dissemination of smog levels including in broadcast and radio weather forecasts is needed.
Both Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan have promised to tackle London’s air quality and both see pedestrianising Oxford Street as central to this, but banning all cars and buses from running up and down one of the city’s main East/West thoroughfares is not the answer. The reality is that this would have a hugely negative impact on the surrounding area and do little to combat London’s city-wide problem with pollution. Vast volumes of traffic pushed 50 yards north and south of Oxford Street into parallel streets (many of which are residential and don’t have the capacity to handle large volumes of traffic) will not solve the overarching problem.
A serious assessment of what can be done to improve London’s air needs to be undertaken. We must ask difficult questions that only arise in densely populated urban centres. For example, are cyclists a help or hindrance to air pollution? While fewer cars in the city certainly reduces emissions, does the knock-on effect of slowing down vehicular traffic raise pollution levels? Are there still demonstrable health benefits from walking or cycling in central London, given the poor quality of our air? Do we need a fundamental re-think about how we regulate and encourage people to travel around the city?
What is devastatingly clear is that London’s air is a serious issue and it must be a priority for the next incumbent of City Hall, whoever it may be.