There is an air pollution emergency happening in this city, and the Government is failing to get a handle on it.
The latest evidence of this health crisis, released yesterday by scientists at the University of Edinburgh, points to the increased risk of strokes during smog episodes such as the one that hit the capital last week. These findings, on top of the fact that 29,000 people die prematurely every year in the UK because of air pollution, reveal the gravity of the situation we’re facing.
Of course the air pollution problem in London isn’t new — many people I’ve spoken to in Holborn and St Pancras have been affected by poor air quality for years.
When the dreadful settings of the traffic lights on Euston Road trap me as a pedestrian in the middle of the traffic for minutes, I can feel the effects on my own wellbeing.
But against mounting evidence, the empty words of ministers and half-hearted approach of the Mayor of London look increasingly reckless.
It’s clear that half-measures simply aren’t good enough. The Mayor’s policies have ranged from daft (sticking pollution to the road) to ineffective (insufficient Ultra Low Emissions Zones). Meanwhile, central government’s response to the crisis has been to focus on cutting “red tape” — a move which campaigners say could lead to the closure of thousands of pollution monitoring stations.
During the last smog episode the Government rightly urged those with health problems to stay indoors. But nobody should be forced to stay indoors because of air pollution. We need to look at radical measures to tackle air pollution at source.
The official health advice is that anyone experiencing discomfort, listed as sore eyes, coughing, chest pain or a sore throat, should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors. But what if someone is a construction worker — a labourer, someone on a zero-hours contract and just can’t afford, in every sense of that word, to allow our unacceptable air quality to threaten their lives as well as their livelihood? It’s not that easy to call your boss and say “sorry, too dangerous for me today”.
In Paris, for example, the authorities made public transport free during a smog episode. Measures such as this should be considered during smog episodes in Britain.
The fact is that we shouldn’t need “emergency measures” to cut air pollution, we have to cut levels permanently. We should be looking to cut the amount of motorised vehicles, particularly those using diesel, on our city-centre roads and move towards cleaner transport. The electric taxis being announced are a welcome step. Finally, we need to reduce fares on public transport by redirecting the billions earmarked for spending on new roads.
The Government’s inaction on air pollution is inexcusable, and follows a general trend from the Establishment parties of side-lining issues such as climate change and air quality. The time has come for the Government to recognise the fundamental link between our environment and our quality of life, and to start taking this health crisis seriously.
There should be real ambition and determination to solve the source of the problem — not just to tell Londoners that it’s too bad, it’s unhealthy out there today, and to stay indoors.