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Tackling Air Pollution in London

Stephen Knight AM | London Assembly

4 min read Partner content

London AM & Chair of the Assembly's Environment Committee Stephen Knight suggests how to improve air quality in the city

In the last few months the issue of air pollution has started to attract serious political attention, and rightly so.                                                   
The facts about air pollution haven’t changed, but thankfully more and more people are beginning to become aware of them, including it seems a wider range of MPs.

This hasn’t always been the case. In 2013 & 2014 Dods polled 101 MPsacross the political spectrum about their attitudes towards air pollution.

The polls revealed widespread ignorance amongst MPs about the real health impact of air pollution, with few at that time understanding that air pollution is the second biggest public health risk, and with only smoking posing a greater risk.

So if we are now seeing a better understanding of the severe health risks created by air pollution that is a good start.
However we still have a long way to go to translate that understanding into concrete action to cut air pollution.  There is particular urgency about this in London, which suffers worse air pollution than other parts of the UK.

The most significant source of air pollution is the exhaust emissions of diesel vehicles. Many of the policies introduced in recent years to encourage more fuel efficient vehicles have inadvertently made air pollution worse by encouraging a switch to more polluting diesel vehicles.

The Mayor of London has proposed an Ultra Low Emission Zone in central London from 2020, but this is far too long to wait for cleaner air. We need policies to discourage diesel vehicles in place now, not in five years’ time.

One immediate step that could be taken would be to introduce a modest increase in the existing central London Congestion Charge for diesel vehicles, which would have an immediate impact on purchasing and driving behaviour as well as delivering a measurable benefit to the health and quality of life of Londoners.  Islington Council has already implemented a similar ‘diesel levy’ as part of its residents parking permit charges. The extra revenue could fund a big switch to electric buses and taxis and help to establish a programme to retrofit schools and hospitals sited in pollution hotspots with air filtration systems.

The Ultra Emission Zone also needs to be much bolder than the Mayor proposes, covering a wider area, and with progressively stronger penalties for non-compliant vehicles entering the zone.

Two other policies are also needed.  We need to ensure that diesel buses and taxis switch to electric. Single deck electric buses already exist around the world, yet London is lagging in the adoption of this technology.  Switching taxis to run on electricity is also important but for this to happen there has to be a proper network of rapid electric charging points: of the 1,400 charge points currently in the ‘Source London’ electric charging network, less than 10 per cent (129 charge points) are capable of providing a rapid charge.  We also can’t also expect taxi drivers to take the lead in purchasing electric vehicles, so Transport for London needs to procure a fleet of zero-emission taxis and then lease them to drivers.

Finally, we need to make London a far more attractive place for walking and cycling.

The Cycle Superhighways are a great start, but the cycling revolution needs to go much further. Real action is needed to tackle literally hundreds of dangerous junctions and gyratories across the capital. At the same time, pedestrianisation also has an important role to play.  London needs to catch up with the successful initiatives in cities such as New York.  Top of the list of places to pedestrianise must be Oxford Street, which has the highest recorded concentrations of nitrogen dioxidepollution of anywhere on Earth.

It is simply a scandal that every year over 4,000 Londoners face an early grave due to the poor quality of our city’s air.  Worse still, there is growing evidence that the problem hits the poorest and most vulnerable hardest.   

We can and must act to end this scandal.

Stephen Knight AM is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member and is chair of the London Assembly environment committee   

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