By Anders Lorenzen
It is almost as if the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has responded in defiance to London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s desire to scale up action on London’s toxic air problem.
Last month the London Mayor announced that he would bring forward the ‘toxic tax’ to October of this year. The extra £10 levy will apply to diesel and petrol cars manufactured before 2006 travelling into London’s congestion charge zones and introduces a range of other policies to combat air pollution.
Though Mrs May acknowledges that the UK must do more to tackle air pollution, it seems she has only adopted the view out of necessity. A landmark High Court ruling, brought forward by the law firm Client Earth, has told the government to do more on the issue. Legal and public pressure now demand that the government draws up new air pollution plans. May suffered another legal setback when seeking to delay the air pollution plans until after the election. But fighting back, Client Earth won a ruling which states the government can’t politicise this issue and must release their plans before the election. They did so last week, but Client Earth has labelled it weak and woefully inadequate. And it is very likely they will take the government back to the court. The UK is also under pressure from the EU to do more, who cite frequent breaches of legal air pollution limits.
May standing up for polluters rather than the people
Instead of coming out in defense of the thousands of Londoners who die prematurely each year due to air pollution, the large proportion of Londoners developing lung and asthma problems due to air pollution and the many schools and children exposed to dangerous air pollution, which hampers their development and lung growth, Mrs May has defended diesel drivers. While I sympathise with some of her arguments – that some people are being penalised for having bought diesel cars which were advocated by previous governments as the environmental choice. In reality, she is siding with large polluting automakers instead of protecting the people she represents who are suffering from this pollution – and based on that alone one could conclude she is standing up for big businesses rather than the people of London.
Diesel – disastrous for human health
Since the Blair/Brown government promoted diesel as an environmental choice at the turn of the millennium, we’ve become much wiser. Research and knowledge on the hazards of diesel cars have become clear. We have also seen the unfolding of the VW emissions scandal, which we also know extends to other car manufacturers. Because of this we now know they’re not as good for the environment as was promised while being disastrous for human health. So yes, let’s definitely look at a compensation scheme for people financially impacted by the tax hikes. But let’s also be clear that many people have been buying, and are still buying, diesel cars after their numerous drawbacks became clear. So, therefore, it would be wrong to claim that all diesel drivers were unaware of the impacts. There are people today, going out to buy diesel cars knowing the harmful health impact they have. So Mrs May let’s have some perspective here and get our priorities in order. Surely we should value human health over the economics of driving, and promote greener alternatives.
Yet I’m afraid that the prevalence of short-term economics, placed above the environment and human health, is what we have come to expect from a Tory government. Completely forgetting the huge economic benefits that come with moving to cleaner vehicles not only compromises progress on our climate change targets but reduces the pressure on an overstretched National Health Service (NHS).
Privately owned cars in London?
This issue is much bigger than diesel, or for that matter petrol, and Mrs May as PM. We should really be asking ourselves if privately owned cars have a place in central London and other city centres. Of course buses, delivery vans or other vehicles with a business agenda need to be able to drive in central London. Privately owned cars do not. Many diesel car owners are complaining about the toxic tax, arguing that it will now cost them, even more, money to drive in central London. But why are so many driving into London in the first place? With London’s population continuing to grow and congestion increasing, we need to have a serious debate about whether privately owned cars should be used in central London. The capital maintains an excellent public transport infrastructure, and congestion levels make travelling by car slower and less efficient than public transport, cycling or walking.
Yet this presents a catch-22 scenario. You will not see a larger uptake of walking and cycling as long as the air is as toxic as present. As well as when current infrastructure priorities lie with motor traffic above walking and cycling.
While it is welcome that Sadiq Khan will now move ahead with the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, it must not stop here. Creating other pedestrianised pollution safe zones must be on the table too. Other large cities have done so with success and so could London. Let’s adopt a positive, rather than a negative vision towards this and look at the economic opportunities it could present. This could further put London on the map, moving towards a smarter and more modern city.
But for now, let’s be clear about the urgency. London has serious air pollution problems, one of the worst in Europe. Action must be taken now. The government would be wise to back the Mayor of London’s plans rather than fight them and extend it to other UK cities.