What can the next mayor to do combat London’s air pollution?

By Sian Berry
Sian Berry is seeking the Green Party’s nomination to be London’s mayor. So oddly enough, she has some thoughts about the figures which this week showed the terrifying level of air pollution in the capital…

The shocking news this week that air pollution is responsible for nearly 9,500 early deaths a year in London makes air pollution a true public health emergency – and we need a full range of policies and action to match.

The better news is that London’s citizens are already taking notice. I spoke at a packed event on air pollution last week, organised by Client Earth’s Health Air Campaign and London Sustainability Exchange, where local communities and campaigners from all over London came to share their experience and knowledge of getting action on this problem.

A very encouraging sign is the growth in the number of community campaigners doing citizen science to map local hotspots. Successful examples including campaigners against Transport for London’s proposed Silvertown Tunnel; my Green party colleague Caroline Russell’s work in Highbury; and residents in Putney, who won cleaner buses after they found horrific levels on their high street.

In my council ward of Highgate, our own monitoring project showed that even on the leafy fringes of central London, traffic was responsible for nearly double the legal limits on some of our busiest roads.

Another positive development is the very clear results of Client Earth’s legal challenge to the government. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that ministers must make new plans to bring our air within legal limits “in the shortest time possible”.

In the past, I’ve criticised Transport for London’s upcoming Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), and said it needs to be bigger, sooner and fiercer. This is certainly what I’d bring in if I was responsible – and I’m standing to be the Greens’ candidate for mayor of London next year to try to make that happen.

I’ve also criticised the lack of progress on electric vehicle charging points: there are just over 1,300 in the Source London network, compared with the 25,000 promised. I’ve also been supporting Blue Solutions, who have taken over expansion plans, to help them work with boroughs to get more parking spaces dedicated to zero-emission cars.

But of course this cannot be just about cleaner vehicles. It’s not that radical to talk about taking more road space away from cars in London and prioritising other ways to get around. Just a few minutes exploring the sea of road links in the capital that are colour-coded blue on the mapping project I recently conducted for the Campaign for Better Transport shows that traffic has fallen on most of London’s roads over the past decade. That’s true in both inner and outer London – and the average fall is about 10 per cent.

We need to work with this trend away from driving and car ownership, not build wider motorways and expensive road tunnels and bridges. If we don’t change the plan, this new map from the Green London Assembly Members suggests, we’ll leave Londoners stuck in stationary buses and cars for an extra 40 days a year.

We need to replace the creaking Congestion Charge, which first started 12 years ago, with something much more sophisticated, covering all of London not just a small central zone. A replacement scheme should start consultation as soon as the next mayor takes over, with a set of fair new charges based on three principles: how far you drive, how polluting your vehicle is, and the time of day.
I also like to remind people about the 2012 Olympics, where a proper effort was made to get Londoners to switch modes, travel outside rush hour, share cars and generally avoid driving in the city. Workplaces, commuters and delivery companies were engaged with in a massive communications effort that included adverts, phone lines and advice on the ground from TfL staff.

People listened, understood the need, and more than one third of Londoners made some simple and easy changes to their routines. The result was that – even with some road space taken away for “Games Lanes” –- there was far less congestion and traffic than normal.

The sense of urgency and a big occasion meant this fierce application of “Smarter Choices” principles worked a treat. And the urgency of the public health problem of air pollution now means a similar level of investment and effort is fully justified.

What London has lacked over the past eight years is a mayor with a vision for how great a city with less traffic and less pollution can be for everyone, every day. While Boris has wasted time on “iconic”, not-very-low emission buses and sticking pollution to the roads with glue, we could have done so much more and saved many lives. If the next mayor is a Green, the right to breathe clean air will not be ignored for another minute.

Sian Berry is a Green party councillor in the London Borough of Camden, and is seeking the party’s nomination to be its mayoral candidate next year. She also works with the Campaign for Better Transport.

If you or someone you know is hoping to be mayor of London, and would like to put forward your own plans on these pages, then please do get in touch.