The battle for cleaner air in London

Monday 23 January 2017

London mayor Sadiq Khan is ‘absolutely committed to tackling air pollution’ in the capital - but the city could take a leaf out of Paris’ book with its radical plans implemented quickly across the region.

That was one of the key points to emerge from ‘Improving London’s air quality’, a breakfast talk at NLA this morning, kicked off by deputy mayor for the environment and energy Shirley Rodrigues, emphasizing her boss’ motivation to take the issue seriously. ‘We know that 9,000 Londoners die prematurely because of air pollution every year’, said Rodrigues. ‘It’s nothing short of a health crisis and it has been ignored for far too long’.

Rodrigues pointed to the city’s poor record on pollution, exceeding annual safe levels already in some places, just days into the year, and with some streets hitting three times the legal limit for NO2. But her department is fighting back with a series of initiatives, including consulting on a ‘T-charge’ on older, polluting vehicles entering central London that adds £10 onto the £11.50 congestion charge, mainly for pre-2006 cars. This, she said, will be the toughest emissions standard of any major city. Although diesel cars accounted for around half of the UK market in 2014, they perform at a ‘drastically poor’ level in emissions terms in urban environments and the GLA is urging government to accelerate action. ‘The mayor is clear that we need big, bold and sometimes difficult policies’, said Rodrigues, but a holistic approach is required. ‘We need to start removing diesel, but we don’t want to dash back to petrol either.’

Other initiatives include the creation of an ultra low emission zone, 12 new low emission bus zones, help for boroughs tackling hotspots, and concentrating on reconfiguring streets to make them more attractive and appealing, with the best example being the ‘transformation’ of Oxford Street, ‘making it a place for people rather than vehicles.’ The mayor also wants to hold government to account, said Rodrigues, with a ‘step change in ambition’ including reforming vehicle excise duty and a national diesel scrappage scheme.

Paris, however, has already made some big changes, faced with similar problems – with some 3.2 million people exposed to values above safe limits. It has reduced car traffic by 40% since 2001, and cut pollution levels by 50%. Cars, coaches and motorbikes are now classified according to their polluting level, said Dominique Alba, Directrice générale de l'Apur. The city has implemented temporary road closures including the Champs Elysées once a month, and has started to consider public spaces as a ‘Swiss knife’ with multifunctional uses, has built a tramway network, introduced a bike hire system that extends now to electric bikes, and is pedestrianizing or ‘reconquesting’ the banks of the Seine. ‘We say we opened them, rather than closed them’, said Alba, adding that the secret lay in implementing change rapidly, like a ‘circus’.

Back in London, Low Emission Neighbourhoods are another potential aid to cutting air pollution, said WSP associate director Glenn Higgs, with a focus on looking at issues again in a holistic way. LENs can be ‘transformative places’, said Higgs, armed with £11m of investment over three years including £5 million from the Mayor’s Fund, and boroughs involved including Westminster, the City of London, hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets, Redbridge and Newham. As part of its work here, for example, Westminster is aiming to employ a series of ‘air force’ parking marshals policing people with their engines idling, while the City Fringe’s plans include improvements to public realm around Leonard Circus, furthering its results in creating ‘a place out of a junction’.

Atkins’ Dave Williams said that he was ‘pretty optimistic’ about air quality, especially given the High Court ruling in November that found that more urgent action must be taken. But it was important to keep pressing for changes, said Williams, especially now. ‘Brexit is a fantastic opportunity to revisit our air quality legislation.’

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