Air Pollution in London- Debate

09 Jun 2015

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab):

I beg to move, that this House has considered air pollution in London.

 It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate those Members who have turned up at this early hour for a debate on a vital subject for the people of London.

I urge the House to take notice of the unseen, silent killer stalking London’s streets—a killer unknowingly encountered by every single Londoner every single day. It is present when people drop their children off at school. It is present when they make their journey to and from work. It follows them throughout their weekends in the city. That malign presence is the noxious fumes that pollute the air we breathe. Specifically, the killer is made up of two components: particulate matter, comprising solid and liquid particles, and gases such as nitrogen dioxide. In London, the primary culprit for those killer chemicals is road traffic. Although industry is the biggest source of pollution nationwide, in urban environments such as London, where the accumulation of pollution and the related health impact is greatest, road traffic is responsible for up to 70% of all air pollution. Londoners are dying as a result. In 2008, across the capital, more than 4,000 premature deaths directly resulted from deadly levels of air pollution. In every year since then, thousands of Londoners have lost their lives early, and they continue to do so, simply because the air they breathe is slowly poisoning them.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to how Boris—the current Mayor—and the Government have failed Londoners, including his constituents, on the important matter of air pollution.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point. He will forgive me if I, as a prospective candidate for Mayor of London, talk about London, but it is important that the House is reminded that the high levels of pollution in London have an effect on surrounding areas.

I entirely agree that local authorities have a significant role. If I were Mayor of London, I would try to bring them together and offer leadership on this issue. It is not just a matter for the Mayor or the Government; it is also a matter for local authorities. It is also about the personal choices we make about our travel and our children’s lives.

Already this year, according to the latest research, up to 1,300 people have died across the city. The Clean Air in London campaign group argues that more than 7,000 Londoners a year are now dying prematurely as a result of toxic air. It is well established that toxic air is a direct cause of bronchitis, asthma, strokes and even cancer and heart disease. We all recognise that the level of childhood asthma is now far higher than any of us knew when we were at school. I cannot believe that there is no connection between those very high levels of childhood asthma and rising levels of air pollution.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. When I think about the number of primary schools in Stoke Newington alongside heavily used main roads, I wonder about the health of children who have to attend those schools. Young people in our city are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Children growing up, or attending primary school, near the noxious fumes of busy roads have been clinically proven to develop smaller lung capacity and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. Everyday exposure to air pollution, which is what children get when they walk to and from school daily, has been found to contribute to increased inflammation of the airways in healthy children, not to mention children already suffering from asthma. These chronically debilitating issues lead to serious medical problems that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

We have a duty of care to children, because adults can make choices about whether they drive, cycle or walk to work. Given the particularly damaging impact of air pollution on children’s lungs, why are the Government not doing more to support the production and dissemination of accurate, practical advice to help schools reduce the impact that pollution is having on the health and wellbeing of children in London and further afield? Awareness is key, and the Government are failing in their duty to raise awareness. Those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease are at greater risk of worsening their conditions due to the adverse effects of air pollution. As a whole, London has very high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, not least in Hackney. Our most vulnerable people are at risk, and not enough is being done to protect them.

When I refer to the role of the Mayor, I am of course referring to the entire Greater London Authority family over which the Mayor sits, which includes TfL, the Metropolitan police and the fire brigade. Now is the time for action. It is completely unacceptable that London’s air is the filthiest of any European capital. The air pollution on Oxford Street ensures that it has the unwelcome honour of ranking among the most polluted streets in the entire world.

My hon. Friend anticipates a later part of my speech. There is no question but that aviation is a major cause of pollution, and anyone offering solutions to the problem must mention it.

London has the filthiest air of any European capital. The need to improve air quality is recognised in EU legislation, which sets limits for a range of pollutants. As part of that legislation, member states are required to prepare adequate plans to reduce nitrogen dioxide to acceptable levels by 2015, but the UK has failed to do so. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that in the Greater London area, those limits—of which it is perfectly well aware—will not be met until after 2030.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her important intervention, which deserved to be made at length.

The programme for meeting EU targets has been delayed. I ask the Minister to estimate how many Londoners will die as a result between now and 2030. Most shamefully, as a result of the Government’s abject failure to meet the EU targets, a UK charity, ClientEarth, had to take the Government to court. After referring to the European Court of Justice, the Supreme Court here in the UK has ordered the Government to submit new air quality plans to the European Commission no later than 31 December this year. We had to be taken to court before the Government would come up with sustainable proposals. Why did it take the Supreme Court to make the Government and the Mayor of London take the deadly matter of air pollution seriously? Is not the provision of a clean living environment a basic duty for any Government to fulfil? Will the Minister admit that on a wider scale, this Government are culpable of gross negligence leading to the premature death of up to 30,000 UK residents nationwide?

If the human cost does not move the Minister, will he stop to consider, as the Government busy themselves with their latest round of cuts to vital public services, that we spend £16 billion a year treating the adverse effects of air pollution? If the human cost does not bother the Government, the financial cost incurred by having such levels of air pollution might. For us here in London, it is essential that air pollution is tackled as a matter of urgency. In many locations throughout the city, pollutant levels regularly exceed EU limits by a multiple of two or three. To put the severity of the situation into perspective, Oxford Street managed to breach the hourly limit on nitrogen dioxide for the whole of 2015 by 4 January, in just four days. Each and every Londoner suffers daily from the continued inaction.
The responsibility to address London’s air pollution scandal rests with central Government and the Mayor, although local authorities also have a role to play. As a start, I urge the Government to implement a new cross-departmental strategy to bring about change and reduce the impact of air pollution on public health. The strategy should involve Public Health England and non-governmental bodies such as NHS England. It is essential that it should include clear, measurable and time-bound objectives for the reduction of emissions, and for cost and health benefits, which previous strategies have sorely lacked.
It should become mandatory for all local authorities to monitor levels of smaller particulate matter, as they are already bound to monitor nitrogen dioxide and PM10. The results must be published regularly and accessibly so that Londoners can remain fully informed about the dangers to their health and the health of their children. In addition, early alerts from DEFRA and the Met Office are crucial in order to guarantee that those most at risk from polluted air can plan in advance and avoid symptoms. Both bodies should continue to develop links with organisations such as the British Lung Foundation, which is well placed to convey such information to at-risk groups.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Throughout the Mayor’s tenure, there has been a growing gap between what he has said about air pollution and what he has done on the issue. That is not unsurprising; Boris Johnson is a politician who talks a good game, but does not necessarily deliver. One example is the introduction of ultra-low emission zones, which would require vehicles travelling to central London to meet stricter emissions standards or pay a daily charge.

Since proposing the ultra-low emission zone nearly two years ago, Boris Johnson has taken a series of backward steps. His approach to the issue is inadmissibly weak. Waiting until 2020 to introduce the zone is simply costing lives. A range of organisations including the London boroughs, the London Health Commission, the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal College of Physicians have come together to call for the ultra-low emission zone to be strengthened, with early implementation, wider coverage, stricter standards and stronger incentives, but from Mayor Boris Johnson, we hear nothing. The financial costs to a fraction of drivers and voters must be weighed against the health benefits, including to those same drivers, who are the most at risk from pollution, and to the larger population, particularly children, who are exposed to air pollution in central London and beyond, all the way to Dartford.

Furthermore, Boris Johnson has paid no heed to the findings of the Marmot review of health inequalities, which linked higher exposure to air pollution among poorer communities with an increased risk of cardio-respiratory disease. Nationwide, 66% of man-made carcinogenic chemicals are released into the air in the most deprived 10% of English city wards. It is imperative that the incoming Mayor—I hope it will be me—widens the scope of measures and schemes designed to reduce pollution. By restricting his focus to central London and zone 1, Boris Johnson has abdicated his responsibility to the most vulnerable by excluding those in densely populated, heavily polluted and disadvantaged areas, and given no thought at all to areas outside London that are also affected by high levels of air pollution in London. I want, and Londoners deserve, for London to become the world’s greenest capital city. The proposed solutions are as follows. We cannot fight the environmental challenges facing London, including air pollution, in a silo. We need a Mayor of London who will advocate for sustainability, low energy consumption and efficient waste reduction ideas that permeate all sectors, including housing, transport, healthcare, education and business. Not all London’s air quality issues result from the number of motor vehicles on our roads, but reducing the number and cleaning up their fuel sources would lead to big improvements. An incoming Mayor must incentivise use of electric cars and work actively to decrease the number of diesel vehicles on our roads.

With London’s population growing year on year, our city is at a crossroads on the issue of the environment in general and air pollution in particular. Londoners must choose whether they want a change for the better. A London with cleaner air and an increased reliance on renewable energy, and that is a safe city for cyclists and pedestrians, is an achievable reality with the right political will; I contend that the current Mayor has not shown that political will. An incoming Mayor must take urgent action.

For instance, it is unacceptable that statistics from 2013 show that the City of London has the highest carbon footprint per person in the whole of the UK. The average Briton produces 12.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, but emissions per head in the City are 25% higher than that. Maybe that is because the people there are more important or wealthy, but it is not acceptable.

The Mayor should consider the use of sustainable technologies. I visited a very interesting project in Hackney a week or so ago, where solar panels have been put on top of a big council block. That enables people there to get their electricity more cheaply, and it is also a sustainable energy source. It is a very interesting project, which could be potentially rolled out across London.

Current efforts are insufficient. Not enough progress has been made on increasing the number of hybrid buses in TfL’s fleet; rectifying that deficiency should be a priority. The fact that Oxford Street remains one of the most polluted streets in the world is evidence that measures to reduce pollution from taxis and buses are not being pursued with sufficient energy. We need to establish more accessible grants for environmentally friendly infrastructure development. London can become a global leader in the proliferation of renewable energy sources, such as solar power. London would do well to adopt such good practices as the creation of last-mile delivery hubs, to ensure that the carbon footprint of final-stage delivery is minimised. There are firms in the City that encourage their employees to walk more—if not to work, then at least between offices. We need to improve London’s sustainable infrastructure; that would create jobs in construction and logistics.

Also, the environmental future of our city must be considered when solving London’s housing crisis; we should think about sustainability and environmentally friendly projects. For example, housing developments that incorporate super-insulation would help to reduce the ever-increasing energy bills of Londoners. We also need to step up our efforts to make the city a safe and accessible place for cyclists. If more people could be encouraged to drop their cars and get on their bikes, London would be a greener and more liveable city. Not enough has been done to address that; it should be treated as an urgent necessity.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that Members of all parties understand that this is an important issue that has not been properly addressed. There can be no doubt that the airport expansion at Heathrow that is being talked about would be the death knell of efforts to improve levels of air pollution, because aviation is such a major cause of air pollution.Toxic air in London is killing Londoners, and we urgently need measures to tackle it. Promises to meet EU guidelines by 2025 or even by 2030 are unacceptable, and it is shocking that it has taken direct action from the Supreme Court to force the Government and the Mayor to address this issue seriously. It is clear that we have a real opportunity to tackle air pollution through a wholesale shift in the way that we view our living environment. For London, Londoners and the wider population in the UK, it is imperative that we seize the initiative and put an end to this silent killer once and for all, and I am using this opportunity to urge all stakeholders to step up and take responsibility. Individual companies can encourage sustainable travel on the part of their employees; housing developers can encourage sustainable development that uses renewable energy; borough councils can do more to encourage cycling to school, and they can also give out information about air pollution; the Mayor of London, who I think we can agree has comprehensively failed on this issue, can do more; and so can the Government. People should not have had to go to court to force the Government to recognise their responsibilities under EU law.

This important issue is not being dealt with, and as we fail to deal with it thousands of Londoners die every year. I am grateful to the House for having been given the opportunity to bring it to the attention of Members.

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