This post is by Helen Hayes MP for Dulwich and West Norwood.
It’s estimated that toxic air pollution from diesel vehicles in London is responsible for over 9,000 premature deaths a year, and it disproportionately affects school children and the most vulnerable members of our communities. Brixton Road, in my constituency, exceeded its annual air pollution limit just five days into 2017. The Mayor of London has made the battle against this invisible killer a top priority for his term and has succeeded in getting it onto both the national and local political agendas.
As national government is failing to tackle air quality , what we do at the city, local authority and community level is increasingly important. But, to gain the support of local people for bolder proposals, we need to think carefully about how we communicate them.
We need better information
People need clear and timely information about how poor air quality is affecting them and what they can do to prevent their exposure to it. The London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, both within my constituency, are already showing initiative. Air text and Love Lambeth Air inform people about the levels of pollution in their area and whether they need to avoid exposure, and #onething suggests individual actions they can take to reduce their impact on air quality and the environment. Both councils are also prioritising safer roads for cyclists, and reducing the speed limit to 20 mph. The campaigning work of a group of local parents, Lambeth for a Cool Planet, working with Lambeth Council, has helped to ensure that Brixton Road will be one of the first two Low Emission Bus Zones in London.
These initiatives are changing people’s perceptions and increasing their understanding of what they can do to make things better. Growing awareness means that different actors in the community, including local businesses, politicians and community groups, are now working together much more to solve air pollution. But we need more than voluntary, local initiatives. People right across London and the UK should have equal access to information on how their health is being affected by bad air and what they can do about it.
National government must do more to help
National government must play its part by fundamentally rethinking how we move in and around our cities, making streets safer for cycling and walking, dealing with bus deregulation and supporting local institutions responsible for making changes. The government recently lost a court case brought by Client Earth that it has not acted to bring UK air quality within legal limits ‘as soon as possible’. In the context of the Client Earth judgement and the shocking number of deaths caused by air pollution each year, I have been calling on the government to produce a comprehensive action plan to address air pollution. Unfortunately they have so far refused, relying instead on local authorities, who have neither comprehensive powers nor the resources to take all the action necessary.
Without a long term, strategic commitment to remove toxic diesel vehicles from our streets, progress in reducing the levels of NOx and PM that are harming us will not be as quick as we need it to be. We need nationwide measures like a diesel scrappage scheme and a national network of clean air zones. At the same time, the government should do more to facilitate the uptake of sustainable travel options, such as walking, cycling and public transport, by making them safer, more desirable and more practical to use.