Air pollution affects us all; Labour councillors should not miss this opportunity to take action, writes Adam Harrison.
Tonight I am hopeful that Camden council will take the major step of adopting World Health Organisation limits on air pollution.
The truth is that to do otherwise is just to kid ourselves about the danger that bad air represents to us all.
WHO limits are tougher than those local authorities are currently asked to follow. One of the major downsides of the current system is that it risks leading people to believe that many parts of the country are compliant for ‘particulate matter’ – the fine dust and particles that comes off brakes and tyres and from the process of combustion.
But particulate matter, especially the very fine ‘PM2.5’, gets right into the lungs causing great harm. This unpleasant stuff is particularly harmful to children and the elderly. Camden’s position has long been that there is no safe level of particulate matter. Pursuing WHO targets gives formal expression to this more robust – and more progressive – stance.
Combined, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide – the other major pollutant at question here – are estimated to bring about 9,000 premature deaths in London each year.
Aiming high means we will have to work harder to reach our goal, but after all that is what government is for: to bring about the changes we need to improve things not just for some lives, but for all.
To that end, we will:
Target. Our civil enforcement officers will begin using newly adopted powers to issue fines for engine-idling, targeting hotspots identified through a combination of our own data and the community speaking up about problem areas.
Involve. We will be producing new guides – ‘Clean Air for My Street’, ‘Clean Air for My School’, and ‘Clean Air for My Workplace’ – so people can find out what they can do to take action, where the council can help, and where we need to bring in another party. Can we stop traffic rat-running down your street? Can we keep cars away from schools at drop-off and pick-up time? Can your trade union secure testing of the indoor air quality at your work?
Protect. Angela Mason, former Stonewall chief and our councillor lead on schools, is writing to all schools in the borough – from Camden’s excellent family of local authority-controlled schools to the large number of private schools based here – to encourage them to work on changing how people travel to school and to support our bid for the country’s first Schools Low Emissions Zone. We know that keeping cars away from close to schools makes an immediate difference.
Beyond that, we really need the support of the government in order to galvanise action. Backing WHO limits would be a first important step. Instead, the government has been successfully taken to court over its failure on air quality.
To get their act together, they should introduce a full new Clean Air Act to ensure new legal obligations apply across the country. This must be followed up by actions that can be taken swiftly now, like a national diesel scrappage scheme to get the worst polluters off the road fast.
Air pollution is a difficult problem but it is not an insurmountable one. It is also a big reminder of the role government can play, at all levels, to look out for our communities and work with them to the benefit of all. While the government still struggles to pull together an approach commensurate with its responsibilities, Labour in power is showing leadership on the issues that matter.
Adam Harrison is cabinet member for the environment at the London borough of Camden. He tweets at @AdamDKHarrison
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