The Mayor of London issued a high pollution alert on Tuesday evening, but not the government, not the NHS, nor Public Health England, nor the Met Office and I didn’t notice anything on the BBC. Sadiq Khan has broken the silence which DEFRA managed to maintain for over a decade when Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson were Mayors. He has quite rightly decided that the public’s health comes first and efforts should be made to warn them when we have a bad pollution episode. Unfortunately, the Met Office, the NHS and the BBC outside of London, all wait for DEFRA to act before telling the public and that is why the system of alerts has failed so badly.
The government have deliberately played down the health impacts of air pollution for twenty years, because they want to do the minimum they can get away with. If they regularly issued press releases telling people to avoid exercise, or busy roads, or even not to drive in pollution hotspots, then the public would want to know when the problem was going to be fixed. The solutions are well known and have been put in place in cities around the world: cleaner vehicles, used less.
The EU have taken the lead in the drive for cleaner vehicles and while they did a good job with regulating diesel lorries and larger vehicles, they had a light touch approach to the car manufacturers. That approach failed miserably. Many car makers put profit before people and cheated on the tests. The differences between performance in the test and the reality on the roads can be measured in human lives cut short.
Meanwhile, Labour, Conservative and coalition governments have all failed to reduce traffic. In fact, they have acted to encourage traffic growth with new roads and cuts to public transport. The cost of driving has declined while the cost of fares has risen. Measures like pay as you go driving have been promoted by the experts, but rejected by politicians running scared of the motoring lobby. A few years go the Greens on the London Assembly even commissioned a report on how it would work in London and we shared that with Transport for London.
I’m glad that Sadiq Khan is now putting this forward as part of a London strategy to reduce traffic by 3m journeys. Such policies need our support if we are to end the public health scandal of air pollution