Under Sadiq Khan, London has made great progress on air pollution. Between 2016 – 2019 there has been a 94% reduction in the number of Londoners living in areas exceeding the legal limit for Nitrogen Dioxide and a 97% reduction in the number of state primary and secondary schools in areas exceeding the legal limit.
This, in part, has been achieved by the rolling out of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, schemes to make walking and cycling safer and easier, funding to clean up London’s taxi fleet and almost £53 million worth of grants to take older, more polluting vehicles off the roads.
However, whilst a lot of progress has been made 99% of Londoners still live in areas exceeding the World Health Organisation recommended guidelines for fine particulate matter, otherwise known as PM2.5.
These are pollutants 30 times smaller than the average human hair that can settle in our airways and get into the bloodstream. Breathing this in is one of the largest risk factors for an early death and in London, this contributes to nearly 4,000 early deaths a year.
One of these deaths was the heart-breaking case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. She lived near the south circular road in Lewisham and was exposed to excessive levels of PM2.5 and Nitrogen Dioxide. Tragically in 2013, Ella died aged just nine. Since then tireless campaigning by her family led to the landmark ruling last December that air pollution made a “material contribution” to Ella’s death.
In the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report published a fortnight ago it was stated: “The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.”
In October last year, I called on the Government to urgently introduce these legally binding targets. That was refused. In December, the Opposition voted to amend the Environment Bill to include these targets, but again the Government refused. I raised this again this week in Parliament and still the Government refuses to take this seriously. Without proper targets enacted now, how can we expect to meaningfully reduce this threat?
This is a silent crisis that has gone on for far too long and is currently being left to local government’s already on tight budgets to sort out, but there is only so much they can do. If we are to reduce the on average 40,000 deaths a year across the UK caused by air pollution, then the Government must take control of the issue, introduce these targets and deliver the leadership and support needed to end this public health emergency.