When I first discussed air pollution with my friends, amongst the parents the school my daughter was attending, and with many others, they often looked at me, as if I was some sort of green radical. Maybe I am. I simply looked at the evidence creeping up from time to time, though instinctively most people in Kings Cross can see the evidence against their windows in form of black dust, mainly sulphur remnants from Diesel engines. And that’s but the dust you can see, the more dangerous stuff, PM10 and PM25 small particulates, enter our lungs and bodies deeper but are invisible to the naked human eye. Still, astonishingly many people did not think I was giving them any meaningful information, when I quoted them studies that showed, that the proximity of 100 meters of a school to a road with a volume of more than 10.000 cars (Kings Cross!) showed a scientifically significant increase of Asthma incidences in children, or the many other studies on the health implications of air pollution.
I don’t blame those people for looking at me that way. The media in England, except The Guardian (see here an article from 2010), and slightly behind the BBC, was quite slow to react to all of this. Only last year during the combined Saharan and London pollution smog was it, that I had finally a feeling, that the Evening Standard, that paper given out freely to Londoners these days, and often their only news update, was finally decisive in highlighting the problem.
In my own borough of Camden, the council was however acutely aware of the problem and run two summits on air pollution, the second one in conjunction with Islington. Whilst councillors knew about the issues and did what they could, they fought a scandalously and intentionally lame and deaf TfL, “Lord over all our roads,” and ruled over by above all one man, Boris Johnson.
Remember the days we were told the sprinkling of some substance over the tarmac of our roads was called the answer to air pollution, and that the figures everyone else produced were exaggerated? Anything but reduce traffic! Even last year Boris Johnson was still laughing at people’s concerns on air pollution by comparing London to Bejing or Mexico City. and stating people like myself are bollocks for complaining about the air.
For this was the man who in 2010 abolished half the then existing congestion zone, in a part of town where wealth means that possession of a car, if possible as large as possible – giving us the lovely idiom “Chelsea Tractors” – and driving it, is seen by many almost as a right in itself. A salute to the Conservative Party loyal boroughs of Kensington and Westminster.
Gone was also the idea of an electric tram connecting Kings Cross with the South, which was set to be build by Ken Livingstone on some of the old tracks last used in late 1950s, when petrol driven Routmasters were cheaper to run than electric trains, and the tram was abolished largely. And the Routemaster was then precisely the strategy of the new blond London mayor, abolishing that plan as soon as he set office and advocating instead a new Routemaster, when red Ken’s red bendy bus seemed inadequate for London’s roads.
Labour and the Greens argued that it was more efficient and more ecological to spend the new Routemaster money on greening the existing fleet, fitting the highest standard exhaust emission filters and a hybrid system on them. This has now been confirmed, namely that the new Routemasters are less ecological than argued by its lobby. Also already forgotten by many, is the chapter of an attempted botched introduction of a hybrid refit technology for all London black cabs, failed back in 2008, when the procurement process of Tfl was flaunt, breaching trademark issues. But black cabs contribute, in the mayors own words, to 1/3 of the particulate matter emissions in London. On the positive side, I hear that this January an electric black cab is finally being piloted (it was first spoken about many years ago), and months after Nissan dropped its plans for a new London cab.
For decades here at Kings Cross, where I live, many including myself have lobbied for an easing of congestion, and the road flow of the gyratory system, not just because of the air pollution the vehicles cause at the moment, but also because of the noise they create (we had to fight 13 years to win an argument with the housing association Circle 33, to fit a double window system, as the single sash windows allowed in all the noise), and because of safety concerns. When the new mayor sent a quango about two years ago to Kings Cross to conduct yet another study on the gyratory, the appointed field researcher asked us, if we accepted that the traffic needed to flow through our streets, and that this could not change. My answer was, “No, if you look at many major cities like Amsterdam, you can see how traffic even around the main stations has been transformed.” “Why not”, I asked, “in London?” The bewildered look of the researcher showed me, he was the one who failed to understand, seemingly unexposed to global alternatives, and probably hand chosen by TfL to provide solutions to the “car is king mayor.” At the last possible opportunity Johnson fiddled recently with the congestion zone, having been under immense pressure by most members of the GLA, but not before another consultation, whose results were predictable: Yes we are going to enforce a stricter ultra low emission zone, along the congestion zone perimeters – with the headlines a self-laudatio to the mayor “world’s first ultra low emission zone coming” – did we forget to shout hooray and open that champaign bottle at Kings Cross, with half of the area still outside that zone, streets like Euston Road, Swinton Street, Grays Inn Road, Kings Cross Road and Pentonville Road and Rise ? No chance Johnson would enlarge the zone, you see.
Many, like the four London councils Hackney, Lambeth, Camden and Southwark argued that without a strategy for all of London, doing a bit in the centre has little real effect. Having not done much of great significance for most of his tenure, Johnson can now argue he is finally green having implemented some changes in the last quarter of his many years in office. Yes he introduced the ultra low congestion zone, yes he enlarges the cycling infrastructure, but most of all, now he will have to deal with that supreme court judgement on Human Rights ground, the kind of dictum the Tories are very keen to take Britain out of, if they win the next elections.
From where I live, in the midst of Kings Cross the damage the policy of the mayor caused for most of his tenure is clear to see. The dark dust against my window may take off a few years of the lives of all of those who live here, including myself. On many days we have to switch on an in-doors air filter (we are lucky enough to have bought one, but the carbon filter needs replacement every six months at a cost of about £100 Pounds), not the least to note that cars speed in these roads at speeds of up to 50 miles at times. Something by the way that again has finally been heard after decades, I learned there will be a trial 20 Mile zone around Kings Cross soon – hey congratulations, myself and others argued for this for more than 15 years. The word trial here is a clear indication of how careful TfL is not to upset drivers too much (it is only a trial, we won’t inconvenience you permanently?).
That the supreme court has now argued that, since Boris Johnson came to power, he and his gang and his governmental colleagues from DEFRA, had us for an illegal unhealthy London walk on air pollution and that we, the so called and belittled urban bourgeoisie, were after all correct on air pollution and the traffic, and yes that our human rights were breached, our access and right to clean air in our own homes taken by one arrogant man, is astonishing. It is beyond me that anyone could even think of the man with his unkempt blonde hair as an adequate future prime minister, MP or mayor. He may be witty and funny at times, I am willing to concede that, but as a politician he is intentionally and cleverly obstructive, if a policy does not fit his Weltanschauung. This was for a long time to allow cars without much modification full access. It is simple to understand why. Getting tough here angers all fleet owners and cab drivers and that is bad for votes. But the twist of the story is, that the drivers of cabs and vans, who are on London’s streets day in day out, are actually those people who should be most interested in cleaner and more stringent standards, because it is them who sit right behind the exhausts of others for hours without end. And it is not as if we do not know what can make the change happen. Alternative engine technologies exist, just as there are countless examples of how urban landscapes and the minds of people can be opened and altered.
There is only one way forward, cleaning up the air in London with the latest filters and engines and road lay outs. I wonder if we will have a garden bridge first though (that other vanity project), before these changes will be introduced?
And there are, to borrow the only value in the Tory mindset, business opportunities within for all involved. New engines, trams, charging points, cycle shops, et cetera also create new jobs and create innovation that drive forward business and clean up our city’s air. And at Kings Cross, amongst the most polluted zones in London, we really need a fresh breath of air.
We will not stop to give a sample taste of our toxic fumes to any governmental office holder, who has not yet inhaled them.
To better air and health!