Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
To build support for a new charge on older cars, the mayor’s office tells the public, “If you could see London’s air, you’d want to clean it too.”
Do you fancy a cappuccino frosted with toxic dust? This is one of the unsettling images from a new campaign highlighting the terrible quality of London’s air. Launched by the London mayor’s office this week, the campaign uses heavily soiled everyday objects, including a baby’s bottle, to highlight the need for action over London’s terrible air quality.
This comes in the run-up to the introduction next week of the so-called T-Charge—a £10 ($13.20) levy for older, more polluting vehicles to enter Central London’s Congestion Charge Zone. The T-charge will have to be paid on top of London’s existing £11.50 ($15.20) congestion charge, making it prohibitively expensive to drive more polluting vehicles (typically any car built before 2006) into the zone. In effect, the charge is so high that it’s really a ban. This is in keeping with London’s policy of pricing polluters out of affordable access, as opposed to Paris’ approach of barring all older cars by law.
It’s pretty much beyond dispute that some form of action is necessary to improve the quality of air Londoners are breathing. The latest figures show that London’s air is polluted beyond safe levels not just in the city core, but across almost all Greater London. The capital lies at the heart of a country where 50,000 people die due to pollution-related illnesses annually, a per capita rate exceeded in Western Europe only in foul-aired, notoriously congested Belgium.
Mayor Sadiq Khan is quite right to highlight these dangers to the public, given the resistance that often comes from moves to combat it—the hullaballoo from some sections of the U.K. media over the carving out of cycle lanes in London, for example, was a wonder to behold.
But is Khan really doing enough to clear the air? His administration certainly seems to be aware of the urgency of action. The T-Charge is in fact an early introduction of a long-planned policy to create an Ultra Low Emissions Zone in central London next year, which will basically be a tighter more systematic version of next week’s charge. This nonetheless represents the rolling out of an existing pollution and congestion-management system—the Congestion Charge—that has arguably passed its sell-by date already.
The charge, introduced in 2003, did much initially to thin out jams in central London’s streets, but last year, congestion returned to its pre-charge levels, the private vehicles that had been discouraged having been replaced by commercial vehicles, such as delivery vans and Ubers. Without extending charging beyond the zone to create a city-wide road pricing system, it’s hard to see how things will meaningfully approve.
Meanwhile, the mayor has waved through plans for a major new road tunnel channelling cars through East London. It’s a project whose potential effect on air quality is such that Britain’s national government has postponed deciding upon it for another month, revealing both national government’s default antagonism toward London’s mayor and genuine concern about its effect. The mayor’s office may feel it needs to raise public awareness through means such as this month’s campaign to create momentum for action. The mixed bag of policy coming from London nonetheless suggests that they haven’t got the backing—or possibly the will—to push through genuinely paradigm-shifting policies just yet.