“Air pollution is bad for our brains, as well as our lungs”: so why aren’t we angrier?

Some city or another. Not sure which. Image: Getty.

Getting people excited about air quality is difficult. The villain of the piece is invisible, risk accumulates very gradually with each breath we take, and when its pernicious effects do eventually emerge, they show up only indirectly in specific medical conditions. Nobody has ever been diagnosed with a bad case of air pollution.

Netflix recently had a go at dramatising the issue in their high-budget royal drama The Crown. It follows the story of Winston Churchill’s secretary, Venetia Scott, whose flatmate becomes severely ill as a result of breathing in too much filthy air during the Great Smog of 1952. Air pollution in those days was more visible. and we watch panicked Londoners trying to block up gaps in their windows to keep the deadly soot out of their houses and away from their coughing children.

Venetia rushes her friend to the local hospital and leaves her with a friendly doctor. But just as the viewer relaxes, safe in the knowledge that her flatmate is in good hands, Venetia steps out onto the street outside the hospital and is hit by a bus emerging suddenly from the dense smog. She is a metaphor for the approximately 12,000 Londoners killed by foul air that year. Churchill is dismayed and, following a public outcry, sets in train the work to introduce the Clean Air Act of 1956.

In reality, things were quite different. Historical accounts suggest that there was not a great outcry, so habituated were Londoners to the regular smogs. For many, the poor air quality aggravated underlying medical conditions, or caused chronic illness, rather than instant death.

That is why the Netflix writers needed the bus incident to underscore the danger of it all: at the time, most people were unconvinced by the link between smog and bad health. Indeed the spike in the death rate was explained away by an official report as the result of a coincidental outbreak of flu. Churchill did not have a secretary killed by the smog, and he did not regulate emissions as a result. When the air cleared after four days, the capital largely went back to business as usual.

In some ways, things are different today. Partly through studying extreme episodes such as the Great Smog, we are now under no illusions about the health risks of bad air. Careful scientific estimates suggests that at least 52,000 life years were lost due to air pollution in London in 2010 alone.

What hasn’t changed since 1952 is that the public continue to put up with dangerously high levels of air pollution, year after year. Despite some high profile public campaigns, there is no real outcry. And given that reforms to improve air quality – such as banning more of the dirtiest vehicles, or increasing road charging – will create losers as well as winners, an outcry is what is required.


Another episode from history shows that air pollution may be even worse for us than previously thought. In the early 1980s, there was a recession in the US which had a particularly severe effect on industry, causing many factories to either cut production or shut down altogether. It was the opposite of the Great Smog: a big, temporary reduction in air pollution in industrial areas.

Economists interested in child cognitive development have used this as a natural experiment. They showed that children lucky enough to be born during the recession, when the air was cleaner, had better exam results aged 16 than those born when the factories were emitting at full tilt. Air pollution is bad for our brains as well as our lungs, even while we are still in the womb.

In one sense, this makes the air quality prognosis even bleaker – but it may also help turn up pressure on policymakers. The writers of The Crown chose to show shots of children coughing and spluttering because there is something particularly emotive about seeing the young suffering from the actions of the old. GPs will tell you that a good time to get women to stop smoking is when they are pregnant, because the thought of harming their unborn child is more powerful than the thought of harming themselves.

We can only hope that knowing filthy air is damaging the brains of young Londoners will have the same effect. A Mumsnet campaign to clean up our air would be a force to be reckoned with.

Sam Sims is a Centre for London associate and a research fellow at Education Datalab. The Centre for London is convening an independent, expert commission to examine how London can tackle problems of congestion, pollution and safety. Find out more here.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.