As London prepares to launch its ultra low emission zone (Ulez) on Monday, the latest reports are that nitrogen dioxide levels in the city are falling – but that 2 million people in London are still living with illegal levels of air pollution.
Ever since a few industrialists worked out how to make money from burning things, air pollution has always mapped on to power (or lack of it). Miners suffer from black lung. Mill workers suffer from brown lung. Factory workers develop lung cancer, construction workers develop asbestosis, children in London die from asthma. Air pollution in London is now so bad it is halting lung development in infants and killing others. Barely a single Londoner believes their air quality does not need improving.
And yet aspects of the mayor’s Ulez are proving hugely controversial, particularly with people who rely on a vehicle for a living. Accompanying the new low emission zone is the expansion of the existing congestion charge to include private hire drivers. These drivers are objecting, not to the emissions zone itself, but to the fact that they – rather than companies like Uber – are shouldering the burden of the charges.
The United Private Hire Drivers are a branch of the IWGB union, which New Economics Foundation (NEF) organisers like me have worked closely with in trying to tackle precarious work. They say the new charges will amount to a 25 per cent cut in incomes for some of their members. While private hire drivers – 94 per cent of whom are BAME – will pay the extra charge, majority-white black cab drivers are exempt. Because of this, United Private Hire Drivers is taking legal action against the mayor on the grounds of discrimination.
It is hard to avoid the irony that while black communities in London are disproportionately exposed to the effects of dirty air, it is BAME workers that are expected to pay for its cleanup. London’s air pollution problem desperately needs fixing, but Ulez will hit the wrong people the hardest. It is a perfect example of what happens when environmental policy is imposed from above, without actively listening those who are the most impacted. The gilets jaunes movement in France has become a demonstration of the opposition that can form when people view environmental policy as unfair.
And this problem is not specific to London. Fifty miles down the road, Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council are making the same mistakes.
I’ve been working with Basingstoke Clean Air Campaign, a group of people living and working in one of the worst offending towns for air pollution in the country. The last rapid expansion of Basingstoke led to a hastily thrown up concrete jungle designed entirely around the car, resulting in dizzying numbers of roundabouts, a ring road, and lots of pollution. And now 15,300 new homes are planned to be built there by 2029, with little planning for anti-pollution measures. In fact, soon after being named in the Client Earth High Court Judgement as an authority required to reduce air pollution, it decided to stop recycling some plastics in favour of burning them.
After months of campaigning from the Clean Air Campaign, the council announced some lacklustre plans, including giving residents thousands of plastic bumper stickers for cars, to spread the important message – presumably to cars already idling in traffic – that cars cause air pollution.
Residents were predictably unimpressed, and 70 of them came to a public meeting organised by the campaign group and NEF. In a testament to resident involvement, they talked in detail about how public transport and cycle routes could be improved, how energy efficient homes could be built, and how people could be supported to work, commute and consume less. They ended by each writing to the councillor in charge of environment to meet with them – and a month later, not one of them has heard back.
Without local authorities seriously listening to the people who are most affected by environmental problems, they risk either playing down the scale of the problem, developing policy that will disadvantage the already disadvantaged, or both.
Becki Winson is an organiser with the New Economics Foundation.