London should clean up its air pollution – but it must ensure the right people pay

Rush hour in London. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.