Will London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone improve the city’s health?

London. We think. Not sure, actually. Image: Getty.

A new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is being introduced in London, to reduce harmful emissions from traffic and improve air quality. Those who drive polluting vehicles into the city centre will face a daily charge – £12.50 for cars, motorcycles and vans, and £100 for lorries, buses and coaches – on top of the existing congestion charge. By October 2021, the scheme will expand to cover an area 18 times larger.

The rationale for the ULEZ is clear: large numbers of people are living in areas with pollution levels well above the legal limits set by the European Union (EU). These limits are based on detailed evidence about the impacts of air pollution on people’s health – which can cause everything from short term effects like worsening asthma symptoms, to a loss of healthy years of life in the longer term.

Other cities across the UK and beyond will be watching closely, as London’s ULEZ is effectively a test bed to gauge the effectiveness of such schemes at clearing up air pollution and improving the health of residents.

Major health problems

Over recent years, several London-based studies have shown that the city’s air pollution is associated with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, increases in daily deaths, stroke risk and low birth weights, as well as reduced lung volumes in children, dementia among the elderly, and poor mental health in children and adolescents.

Clearly, the polluted air that people breathe in London is having profound effects on their health, throughout their entire lives. So, while some people will lose out – for example, those who need to drive in central London for work – that should be weighed against the clear need for action to reduce pollution, on health grounds.

As well as the current health concerns, there are legal reasons why London authorities have introduced the new charge. Much of the area covered by the ULEZ often exceeds the annual EU limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) – especially near roads, where diesel vehicles are a major source of the gas. The EU annual limit for NO₂ is 40μg/m³ (that’s micrograms per metre cubed).

A map of annual mean NO₂ pollution levels across London, based on data from 2013. Areas coloured from yellow through to red exceed annual targets. Image: London Air/KCL.

There are also other legal limits set by the EU for airborne particulate matter of various sizes. If you consider fine particles – often referred to as PM₂.₅ (generally less than 2.5 microns in diameter) – then the picture looks better. Most of London meets the EU’s annual limit for PM₂.₅, which is 25μg/m³.

But numerous studies have shown there are clear health impacts below this concentration, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that an annual target of 10μg/m³ would be best to protect people’s health. If this lower annual exposure limit was to be used, many areas across London would exceed it – just as they currently do with NO₂.

Medicine worth taking

The evidence shows that diesel exhaust emissions are the major driver of poor health outcomes due to air pollution. That doesn’t mean that other pollutant sources, such a biomass burning, agriculture, industry, or particles derived from brake and tyre wear, are not important – but it makes sense for cities to make reducing diesel emissions a priority. Will it work, though?

The ULEZ, like the Low Emission Zone before it, is designed to encourage the uptake of newer, low emission vehicles both by businesses and the general public with the aim of reducing air pollution in the target area. Current evidence does suggest that air pollution concentrations are falling in London as a result of several measures, such as the Low Emission Zone, but these improvements still need to be accelerated to deliver health benefits.


Since the ULEZ targets all vehicles, modelling commissioned by the Greater London Authority predicts that it will have significant impact on air quality, compared with earlier policies, which focused on restricting only certain types of vehicles. But this projection still needs to be validated.

If the ULEZ is the equivalent to the treatment to the air pollution problem, then like a clinical drug trial it requires independent evaluation, measuring both the changes in pollution concentration, and health improvements among Londoners.

Work is already ongoing to address these issues, such as the Children’s Health in London and Luton (CHILL) project, which is examining children’s respiratory health and lung growth across the introduction of the ULEZ. But further work evaluating this scheme is needed, to keep ensuring that policies are developed based on evidence – and prove to the public that this is a medicine worth taking.

The Conversation

Ian Mudway, Lecturer in Respiratory Toxicology, King's College London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.