What can the next mayor to do combat London's air pollution?

We *think* this is London. Image: Getty.

Sian Berry is seeking the Green Party's nomination to be London's mayor. So oddly enough, she has some thoughts about the figures which this week showed the terrifying level of air pollution in the capital...

The shocking news this week that air pollution is responsible for nearly 9,500 early deaths a year in London makes air pollution a true public health emergency – and we need a full range of policies and action to match.

The better news is that London’s citizens are already taking notice. I spoke at a packed event on air pollution last week, organised by Client Earth’s Health Air Campaign and London Sustainability Exchange, where local communities and campaigners from all over London came to share their experience and knowledge of getting action on this problem.

A very encouraging sign is the growth in the number of community campaigners doing citizen science to map local hotspots. Successful examples including campaigners against Transport for London’s proposed Silvertown Tunnel; my Green party colleague Caroline Russell’s work in Highbury; and residents in Putney, who won cleaner buses after they found horrific levels on their high street.

In my council ward of Highgate, our own monitoring project showed that even on the leafy fringes of central London, traffic was responsible for nearly double the legal limits on some of our busiest roads.

Another positive development is the very clear results of Client Earth’s legal challenge to the government. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that ministers must make new plans to bring our air within legal limits "in the shortest time possible".

In the past, I’ve criticised Transport for London’s upcoming Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), and said it needs to be bigger, sooner and fiercer. This is certainly what I’d bring in if I was responsible – and I’m standing to be the Greens’ candidate for mayor of London next year to try to make that happen.

I’ve also criticised the lack of progress on electric vehicle charging points: there are just over 1,300 in the Source London network, compared with the 25,000 promised. I've also been supporting Blue Solutions, who have taken over expansion plans, to help them work with boroughs to get more parking spaces dedicated to zero-emission cars.

But of course this cannot be just about cleaner vehicles. It’s not that radical to talk about taking more road space away from cars in London and prioritising other ways to get around. Just a few minutes exploring the sea of road links in the capital that are colour-coded blue on the mapping project I recently conducted for the Campaign for Better Transport shows that traffic has fallen on most of London’s roads over the past decade. That's true in both inner and outer London – and the average fall is about 10 per cent.

We need to work with this trend away from driving and car ownership, not build wider motorways and expensive road tunnels and bridges. If we don’t change the plan, this new map from the Green London Assembly Members suggests, we'll leave Londoners stuck in stationary buses and cars for an extra 40 days a year.

We need to replace the creaking Congestion Charge, which first started 12 years ago, with something much more sophisticated, covering all of London not just a small central zone. A replacement scheme should start consultation as soon as the next mayor takes over, with a set of fair new charges based on three principles: how far you drive, how polluting your vehicle is, and the time of day.

I also like to remind people about the 2012 Olympics, where a proper effort was made to get Londoners to switch modes, travel outside rush hour, share cars and generally avoid driving in the city. Workplaces, commuters and delivery companies were engaged with in a massive communications effort that included adverts, phone lines and advice on the ground from TfL staff.

People listened, understood the need, and more than one third of Londoners made some simple and easy changes to their routines. The result was that – even with some road space taken away for "Games Lanes" –- there was far less congestion and traffic than normal.

The sense of urgency and a big occasion meant this fierce application of "Smarter Choices" principles worked a treat. And the urgency of the public health problem of air pollution now means a similar level of investment and effort is fully justified.

What London has lacked over the past eight years is a mayor with a vision for how great a city with less traffic and less pollution can be for everyone, every day. While Boris has wasted time on "iconic", not-very-low emission buses and sticking pollution to the roads with glue, we could have done so much more and saved many lives. If the next mayor is a Green, the right to breathe clean air will not be ignored for another minute.

Sian Berry is a Green party councillor in the London Borough of Camden, and is seeking the party's nomination to be its mayoral candidate next year. She also works with the Campaign for Better Transport.

If you or someone you know is hoping to be mayor of London, and would like to put forward your own plans on these pages, then please do get in touch.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.