Jenny Jones, the Green mayoral candidate for London, has accused mainstream political parties of lacking the political courage to tackle air pollution – despite strong evidence that it represents a major public health risk.
Jones issued a broadside against the political mainstream as she battles to get London’s poor air quality a hearing at mayoral hustings between now and polling day, amid evidence that a problem invisible to the naked eye is now the second biggest public health risk in Britain after smoking, and is linked to around one in five deaths a year in London.
Jones sought to push the environmental agenda at city hall when she served as deputy mayor to Ken Livingstone between 2003-2004. She is urging supporters to give the Labour candidate their second preference vote in the election.
In her view Livingstone “did ignore” the problem until his second mayoral term, when he introduced the low emission zone, but she reserves her strongest criticisms for the incumbent Conservative mayor Boris Johnson, who she says “has been absolutely ignoring all the evidence” despite a report landing on his desk mid-term in his tenure that revealed 4,300 Londoners were dying prematurely because of pollution, with an average 11.5 years taken off their lives.
Jones has repeatedly criticised the incumbent mayor over his use of pollution suppressant vehicles near air quality monitoring stations to deal with the problem in the run up to the 2012 Olympic Games. The trucks spray adhesive to the road surface, effectively glueing pollution to the ground. Jones said this only serves to lower the pollution measured, rather than tackling the actual problem.
She added: “He’s burying the problem and pretending it doesn’t exist. How does he square that with his role as mayor, trying to protect Londoners and make their lives better. He’s actually making their lives worse.”
Other air quality campaigners have gone further, with Birkett describing the move as “public health fraud on an industrial scale”.
Jones has outlined some of the radical measures needed to reduce harmful pollutants by cutting traffic and getting people out of their cars. This includes raising the congestion charge from £10 to £15, slapping a £40 daily charge on “gas guzzlers”, an ultra-low emission zone in central London and replacing the central congestion charge zone with a region-wide road pricing scheme after three years.
Jones, whose pledges sometimes raise eyebrows at hustings, says the Greens are not prepared to shy away from radical policies that may be seen as “politically toxic” but are the only way to clean up the problem.
“Either politicians are not recognising how serious the problem is, or they are choosing not to see it, but you can’t argue against it. The facts are there.”
She added: “Greens are not frightened to tackle politically toxic things if they feel they are important.”
Airborne pollution in the form of fine particulate matter – such as PM2.5, particles of less than 2.5 micrometres – comes mostly from combustion sources, including transport, domestic and industrial sources, and aggravates respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.
Research shows these PM2.5s are likely to be inhaled deep into the respiratory tract and with other forms of air pollution can reduce the lung capacity of children. Air quality in the capital is the worst in the UK and also ranks among the worst in Europe, with research suggesting that up to 50,000 people die early in the UK every year as a result of air pollution.
Transport for London, which Johnson chairs, insists that trials in London and abroad have shown the effectiveness of dust suppressants in reducing particulate matter (PM10) levels .
Leon Daniels, the managing director of surface transport at TfL, said: “Transport for London has always been clear that the use of dust suppressants across London is in combination with other measures to reduce harmful PM10 levels at a range of locations where we know there are higher levels of this pollutant. This is in addition to a range of longer terms, sustainable measures aiming to reduce pollution levels at source across the capital.”
Britain is still facing fines of up to £300m over a repeated failure to meet key EU air quality directives since 2005, when Labour was in government and Livingstone was installed at city hall. Under the coalition government, however, there is little sign that concerted action os planned. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently claimed that the costs of meeting EU pollution targets may not match the benefits.
But Jones warns politicians need to introduce the radical measures needed amid signs that the problem is worsening. Last month, pollution in London hit record levels due to a mix of weather conditions and traffic fumes, in particular from diesel cars, vans and lorries.
Jones says part of the problem is that the public don’t realise the scale of the public health risks attached.
“It’s not like the smog of the 1950s that was really tangible. Now, the air looks quite clean but actually it’s not, but people aren’t seeing it. Though if you go to a high building, you can see an orange haze across the horizon and that’s the pollution.”
The Green party has made a six minute film to highlight the threat to people’s health from poor air quality, drawing on the expertise of air quality expert, Professor Frank Kelly, of King’s College London, and Simon Birkett, founder for the Campaign for Clean Air in London.
Jones believes if parents understand the damage to public health, the public will be more willing to accept that a change in behaviour is necessary.
Research by the Campaign for Clean Air in London has found that 1,148 schools in London are within 150 metres of roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles per day, putting children going to these schools, and living near them, at increased risk of developing asthma, and their parents of developing heart problems.
The Green mayoral candidate, who polled just 2% in the latest survey of voting intention on May 3, wants more Green party members to be elected to the London assembly to pressure the next elected mayor to show political leadership on the issue. Jones, currently one of two Green assembly members, will also defend her assembly seat in May.
She says that one of the measures that needs to be considered by the next elected mayor is simply to close roads from traffic, but admits it is tough getting the message across.
“That’s why it’s incredibly important to have a strong assembly team because then we can speak much more loudly and get the mayor, even if it’s not me, to do the right thing.”
Jones is taking part in an event organised by eco-activist group Climate Rush on Thursday evening in protest at the capital’s dirty air.
The event will begin outside the offices of Defra and protesters will then take over a road, calling it London’s “first true clean air zone”, and holding a picnic and street party.