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Political will

Following the MP’s air quality debate in Westminster Hall yesterday (June 9), Caroline Watson, partner at environmental behavioural change charity Global Action Plan, says there has been a lack of political will to tackle pollution levels in London.

Following the MP’s air quality debate in Westminster Hall yesterday (June 9), Caroline Watson, partner at environmental behavioural change charity Global Action Plan, says there has been a lack of political will to tackle pollution levels in London.

Labour’s London Mayoral contender Diane Abbott penned an article yesterday in which she stated that ‘the fight to cut air pollution in London is literally a life and death matter’. For once, this is not an example of political hyperbole. If only more politicians would take the issue as seriously.

Caroline Watson, partner at Global Action Plan

Caroline Watson, partner at Global Action Plan

Instead, parliamentarians spent the morning blustering about poor air quality but with no greater clarity on a course of action forthcoming. This won’t help the thousands of Londoners who die each year as a result of filthy air, or the many thousands who contract respiratory diseases such as asthma. Perhaps this is why the Mayor of London, and the new MP for Uxbridge, was unfortunately unable to attend.

Of course, the Mayor, the Greater London Authority and the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) all claim to be taking action. However, by the Mayor’s own predictions, London’s air will not be at acceptable levels until 2030 at the earliest.

In the meantime, Londoners should be aware that there is plenty that they can do to help protect their own health. Londoners should ensure that their daily route to work, or the healthy walk they have planned, is in fact healthy. One example, this air quality map produced by Kings College London, is an innovative tool which allows you to plot routes that are less susceptible to air pollution when travelling around.

One consequence of the lack of political will to tackle this problem is that the true extent of the damage air pollution causes is not widely understood. Too few people, even those with respiratory diseases, obtain advice on how to limit the impact of air pollution, despite healthcare professionals being well placed to give advice.

However, Londoners must realise that reducing the impact of air pollution on their health is not only about avoiding it, but also about helping to reduce it.  Simple changes to Londoners’ behaviour, such as stopping engine idling, can significantly reduce their own impact on particulate levels. This sort of behaviour change is particularly important in the vicinity of institutions such as schools or hospitals, areas where there is the greatest concentration of those most vulnerable to air pollution.

Thankfully, a number of businesses, public bodies and community groups have cottoned on to the fact that they too must contribute to reducing air pollution, and others must now take up their mantle.

One such example is Barts NHS Health Trust, who have taken the pioneering step of introducing clean air zones around their hospitals, thereby reducing the risk to some of those most vulnerable to air pollution. A similar example has seen Addison Lee install air pollution monitors in schools, while the City of London Corporation has engaged community groups to lead the way in educating drivers about the myths around engine idling.

All of this is invaluable and we can all do more, but fundamentally, decision makers in Westminster and City Hall cannot expect Londoners to carry so much of the burden. Three of the participants in today’s parliamentary air quality debate are London mayoral candidate hopefuls (Diane Abbott, Zac Goldsmith and David Lammy), and we can only hope that they recognise this issue for what it is: a stain on our great city’s reputation.

Ultimately, until politicians wake up and begin to show leadership, illnesses and death as a result of air pollution will continue to rise – if 4,500 people were dying in London every year as a result of reckless drivers, it would be top of the agenda and a national disgrace. The effects of air pollution are equally devastating and we can no longer afford to take the issue lightly.

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