On Wednesday night the Mayor unveiled his manifesto for tackling London’s air quality crisis. In front of a packed crowd at Mansion House, Boris set out his vision to ensure that London has “the sweetest and cleanest air of any European city.”
With the UK facing legal action on two fronts over its illegal levels of air pollution, Boris put clear distance between himself and his Westminster colleagues on this increasingly high profile issue.
On 11th July the European Court of Justice heard ClientEarth’s case against the UK and will give judgment later this year. The case will then return to the UK Supreme Court early next year, which will rule on whether the Government and the Mayor are really doing everything possible to achieve legal limits for nitrogen dioxide. If the Supreme Court justices decide they are not, they could order the Government to come up with a new set of plans to achieve compliance in a much shorter time-frame. This would need to include ambitious proposals to cut pollution from diesel exhausts – by far the biggest source of nitrogen dioxide.
Meanwhile the European Commission has brought its own legal case against the UK and is poised to escalate matters once they have seen the judgment in the ClientEarth case.
The key issue in both cases is whether the UK’s plans comply with EU law, which requires them to achieve pollution limits in the “shortest time possible”.
Defra claims that the shortest time possible is some point after 2030. But Boris thinks it can be done by 2020 “with a little more energy, ambition and action from Westminster and from Brussels “
He has a point. It’s easy to pick holes in the Mayor’s plans: The proposed Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is too small and is being introduced too late. The proposed charge might not deter wealthy drivers – an outright ban on diesel cars older than five years would be more effective. The Mayor’s reluctance to anger taxi drivers by cleaning up London’s notoriously dirty black cabs is a glaring omission.
However, unlike his Westminster colleagues, at least Boris has woken up to the public health menace posed by diesel and come up with some ideas to tackle it. If the Mayor’s plans come to fruition (by no means guaranteed), Londoners can look forward to a significantly cleaner, healthier capital by 2020.
By contrast, the rest of the UK will continue to suffer illegal pollution levels for years to come. For example, Birmingham and Leeds are not projected to meet limits until after 2030. A further five cities will still be in breach in 2025. As London moves forward, the rest of the UK is being left behind. Worse still – the buses and lorries that can no longer be driven in London will be shifted to other cities, worsening air pollution outside the M25.
The Mayor has set out his vision for improving air quality in the capital. Central Government must now make this a reality, but not only for London. We need a national strategy to clean the air. The cornerstone of that strategy should be a national network of Ultra Low Emission Zones – so that whether you’re in London or Leeds, Birmingham or Bristol, you can breathe air that doesn’t seriously harm your health. The Supreme Court will expect nothing less.