by Olivia Hanks
The news that Boris Johnson buried a report on air pollution around schools while mayor of London does not exactly come as a surprise. Johnson’s record on air quality was atrocious – despite widespread concern over the issue throughout his eight years as mayor, virtually nothing has been done to alleviate what the World Health Organisation has called a public health crisis. The Campaign for Clean Air in London and the Environmental Audit Committee have been highly critical of Johnson for his inaction. And although London is the worst offender, many UK cities are in breach of EU laws on pollution, with little sign that the problem is being taken sufficiently seriously. Castle Meadow in Norwich has recorded nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels above EU legal limits every year since 2007 – a situation which Bert Bremner, the Labour city councillor with responsibility for environmental issues, described in a BBC Look East interview (interview starts at 4:31) earlier this year as “not dangerous […] the reality is what you feel when you’re there”. This, replicated across the UK, is the attitude that has led to inertia on this issue for so long – the ‘my grandma smoked 80 a day and she lived to 102’ school of argument.
However, the report that came to light this week is not about overall levels of pollution. It found that of the 433 primary schools in areas which breached EU legal limits for nitrogen dioxide – a toxic gas produced by diesel vehicles which is linked to respiratory problems – 83% had high levels of deprivation (i.e. more than 40% of pupils entitled to free school meals).
The report’s authors, Katie King and Sean Healy, suggested that the reason for this “may be the link between lower house prices, and hence poorer households, and proximity to main roads such as the M4, inner ring roads and radial roads.” Around half of London’s nitrogen dioxide emissions are attributable to road traffic.
Although the report may be new to us, its findings are not. Studies have been showing for years that air pollution is worse in deprived neighbourhoods. A cynic might say this is why the problem has received so little attention, at least until recently.
Like most environmental problems, this is a crisis largely created by the rich and suffered by the poor. Deprived areas routinely become dumping grounds for the toxic substances produced by irresponsible consumption – whether on a global scale, in the case of notorious disasters like Shell’s actions in the Niger Delta or the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, or locally.
While it may not be on the gruesome level of those catastrophes, London’s air pollution problem is responsible for an estimated 9,500 early deaths every year. The figure across the UK is 40,000. The 2010 report ‘Fair Society Healthy Lives’, commissioned by the Labour government of the time, showed that the most deprived neighbourhoods are much more likely to suffer from unfavourable environmental conditions (flood risk, air quality, detritus, lack of green spaces etc.). People from deprived backgrounds are also more likely to suffer health problems related to air pollution because of the cumulative effect of other factors, such as poor housing, smoking and obesity.
In this context, it is extraordinary that many commentators continue to debate environmental matters and social justice as though they were separate, competing issues. Reports like King and Healy’s once again make it perfectly clear that environmental protection is a social justice issue, not simply a nice-to-have that we can deal with once all society’s other problems have been resolved.
This is a message that mainstream UK politics still hasn’t grasped. Even within the Green Party, for which the interconnected nature of social and environmental issues is the very core of its philosophy, debate rages constantly in certain quarters about whether the party should focus on social justice or on the environment, as though we had to choose. The other parties, meanwhile, simply haven’t begun to address it. Although very welcome, Sadiq Khan’s pledge to double the size of London’s planned ultra-low-emissions zone will not be enough in isolation – particularly when set against the other major announcement of his first week as mayor, that he will remove obstacles to the expansion of City Airport.
debate rages constantly in certain quarters about whether the party should focus on social justice or on the environment, as though we had to choose.
Policymakers must begin to see that air quality is an equality issue. It must be addressed through a radical rethink of the planning process as well as through technological improvements and emissions taxes. The Labour-Tory growth-at-all-costs, road-building, airport-expanding agenda does not help the poor; it makes them worse off, since they are more likely to live near major roads and in areas at risk of flooding. A 2013 parliamentary report on urban green infrastructure notes that “[l]ow income areas systematically have fewer and poorer quality green spaces compared with more affluent areas in the same city.” The current government’s massive deregulation of planning can only make this worse.
A proper planning system, which puts people and the environment ahead of developers’ profits, would help build communities where people live within walking distance of the services they use, and where walking is a safe and pleasant experience and the obvious choice for short journeys. Better living environments are good for health and wellbeing, for people’s life chances, and for the health of the planet. It makes no sense to see these things in isolation – and London’s poorest children will continue to breathe poisoned air until politicians make the link.