Diseases regularly swept through the sprawling, harsh metropolis that was 17th and 18th century London, carrying away the wealthy and the poor alike. It took the technical ingenuity of engineers like Peter Bazalgette, designer of the modern sewage system, and the commitment of Victorian-era local government, to lay the foundations for a modern, safe city. Much later, the lethal smogs that enveloped London forced another round of public health action, with the Clean Air Act of 1956, which for the first time regulated both domestic and industrial smoke emissions.
Modern London faces a new, less visible, but lethally dangerous challenge. Our diesel-polluted air is a threat to health- and we, Westminster residents, are on the front-line. Marylebone Road and Oxford Street top the list of the country’s most polluted roads. Many of our schools sit on or close to, highly polluted areas, where toxicity levels are up to three and a half times the EU legal limit for nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas linked to asthma, lung infections and other respiratory problems. Public Health England estimates that our foul air is linked to 8% of adult deaths.
There is a disturbing complacency about the response to this public health crisis. Boris Johnson is relying on the introduction of an ‘Ultra Low emission zone’ to limit the most polluting vehicles- but this won’t come in until 2020 and is very limited in terms of the area covered. Government targets to bring the UK in line with EU standards are even further into the future.
A new urgency is needed. Protecting Londoners- and especially London children- from the hazards of poisonous air is the right thing to do. However, when money is tight, we also need to be far more radical in terms of our public health agenda, so we can also reduce pressure on the NHS. This means being far more willing to embrace measures which control polluting vehicles and promote alternative transport options, from walking and cycling to car sharing. It means bringing forward controls on emissions- not pushing them years into the future. Making inner London more cycle and pedestrian friendly would bring other benefits too- boosting physical activity and cutting traffic accidents. This public health emergency needs the same vision and commitment as previous generations of Londoners brought to bear when they built our water and sewage systems. They did it. So can we.