During the same week that London Mayor Boris Johnson celebrated his first anniversary at City Hall, a report from the environment committee of the London Assembly, appropriately entitled Every Breath You Take, highlighted how bad the air quality in london was getting for its residents.

It confirmed that premature deaths and years of life lost caused by pollution in the capital is three times higher than claimed, confirming the city has the worst pollution levels in Britain and some of the worst in Europe.

This at the same time as the Government is under pressure to improve air quality as a result of European Union proceedings which began earlier this year following this country’s failure to comply with the directives on levels of PM10. This could mean Britain being fined up to £300 million.

So what’s the Mayor of London doing? So far, we’ve only seen backward steps from Johnson on this. Behind his charm and bluster, he has been actively dismantling measures to reduce pollution in London. He claims to be supporting 90,000 small van drivers by cancelling the next phase of the low emission zone, but he has lost sight of the approximately 107,000 people made ill in London each year by pollution levels. This is on top of Johnson’s plans to scrap the western extension of the congestion charge.

So there is a worrying disparity between the Government, which is legally bound to reach air quality standards, and the mayor and local authorities, which merely have to show they are “working towards” targets.

In the meantime, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has submitted an application to extend its deadline by 2011 to avoid the fines. DEFRA is also looking seriously at its powers of direction over the London Mayor, following his decision to suspend the third phase of the city’s low emission zone. This would mean the Mayor would be directed to implement alternative measures to meet the air quality limits set out in the directives. And the expectation would be that he would put in place other measures Designed to deliver equal, if not greater, benefits to improve air quality than the third phase of the low emission zone, at the least.

So the showdown with DEFRA and the Mayor of London is very real. Unless Johnson can implement a big new idea to slash pollutants within the next 12 months, DEFRA will have to use the power of direction on the Mayor, as his decision to cut down the congestion charging zone and the scope of the low emission zone are proving to be ruinous for london’s environment.

Over to you, Hilary Benn.

Published in Tribune, 18 May 2009

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