Here’s a remarkable fact. If you catch a London Underground train at the station which serves the British parliament, Westminster, and travel east, then at every stop as you move towards the outskirts of the city the health outcomes in local neighbourhoods worsen. The further you travel from the centre of Britain’s political power, the poorer they get.
The person explaining this to me is Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. In his role he is chief executive of the most populous city in Europe – about nine million people – and sometimes described as Europe’s most powerful Muslim political leader.
He is driven to try to improve the health of the city in which he was born and which he now represents. Mr Khan is also running for a third term as mayor, and now one of his most contentious policies brings together his political ambitions and his personal story.
In his forties Mr Khan developed late-onset asthma. He attributes this to breathing polluted London air. Back in 2019 he introduced Ulez – the Ultra Low Emission Zone – to keep the most polluting vehicles out of central London.
If you have a polluting car and drive in the Ulez area you pay £12.50 a day. That zone was extended on August 29 to all London boroughs. The mayor’s office says this means “bringing clean air to 5 million more people. Nine out of 10 cars seen driving in outer London on an average day won't be affected.” But not everyone is happy about this, most notably the one in 10 drivers who will have to pay a daily penalty or buy a new car.
At a recent by-election in one of the affected outer suburbs the Conservative Party won the seat after a vigorous anti-Khan, anti-Ulez expansion campaign. Even if the idea of cleaning up London’s air is obviously sound, being forced to pay every day to use a polluting family car or face the expense of changing to a newer vehicle is never going to be universally popular. But when I spoke with him, mayor Khan was bullish. He sees Ulez as the latest in the endless historical challenges of making cities better places in which to live and work.
Short-term unpopularity, Mr Khan argues, is a price worth paying for long-term better health. He pointed out to me that every major historical change to improve the environment always encounters fierce opposition. Then the change happens and there is no going back. The wisdom of making the change seems obvious.
“If you and I were speaking in London in the middle of the 19th century,” he told me, “we’d both be complaining about the stink (from the polluted river Thames) and the fact that there are thousands of people dying from cholera. In the middle of the 19th century, this amazing engineer called Joseph Bazalgette backed up the brave politicians and decided to build sewers. A huge inconvenience, really unpopular. And those sewers saved lives. That was the Great Stink.”
Mr Khan went on to say: “In the middle of the 20th century, if we were in London in the 1950s, we would be talking about the Great Smog. We literally couldn’t walk more than 10 metres without bumping into something. Thousands of deaths, of course. Politicians passed the Clean Air Act and removed power stations from the centre of our cities to outside.”
He then adds to the list the more recent cigarette smoking ban in public places. From 2007 offices, restaurants, cinemas and public transport in Britain became smoke-free and – once more – opposition at the time faded. Nowadays, the idea of returning to smoke-filled workplaces and public places seems ludicrous. The same, he insists, will be true of the Ulez extension. Once imposed, the grumbling will slowly fade away, he believes, and the controversial will become commonplace.
I suspect Mr Khan is right, even if during the short-term adjustment period the complaints will make headlines. The simple truth is that, for me at least, driving a car in London is never pleasant. Parking is hugely expensive. Traffic congestion means getting anywhere is slow and painful. And at a time when so many politicians talk big and achieve little, London’s reinvigorated bus services and the new Elizabeth Line show what can be achieved by investing in public transport rather than roads for private cars.
Moreover, part of Mr Khan’s inspiration for extending Ulez is the death of a nine-year-old girl. Ella Roberta Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died from what the pathologist at her inquest called “one of the worst cases of asthma ever recorded in the UK”. In December 2020 the coroner concluded that because she lived near one of London’s busiest roads, “air pollution” should be listed as a cause of death – the first person in British history to have such a verdict recorded. The Great Stink and the Great Smog are now consigned to history. Avoiding future deaths from air pollution will be worth the temporary inconvenience necessary to make Europe’s greatest city cleaner and safer.