Great smog 1952: London’s Piccadilly Circus

Clean air as a right

Following the Uxbridge by-election, there has been a huge row over the extension of London’s Ulez scheme. Both Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer are standing up for the right to pollute. Eddie Ford stands up for the right to breathe clean, unpolluted air

We are going through the strange fallout from the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. Apparently, Labour ‘lost’ the seat, even though the 14 parliamentary elections in this constituency, and its predecessor, returned the Conservative candidate.

Yet, as everybody knows, the planned expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez) into outer London at the end of this month has been endlessly cited as the reason for the Tory victory - despite substantial swings against the Tories and polls indicating that a slim majority of Londoners are in favour of the scheme.

As part of the backlash against Ulez - if not “green crap” in general, to use the immortal words of David Cameron - Rishi Sunak popped up on the front page of The Daily Telegraph to reassure motorists that he was “on their side” (July 29). His given reason is that the vast majority of people “are dependent on their cars” and that “anti-motorist” policies fail to take account of how “families live their lives”. In other words, he wants their votes and will therefore promote the cult of the car.

It is a race to the bottom. Team Sunak are attempting to paint Sir Keir Starmer as the enemy of car drivers and the friend of Just Stop Oil. Yet team Starmer, in their pursuit of triangulation, are just one step behind the Tories. Sir Keir is publicly still urging London mayor, Sadiq Khan, to scrap the Ulez extension.

Sunak has also ordered Department for Transport officials to investigate Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which have been rolled out across the towns and cities of the country - as if they are something wicked and not an attempt to reduce pollution and the number of children run down by cars and lorries. Indeed LTN schemes have been funded by central government since 2020 as a way of encouraging people to walk, cycle or use public transport.

Downing Street sources said the prime minister was “concerned by the levels of congestion outside the roads in which they are implemented”, amid worries that the measures simply displace traffic to neighbouring areas. Or, to put it another way, places that would otherwise be rat runs1 get blocked off - which, of course, is true because the whole ethos of the car economy has gone unchallenged.

Instead ‘nudge’ planners go about deliberately creating diversions, blocking right-turn lanes and lowering speed limits. The resulting jams, tailbacks and frustrations are meant to punish people out of using their cars. Whether that works or not is an open question. But it does leave lots of fuming motorists and … potential Tory voters.

Furthermore, we have had the successful - at least if you are Sadiq Khan - battle over the expansion of Ulez in the High Court against the Tory-led outer London boroughs of Bexley, Bromley, Harrow and Hillingdon, along with Surrey county council.

Challenge dismissed

Their barristers argued that Khan had failed to adequately consult, overstepped his powers, and had provided a flawed £110 million scrappage scheme for the most polluting vehicles (of which £68 million is still available). But the court dismissed the challenge, saying the legal basis on which Khan made the decision to expand Ulez was sound and in line with previous decisions on charging within the capital. So, as from August 29, if you drive anywhere within the zone - and your vehicle does not meet the emissions standards - you face a daily charge of £12.50.

The victorious Khan confirmed he would go ahead as planned at the end of August, and extend the remit of the scrappage scheme to help more affected Londoners - including all those in receipt of child benefit payments. He also said the current zone had already reduced nitrogen dioxide air pollution by almost half in central London and there is no reason to doubt his claim.

Too many Londoners have or are developing life-changing illnesses such as cancer, asthma and lung disease, and there is a higher risk of dementia in older people. Air pollution contributes to the premature death of thousands of Londoners every year … and it is not just a central London problem. In fact, the greatest number of deaths related to air pollution occur in outer London areas, Hence the logic of expanding Ulez across all London boroughs.

Hypocritically, Keir Starmer has backed Sadiq Khan’s call for the government to put money behind a more generous scrappage scheme. After all, this is the man who said - with completely topsy-turvy logic - that the Labour Party must be doing something “very wrong” in Uxbridge if its policies “end up on each and every Tory leaflet”. In other words, a classic case of having it both ways and actually avoiding taking on the Tories. No, Sir Keir’s strategy is to cosy up to the Tories without quite becoming the Tories.


Obviously, the £12.50 Ulez charge will tend to affect the poorer drivers - the ones experiencing the most acute problems because of the cost-of-living crisis. What is £12.50 for somebody who can afford to buy a Ferrari or Porsche? Nothing. Yet, the fact that such a charge will disproportionately hit the car-owning working class and petty bourgeoisie is something that communists cannot ignore. There ought to be tax breaks and subsidies. Having said that, it you take those who on average are affected most by air pollution, they will tend to be working class. However, even people living in leafy suburbs suffer, especially the very young and very old.

Here it is worth mentioning Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah from Lewisham, who is now being widely quoted in the capitalist media. Making legal history, her nine-year daughter was the first person to have on her death certificate ‘air pollution caused by traffic’ - Philip Barlow, the deputy coroner, saying that Ella’s death in February 2013 was caused by the cumulative effect of the toxic air she was breathing, living within 30 metres of the South Circular Road, triggering her final acute asthma attack. The coroner said Ella was “like a canary in a coalmine” - signalling the risk to other Londoners from the toxic mix of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides. It took seven years of campaigning by Rosamund to get that verdict, which was indeed a victory. She is now calling on MPs to introduce the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill - or “Ella’s law”.

We should not forget that the Ulez scheme was first mooted by Boris Johnson in 2015, even if the Tories post-Uxbridge now seem determined to row back from any green-friendly polices deemed to be unpopular with the Blue Wall electorate.

In the context of Ulez we should remember past victories when it comes to water and air pollution. Thanks to people like John Snow we in Britain drink relatively clean water. He identified the source of the 1854 Soho cholera epidemic as a public well pump - and researchers later discovered that this well had been dug only three feet from an old cesspit, which had begun to leak faecal bacteria. Needless to say, at the time, Snow upset many - facing resistance from local bigwigs - when he managed to persuade the council to disable the well pump by removing its handle.

Nor should we forget the 1956 Clean Air Act, which mandated movement towards smokeless fuels. Before that act came into effect thousands of Londoners died every year from the notorious smogs - the so-called pea-soupers. In the famous 1952 great smog 4,000 immediately died and another 8,000 soon followed them. The smog was so thick police had to move in front of vehicles with flares. The Tory government was initially resistant to legislation but eventually succumbed to pressure - including, of course, from backbench Tory MPs. The 1956 act was a landmark, but we are still fighting for the right to breathe clean air.

Ulez can certainly be critically supported. But we must go much further. The CPGB, for example, envisages the radical reorganisation of cities - including the reorganisation of work. People should be encouraged and facilitated to live near their work. That means high-quality council houses; that means confiscating the empty mansions of the rich; that means converting the office spaces that dominate so much of the inner-cities. There must be provision for plenty of trees and public green spaces too. For example, Buckingham Palace’s huge garden should be made into a public park. Crucially, we must wind down the car economy. Public transport should be massively upgraded and made free in all urban areas.

That would be a modest step in the direction of realising the right of everyone to breathe clean, unpolluted air.

  1. rac.co.uk/drive/advice/driving-advice/what-is-rat-running-and-should-cut-through-traffic-be-illegal.↩︎