Forget the purdah row, my children can’t breathe

Forget the purdah row, my children can’t breathe


The government has been ordered to reveal its clean air plan. Now the other parties should stop point-scoring and do the same, says Emma Bartley

How long can a one-year-old spend on the back of a bicycle in the morning before poisonous gas gets into her bloodstream?

It’s a question I ask myself a couple of times a week as my husband and I cycle down Brixton Hill to our kids’ nursery, weaving around the crowded buses and idling cars. This particular road, you see, had exceeded its annual pollution limit by January 5 this year – and I’m interested to know what the political parties plan to do about it.

The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is making a start with a clean air policy that includes the so-called T-Charge for drivers of the most polluting cars which means that they will pay £21.50 to drive in Central London at peak congestion times from October 2017. Buses that run purely on diesel (which we used to think was better than petrol, but turns out to be worse for nitrous oxides, NOx) are due to be phased out. And an Ultra Low Emission Zone, in which all vehicles will need to meet emissions standards, is planned for the current Congestion Charge zone.

But while these proposals might improve air quality for my family and I when they come into force over the next few years, measures are needed nationwide. An estimated 59% of people in the UK now live with illegal levels of air pollution, and the Government’s initial plan to fix it was deemed so feeble that after a challenge by an environmental law group the High Court ordered them to produce a new one.

THAT plan was due to be released this week, but the Environment Minister Andrea Leadsom claimed that purdah rules (under which government policies can’t be announced during an election campaign) meant that she couldn’t reveal it. MPs from the other parties called the move cynical and opportunistic, and today the High Court ruled that the plan must be revealed on May 9, after the local elections.

Hopefully once the Government has shown its hand, the other parties will stop talking about how much we need a clean air policy, take a deep breath and cough up some details of their own. After all, the problem isn’t new. Here are some ideas that have been kicked around before:

  • A national network of low emission zones in towns and cities
  • Tariffs and penalties for the worst-polluting vehicles to nudge transport companies to invest in greener fleets
  • A vehicle scrappage scheme that would pay owners of diesel vehicles to ditch them in favour of something less noxious
  • Improving public transport and infrastructure for cyclists
  • Better pollution monitoring and public education

Some of this is expensive (who pays for vehicle scrappage?) and politically difficult (congestion charges aren’t popular with motorists). But as the court found today, this issue is too urgent to play politics with.

We need to know what all the parties will do about air pollution, and whoever’s in charge, measures need to be taken immediately.

In the meantime I guess I’ll be taking the long route to nursery.

Emma Bartley is a co-founder of Votes By Women. She has previously worked at ELLE and The Times.


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