Camden's poisoned air: Town Hall declares war on car drivers

Council wants to meet World Health Organisation's strict safe limits by 2030

Thursday, 1st February 2018 — By Richard Osley


Members of the public are invited to join the full council meeting

THE Town Hall is set to declare an unprecedented war on car drivers blamed for ­Camden’s poisoned air. Council chiefs were urged to embark on radical steps including closing off roads, slashing the number of parking bays, charging a levy on driving to work and banning traffic around school.

In a debate on tackling air quality, members of the public were allowed to contribute to Monday’s full council meeting, a session previously reserved for politicians. One of the targets of new measures will be parents accused of clogging up the streets during the school run. It was noted with dismay how some parents ignore Camden’s state schools on their doorsteps in Hampstead and Highgate to drive to private education further afield. As the debate went on, the practice of using cars for non-essential journeys was branded anti-social.

The new focus on air quality comes amid reports that everybody living or working in the borough has breathed in unsafe particulate ­matter. Camden has resolved as a council – the first authority to do so – to meet World Health Organisation’s stringent recommended limits on air pollution.

All parties agree: we must get tough to stop our citizens choking to death

WHEN it came to a vote on whether Camden should chase the strictest limits on air pollution, only one councillor did not raise his hand in favour of the idea. Conservative Jonny Bucknell told the meeting that he did not trust the World Health Organisation’s analysis because “a few years ago they said thousands of people were going to die from a flu epidemic and they got their figures wrong”. Besides, his parents have lived through the London smogs and go on to a “ripe old age” and, he added, humans were better at adapting to their conditions than they were credited for. “Nomads live in the desert, Eskimos live in the cold – if you swapped the two over they’d completely conk out”, he said.

Cllr Bucknell has been deselected in his Belsize ward ahead of May’s council elections and is a self-confessed contrarian, known for offbeat contributions. At the end of this one, he walked over to the Labour leadership with a Scottish bank note offering a bet on whether the council would hit the target. Everybody else in the council chamber on Monday night was on board with the notion, as they agreed to try to hit the WHO’s limits – tougher than the European Union’s recommended safe level, on levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in the air by 2030.

At current levels, every street is polluted to some degree, with everybody who lives or works in London considered to have breathed in dangerous amounts. To reach the 2030 goal, however, Camden is casting around for ideas on how to take the poison out of the air, and this led to a flow of ideas at cracking down on car travel considered unnecessary. For the first time, the all-member meeting allowed members of the public and local experts to sit the semi-circle of green benches in the chamber to join the debate.

Rachel Wrangham, from the Clean Air Camden group, said: “Wherever possible remove traffic from school gates, be bold, don’t just close a side street.” She told councillors: “At the moment it’s entirely rational for far too many of us to drive far too much of the time. Commit to making it more rational for able-bodied adults to walk cycle or take public transport. Tighten parking restrictions to reduce evening and weekend driving and offer tangible rewards to the car free.”

Rachel Wrangham addresses the meeting

Francesca Agostini, who walks her children through the congested school runs streets around Fitzjohn’s Avenue said: “On many days the air is so acrid it burns our noses and leaves a bad taste in our mouths.” She said Camden could enforce a local congestion charge zone or use Public Space Protection Orders – similar to Asbos – to get tough on drivers. “All these NW3 schools are within walking distance from bus and the overground station,” Ms Agostini said. “The schools, particularly independent schools, must engage with parents who come from outside of the borough, often, and find other ways to go to school.”

Meanwhile, councillors had been shown Fog Everywhere, a play staged by teenagers at Westminster Kingsway at the Camden People’s ­Theatre before the meeting. At one stage, the performers appear to suffocate. One of the actors, teenager Tobi Bakare, said he had grown up in Dublin and Nigeria, but had become aware of the pollution when he moved to London. “Even parks were a drastic difference – I asked my friends and said ‘don’t you notice that?’, and they’d say ‘what are you talking about, it’s normal,” he said.

Mr Bakare said young people were angry because they were not, in the main, the polluters, adding: “I don’t drive, I haven’t got a wood burning stove.”

Labour councillor Oliver Lewis, who brought the motion to the chamber, said: “Every morning I walk my daughter to her primary school [in Dartmouth Park] and it’s backed up with congestion along my road with oversized and underpopulated cars…on their way to schools in Hampstead sailing past some of our excellent Camden schools . . .on the way.”

He added: “There needs to be a philosophical remaking of how we think about travel, it’s our shared responsibility.”

Oliver Cooper

His colleague Cllr Julian Fulbrook called for Camden to get tough: “As a borough we need to be much more aggressive about actually closing roads and need to stop this borough being used a public parking lot – and it’s free at weekends in my area, which is ridiculous. We need to say that there is a social cost to all our parking display meter bays and we need to rub a lot of them out.”

There were words of caution from some councillors, despite the cross-party support for the motion. Green Party councillor Sian Berry said her party was finally being listened to on issues she had first raised in Camden in 2006. “We should have reached EU limits by 2010 and we haven’t,” she said. “Too often we set a long-term goal but it would be for the council after this one, and the council after that one to actually implement. We need to be much more radical in the short term. We must commit to interim targets.”

She backed a workplace levy on people who drive to work. Conservative councillor Oliver Cooper said Camden had so far only offered “half measures”, claiming new £20 fines for engine idling should be hiked to the £80 charge for the same offence in Westminster. He said in Tory-run Westminster there was a move to install electric car charging points in every residential street lamppost. “That’s real radical change which our borough needs to take on but instead the council has bid just 33 electric charging points compared with thousands Wandsworth are installing. We need to show we can walk the walk rather than talk the talk.”

Adam Harrison

Labour’s environment chief Councillor Adam Harrison said he would be looking at all the ideas raised by the public and councillors. “People just don’t know the air they are breathing is terrible for them,” he said. “We need to get to a place where people say, actually this isn’t acceptable any more: do I need to be taking this journey in the car? Is it anti-social to be doing that in the future when you could be taking that journey in a different way?” He said a third of car journeys in Camden could be made by “different means”.

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