Sadiq Khan has been accused of using “nonsense” data on air pollution deaths to support his expansion of the ultra low emission zone (Ulez) in the capital.
Earlier this week, the London Mayor issued an open letter to four councils fighting the scheme, claiming they were wasting taxpayers’ money in opposing his proposals.
He singled out Bromley as having the highest number of premature deaths linked to air pollution, based on a report by Imperial College London.
But analysis of the report shows that the Imperial authors had warned that Bromley was in the highest bracket for premature deaths not because it had worrying levels of pollution, but because it has high numbers of older residents.
Bromley currently has the second-lowest level of air pollution of all the London boroughs and even if it did nothing, its pollution levels in 2030 would still be lower than several inner-city areas after they introduce emission lowering schemes.
The older population also means that Bromley will benefit the least from measures, the Imperial report shows.
Council leaders at Bromley, Harrow, Hillingdon and Bexley who are fighting the Ulez expansion have accused Mr Khan of cherry-picking the data.
Council ‘embarrassed for the Mayor’
Coun Colin Smith, the leader of Bromley Council, said: “I am frankly beginning to feel slightly embarrassed for the Mayor and his desperately repeated claims that Bromley residents are suffering from a higher mortality of premature deaths than any other borough in the capital.
“He appears to believe that if you repeat something often enough, it makes it come true. I have to tell you that whilst that might work for him in the very strange world of City Hall, it doesn’t work out here in the real world.
“It really is complete nonsense.”
The fraction of mortality attributable to air pollution in Bromley is the third lowest in London, the council argues, and said the figures do not take into account that many elderly residents spent their younger years living in inner London boroughs where they were exposed to smogs and smoke-filled pubs and clubs.
“We have cleaner air than every single borough already ensnared within the Mayor’s existing Ulez scheme, and even his own scientific projections confirm that extending it further out would only add the most marginal of benefits,” added councillor Smith.
In the letter released on Monday, Mr Khan pointed to the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution in the rebel councils, claiming that in 2019 there were 204 early deaths in Bromley, 162 in Bexley, 118 in Harrow and 155 people in Hillingdon who died prematurely.
However, the Mayor was criticised for picking the highest death estimate in the report and ignoring the lower figure. The Imperial report authors noted that there was a “wider range of uncertainty” around the mortality burden.
The Imperial report also shows that Harrow, Bexley and Bromley will gain the least in life expectancy from the changes, and the councils said introducing new charges could do more harm than good.
Baroness O’Neill of Bexley, leader of Bexley Council, accused the Mayor of wrongly grouping outer London boroughs into the problems of inner-city pollution and said Mr Khan was attempting to “steamroller” those who disagreed with his policy.
“While Ulez might address the problems of air quality in inner London we do not have the same issues in Bexley,” she said.
“The financial impact Ulez will have on our residents, including those with non-compliant cars and taxpayers who will be paying for the cameras, will mean that this scheme will do more harm than good to outer London and the neighbouring areas.”
Paul Osborn, leader of Harrow Council, said more could be achieved by upgrading London’s bus fleet, increasing accessible bus services in outer London and investing in more electric charging infrastructure.
“With so few benefits to Harrow families who are already struggling with the cost of living and having to choose between heating and eating, this expansion will have a devastating effect on the poorest and most vulnerable people in Harrow,” he said.
“There are many people who cannot afford to upgrade their cars to make them compliant, but who live in areas where they depend on them because public transport is inadequate.”
‘Denying evidence from scientists’
A spokesman for the Mayor of London said: “It’s a shame that councils opposing this expansion are now denying evidence from scientists in order to justify their opposition to clear air policies. The simple fact is that nowhere in the borough of Bromley currently meets World Health Organisation-recommended air quality limits.
“The air quality data used by the Mayor is completely robust and is based on the most accurate independent scientific investigation into the human cost of poor air from globally renowned experts at Imperial College London. It is extremely disappointing that these four local authorities refuse to accept the categorical proof that toxic air really is a matter of life and death. around 4,000 Londoners die prematurely every year as a result of poor quality air, with the highest number of deaths in outer London.
“Sadiq refuses to sit back and do nothing when lives are being lost and urges these local authorities to support his plans to bring cleaner air to every Londoner – wherever they live in the capital.”
Politicians must stop selecting data to win unpopular arguments
Eye-watering death figures from Imperial models were frequently used to give a mandate for lockdowns, even though their creators warned they should not be relied on as predictions, but as worst-case scenarios.
The Government was frequently criticised for scaring the public with unrealistic Covid mortality figures, which rarely came to pass.
While Covid modelling was often done on the hoof, meaning it was already out of date by the time it was made public, it is fair to say that the latest Imperial report is based on good evidence of the harms of air pollution.
However, the report authors make important caveats. For example, the Imperial researchers highlight the uncertainty around the air pollution deaths, giving upper and lower estimates. The Mayor has chosen to ignore the lower figure.
The Imperial team also warned that mortality estimates can be skewed by the age of population.
The City of London, for example, has the lowest health burden from air pollution simply because it has an unnaturally young population. Yet it has the highest levels of pollution.
Does that mean that air pollution should not be tackled there because it is not having a perceivable impact on deaths? No it doesn’t.
On the flipside, Bromley has some of the cleanest air in London, yet they have the highest death rates because it has an elderly population.
This means that even significant efforts to clean up the air will not have a vast impact on residents there.
If the pandemic has taught us anything it is to avoid allowing the cure for a problem to become more deadly than the disease.
This is what councils fighting the expansion are arguing. Bromley, Hillingdon, Harrow and Bexley lie on the outskirts of the capital, and consequently have some of the lowest air pollution levels.
But because they are outliers, they also have poorer transport networks and more deprived populations, who often rely on their vehicles.
Charging people to pay for the privilege of driving their cars in communities already forced to choose between heating and eating could cause more harm to health than the benefits it brings.
It is time for politicians to consider the wider implications of seemingly health-focused policies as well as being more honest about what models do and don’t tell us.
Source: The Telegraph