Air pollution is a real killer, but council has caved in to cars

Local action on the climate emergency: the council’s LTNs have been all but abandoned

In his latest exclusive column for this website, ANDREW FISHER says that Croydon has capitulated to the Tories and a local MP over its traffic-reduction measures

“Think globally, act locally” was one of the first slogans used by Friends of the Earth when they were established 50 years ago. It still has resonance today.

Unimpressed: Greta Thunberg in Glasgow for COP26

And after the failure of COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to act globally, there is an even greater need to act locally.

Greta Thunberg dismissed COP26 as a “greenwash festival”. My slightly longer, but no less damning, review can be read via the i paper.

Climate change can only be arrested by concerted global action, but that fact should not obscure the very real local benefits that can accrue from acting locally.

To see the real need for local action now, check out the Air Quality Index, which provides real-time measures of the pollution in our borough. When I checked in earlier this week, I was advised that “PM2.5 concentration in Croydon air is currently 3.6 times above the WHO annual air quality guideline value”.

Silent killer: particulate pollution from motor vehicles is causing permanent harm people’s health

PM2.5 is the measure of particulate matter that the government says is “closely associated with adverse health effects”. Road traffic emissions are a major contributor.

Poor air quality kills, with 40,000 deaths in the UK every year linked to poor air quality, according to the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health. A study by Kings College found that there were 9,500 premature deaths in London as a result of air pollution “due to two key pollutants, fine particulates known as PM2.5s and the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide”.

Last year, in a landmark ruling, the coroner named air pollution as a contributing factor in the death of south London schoolgirl Ella Kissi-Debrah, who lived close to the South Circular road.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, responded to the coroner’s decision, saying “Toxic air pollution is a public health crisis, especially for our children, and the inquest underlined yet again the importance of pushing ahead with bold policies such as expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone.”

Lining up with the Tories: MP Steve Reed

Last month, the ULEZ was expanded out to the North Circular and South Circular roads, although it doesn’t reach our borough.

In Croydon, there has been wailing and gnashing of teeth from car drivers at the modest Low Traffic Neighbourhood schemes, or LTNS, which were brought in during the first lockdown last year.

The schemes have been implemented by local authorities under the government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund.

The Conservative transport minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, has stated in his guidance to councils that, “schemes need time to be allowed to bed in… must be tested against more normal traffic conditions… and must be in place long enough for their benefits and disbenefits to be properly evaluated and understood”.

Precious little of that evidence-based policy-making was on display from Croydon Conservatives, who opportunistically launched various petitions to ‘”Remove the Trial Low Traffic Neighbourhoods” and “Stop Labour’s road closures”, while neglecting to mention that the closures were backed by a Conservative government.

Lining up in opposition alongside the Croydon Tories is the shadow minister for local government – and Croydon North MP – Steve Reed, who last week wrote to Councillor Muhammad Ali, the council cabinet member for Sustainable Croydon, telling him that residents opposed the schemes.

As well as managing to spell the councillor’s name two different ways, Reed also seems geographically challenged, locating Albert Road – in the Croydon Central constituency of Sarah Jones – in Croydon North.

Most illogically of all, Reed wrote, “nearly everyone wants inappropriate traffic reduced in the area where they live”, while claiming, “there are other ways to achieve this that are less restrictive”. Reed failed to specify what these measures might be.

Councillor Ali should have done what’s best for the environment, and put Reed’s letter straight in the recycling.

But no, the council has now decided to all but scrap the LTNs in Croydon – coming up instead with experimental Croydon Healthy Neighbourhoods, or CHNs.

Dead end: Reed’s letter ahead of last week’s council traffic meeting, in which he spelt a councillor’s name wrong and didn’t seem to know where his constituency boundaries might be

The road-blocking planters which appeared on some roads last year will be replaced by some red paint on the road and CCTV cameras which will fine anyone (with some exceptions) who doesn’t live in the neighbourhood but who enters the CHN zone.

The CCTV cameras and new signage will be more unsightly clutter on our pavements, while motorists will undoubtedly complain that a traffic reducing measure (LTNs) has been replaced with a revenue-raising plan (CHNs).

This goes against (Conservative) government guidance which states, “the assumption should be that [LTNs] will be retained unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary”.

In fact, the government’s Gear Change document on encouraging more walking and cycling calls for “far more LTNs”.

Government data shows that overall, LTNs have meant “significant reductions in traffic, and significant increases in cycling and walking”. It also calls for professional polling of residents, not self-selecting surveys of the type cited by MP Reed in his letter to Councillor Ali.

Having read through the 29-page paper presented to Croydon Council’s Traffic Management Advisory Committee, no such evidence has been presented.

Such arguments that were put forward would stretch the credibility of the word “flimsy”:
“The term ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhood’ does not convey the ultimate objective of removing extraneous traffic from local access streets … Hence the move from the term ‘LTNs’ to ‘Croydon Healthy Neighbourhoods’”.

This is not a rebranding, but a dilution. It’s not leadership, but capitulation. The paper passed by Croydon’s Traffic Management Advisory Committee was very much in the spirit of the COP26 climate summit with which it coincided.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has shown some leadership on investing to reduce car use in our city. Let’s hope whoever becomes Croydon Mayor in May next year shows at least the same leadership to improve local air quality, make our streets safer, and keep us all healthier.

South Norwood resident Andrew Fisher (right) has worked as a trades union official, researcher and writer, and served as Director of Policy of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn from 2015 to 2019. He is the author of The Failed Experiment – and how to build an economy that works

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8 Responses to Air pollution is a real killer, but council has caved in to cars

  1. Try joining the fume filled half mile tail back on Mitcham Road, then navigate the two sets of unco-ordinated traffic lights on Sumner Road every time an elderly person wants to get to Croydon University Hospital, consider all the pollution caused, then tell us L.T.N’s have been thought through in Croydon. I admire the concept but it needs to be properly planned.

  2. Dave West says:

    Without going into all the detail in your article, the real issue with LTNs is that they don’t stop the traffic, just move it elsewhere. Whatever scientific studies you or others might wheel out, the evidence of my own eyes and lungs (I belong to a running club in the area) proves that since they restricted cars in Dulwich, the South Circular has more traffic later into the evening. Similarly South Norwood is much worse. Creating a “Healthy Neighbourhood” should not mean making other neighbourhoods unhealthier. This will often fall disproportionally on poorer people who live on main roads because they can’t afford the leafy backstreets that LTNs are created to serve.

    • Yeah. Ignore the detail. And while we’re about it, let’s bypass all evidence and facts and just trot out a little trope which the car lobbyists appear to be especially keen on.

  3. Ian Kierans says:

    The principle theory of LTNs is sound. It is the implementation and evaluation that is and will always be flawed. This may not be Mr Ali’S fault.

    Anyone trying to implement a lower pollution environment in Croydon would be doomed to failure as it requires competence of transport implementation, understanding of transport factors along with causation and effect, Road design, Money, an ability to plan for and minimise the ‘push effect’ on adjacent areas, credibility and communication. but mostly the resistance to pressure from vested interests.

    There are many people in Croydon capable of doing all the above but money is a real issue.
    Because of Money (or lack of) this Executive have cut people.

    This cut of people removed corporate competence, Corporate communication, Corporate Ability, Corporate motivation, Corporate Loyalty, Corporate Credibility in fact there is no longer any corporate cohesion worth talking about. Money is the least of this Executives problems. There are many people highly skilled working for Croydon and they are bruised and battered by the failures not of their own making.

    Do some real work. Get a group of transport people together with residents and design a real solution that does not just fleece motorists and push pollution and road rage to adjacent streets.

    It is really not that difficult to derive solutions when you take the Political vested interests away. But it is a long term implementation and adjustment program that is required.

  4. Steve Reed fought for a change in the law to stop kids inside cars being forced to breathe in cigarette smoke. He doesn’t care about kids outside cars being forced to breathe in exhaust fumes. He’s a hypocrite, and a dangerous one at that.

    • Angus H says:

      The smoking analogy is an interesting one.

      The indoor public smoking ban was certainly very unpopular amongst a certain subgroup of “traditional Labour voters” (many of whom were low-information libertarians all along, but never mind), but politicians knew they were doing the right thing by public health, and were prepared to spend some political capital – become less popular with certain people – in doing the right thing.

      The other side accused them of nanny-state-ism and curbing personal freedoms, but does anyone other than maybe Nigel Farage want to go back to the days of reeking of other peoples’ cigarette smoke after a night out? Most of those opposed have by now either quietly changed their minds or died of entirely preventable cardiovascular diseases.

      Inactive-by-default, car-dependent lifestyles in the inner and middle suburbs are a strong parallel. There’s really not a lot of need for most of it – we’re talking about places that are ten or twenty minutes’ walk from stations and high streets, not out-of-town new builds on some godforsaken ring road – but there’s a sizeable minority who are set in their ways and reluctant to change. The public health consequences are miserable, and there are substantial solutions within easy grasp of those politicians brave enough to challenge it.

      Ask yourself this – in 20 years time, when LTNs, road pricing and active travel are the norm, and people organise their lives around walking, public transport, scooting, cycling – with the car as a last resort for long trips or heavy hauling – would anyone want to go back to the old days of pollution, noise and road danger?

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