9 October 2017
Whenever I step outside my door, I am greeted by one of the country’s biggest killers: air pollution. The windows of my home in London are covered in dirt. My lungs are filled with stale and heavy air. Pollution warnings scroll across the bus stations. But it’s not just Londoners who are being choked: towns and cities across Britain are suffering from an air pollution epidemic.
Air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. 37 out of the 43 air quality reporting zones exceed the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide. Air pollution levels in Plymouth, Bristol, and Teeside have actually got worse in the last four years. A silent and invisible killer has been let loose in our towns and cities and the authorities have been caught sleeping on the job.
Not, though, the Greens. I was proud today to announce in my conference speech a brand new initiative to be launched across the country. Over the next 12 months we will be lobbying the local authorities in London, Bristol, Leeds, Oxford, and Sheffield – the five cities with the dirtiest air in the UK – to become “Breathing Cities”: spaces where the right to breathe clean and safe air is not just a theory but a practice.
And with this we are being ambitious because it would be irresponsible to be anything else. We want to see not just low emission zones but zero emission zones in each one of those cities and we want to see it happen by 2023. That will mean the transformation of places like Oxford Street in London, Redcliffe in Bristol, and St Giles in Oxford.
Imagine having pedestrianised zones in those areas where you can walk or shop free of the hassle of having to check for cars before crossing and free from the noise and pollution created by those cars. Imagine well-designed and more regular, fully electric, public transport that enables you to commute quicker. Imagine streets that are safer for our children, the elderly, and the infirm to live in. Imagine living streets that are healthy, in cities that you know are fighting climate change and making life better for all.
These five cities can lead Britain out of the smoggy air that currently envelops it towards a cleaner, greener, and healthier future. We want Bristol, Oxford, London, Leeds, and Sheffield to be the crucial links in a new chain of breathing cities across Britain. Through significant investment in public transport, the removal of polluting vehicles from our roads and a new network of cycle lanes and pedestrian walkways we will finally bring the neighbourhoods currently exceeding nitrogen dioxide legal limits down to safe levels.
But for this to happen at the local level we need national leadership. We need a new Clean Air Act that enshrines our right to breathe clean air, that takes diesel vehicles off our streets and puts financial compensation in the pockets of their owners. But as well as setting ambitious targets, we need to use the instruments we already have at our disposal to get tough on polluters. Two years after Volkswagen were revealed to have cheated vehicle emission tests they have still not faced punishment in Europe. That’s a disgrace. Fining Volkswagen for their deliberate flouting of rules that are meant to keep us safe would send a real signal about how seriously we take the problem of air pollution.
Images of the instability of our environment and the destruction it can cause have been all over our TV screens these past few weeks as we’ve received news of the devastation brought to the Caribbean by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. But we have to recognise that environmental degradation is not something that only happens elsewhere. It is not something that will only affect us in the future. It is happening now. We cannot have another year where 40,000 die prematurely from air pollution. We cannot continue to allow children to grow up in poisonous environments. We can create towns and cities that are pleasant to live, work, and shop in. And with the plans I have announced today, we can beat air pollution.