Author: Adam Harrison, Cabinet Member for Improving Camden’s Environment, London Borough of Camden
Last week I was pleased to launch Camden’s new Clean Air Action Plan, which will run from 2019 to 2022 and is our most ambitious to date.
When I took on the environment role two years ago and began to grapple with the issue of air quality, it became clear that we should turn the longstanding advice about Particulate Matter — that there is no ‘safe’ level of it for our air — into policy. This would require pledging to aim for the more stringent World Health Organization levels, which mandate lower levels of PM than current standards do.
This is no easy goal anywhere, least not in Camden’s highly urban London setting in north-central London. As if to underscore the challenge, our choice of location for launching our new Plan was Friends House on the Euston Road — effectively a six-law motorway cutting right through the city. But the public deserve nothing less. How to get to these tougher levels though? It made simple sense to do the following: identify the sources of pollution, what impact current and future actions would make on them, and find out if these actions are enough to get us there.
It also made sense to make a special call out to the community in Camden — if we were to sit on our own devising actions as a council alone, no doubt we would make some impact. But air pollution is by nature a shared problem. For that reason, we set up the Camden Clean Air Partnership, drawing on the citizens’ assembly model to ensure Camden residents have their say, alongside a combination of those who produce air pollution and those who have to put up with it: and, really, we all fall into both categories. Chaired by Professor Muki Haklay, residents were joined by businesses such as logistics firm UPS, institutions like UCL and Great Ormond Street Hospital, and community groups like the Older People’s Advisory Group and dedicated environment groups like Camden Air Action. Together they devised and agreed the actions that now form part of the new Camden Clean Air Action Plan.
Meanwhile, King’s College London analysed the ‘input actions’ and found that we could get close to WHO levels by our target date of 2030 — but not quite. While the study is likely fairly conservative in its assessment — we could well end up doing better, especially once the effect of measures like Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ are fully known — we now know what we always suspected: that we need a partnership approach like in Camden but extended nationally and internationally.
As a first step, we need stronger action from the government. Defra’s recently published Air Quality Strategy has committed to halving the population living in areas with concentrations of fine PM above the WHO guideline levels, but fails to formally adopt the WHO values. This is something that it should commit to within the new environment bill where stricter pollutant levels can be set. (Camden asked government to do this within our response to Defra on their Air Quality Strategy.) And should the government do this, it ought to follow a similar approach by analysing pollution sources and creating a plan that identifies what needs to be done to meet the WHO values. This is especially important at government level, as the Camden-King’s analysis identified that a large source of particulates were coming from outside of London and some even from continental Europe. This approach would also help to create targeted measures which would achieve the greatest reductions — rather than just having a spread-bet approach that fails to guarantee results.
Meanwhile, the actions the Camden Clean Air Partners have committed to are wide-ranging and exciting. UPS is electrifying its fleet operating out of Kentish Town. Great Ormond Street has released its Clean Air Hospital Framework and is looking into consolidating patient transport. John Lewis Partnership has pledged to run Waitrose lorries entirely on biomethane gas generated from food waste. And Camden Council itself is taking new steps to reduce air pollution from building sites, including construction vehicles. Our new Transport Strategy also aims to cut motor traffic on the borough’s roads up by to 25 percent and to help people transition to walking and cycling for short journeys.
Our new plan runs for the next three years — but we have a 2030 goal for WHO limits. How can we check up on our own progress, and how can others see what we’re doing? To ensure we have a standard to work to throughout the coming decade, Camden has set specific pollutant interim targets between 2022, 2026, and 2030. These targets have been set to align with our future action plans so that if we are short of meeting a target, there will be justification for implementing more stringent actions. We are also looking forward to continuing to work with our Camden Clean Air Partnership members to support the delivery of the actions they have committed to, and to agreeing additional actions and welcoming new members to the Partnership.
Public opinion has lately — rightly — begun to refocus on climate change. That too is a colossal challenge, and in Camden we will be drawing on the lessons of our partnership approach to instate a citizens’ assembly on the climate emergency this summer to advise us on a new carbon plan for the 2020s. Averting climate catastrophe is even harder than bringing the air we breathe up to acceptable levels. The latter is hard and also relies greatly on the actions of others. But it is achievable, if we all set out our roadmaps to get there.