On Tuesday 6th November, community groups, councillors and representatives from across London came together at City Hall – yes, that odd globule building – to put our heads together over how we can improve air quality. The evening kicked off with a couple of speeches, including one from the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who expressed how important he felt the Ultra-Low Emission Zone* (ULEZ), which comes into effect in April 2019, is.
We then moved into a panel discussion with Andrea Lee (Client Earth), Shirly Rodriques (Deputy Mayor, Environment and Energy) and Professor Stephen Holgate (University of Southampton, British Medical Research Council). I was particularly shocked by the health impacts of poor air quality related by Professor Holgate and the revelation that this is never even spoken about in medical training. Whilst I was aware of the respiratory and asthma implications, I was shaken by the emphasis placed on the impacts on unborn children and developing lungs. It became clear that what is generally approached as an environmental issue is really a health and social injustice issue with society’s most vulnerable being worst affected. ULEZ also came up often and whilst people eagerly welcome it, this is only the first step in the right direction; ULEZ needs to protect a larger area and affect more vehicles sooner.
Smaller breakout groups then followed in which I lead the discussion on “How can community groups raise awareness of air pollution?” in collaboration with a representative from London Sustainability Exchange, whom Sustainable Merton has worked closely with on our Cleaner Air 4 Communities Project. The group focussed particularly on how we can engage parents and the concluding key points were:
To engage parents, we need to first engage the children.
From shared examples, one-off events are effective in getting the conversation started. Parents are unlikely to engage in campaigns they perceive will be a big commitment.
We need to make the issue visible and hands-on. Whilst it’s great to be planting a green screen between a school and the road, it’s even better to get the children and parents to physically take part in this too.
Another breakout group focussed on effective lobbying from communities to get the air quality policies required from Government. The take-away point was that community groups need to communicate with one another. I left the event particularly struck by the sheer number of groups represented at the event, all singing from the same hymn sheet. If we all joined forces, our voice would be such a powerful force for change.