As the morning progressed, a clear blue sky descended into a hellish yellow-brown haze. Londoners were used to smog, but this was different. Visibility was cut to mere metres. People in the Isle of Dogs reported not being able to see their own feet.
The smog settled on Friday 5 December and when it lifted, four days later, 4,000 people were dead. This is almost certainly a substantial underestimate.
London has come a long way since the Great Smog of 1952. But progress didn’t happen by accident. It required legislation alongside technological and behavioural change. The Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 banned the emission of black smoke. The rollout of central heating was critical. Coal made way for gas. Today, internal combustion engines are on course to eventually be replaced by electricity – they just need a bit of a nudge.
As our City Hall and Transport Editor Ross Lydall reports, Sadiq Khan has announced that the Ultra-low emission zone (Ulez), which currently covers the area within the North and South Circular Roads, will expand to swallow up the entirety of Greater London. D-Day is August 29 next year. Before you read anything more I have to say, check out Ross’s nifty Q&A which covers almost as much ground as the Ulez itself.
As it stands, 15 per cent of vehicles registered in the new outer London zone – about 200,000 at present – will be liable for the £12.50-a-day levy. Though it should be noted that more than 96 per cent of cars in the existing zone comply with the exhaust emission rules and do not have to pay the charge. The mayor has also announced a £110m car scrappage scheme.
Asked whether he had considered delaying the policy because of the cost of living crisis, Khan acknowledged it was “probably one of the toughest decisions I have made since being a politician”. Not least because about 60 per cent of respondents to a consultation on Ulez expansion are thought to have opposed the move.
Politicians do not take unpopular decisions lightly. But Khan has placed improving London’s dreadful air quality at the centre of his mayoralty. An estimated five million Londoners will breathe cleaner air, according to City Hall, due to the likely impact of a city-wide zone further accelerating the switch to cleaner vehicles in the suburbs.
Ulez expansion is no panacea. It certainly isn’t the pay-per-mile smart road user charging scheme the Centre for London has long called for. Such a system would do more than take a few polluting cars off the road, by helping to reduce congestion and promote active travel. Still, today’s announcement represents progress.
We will rid London of toxic air one day – those tiny pieces of particulate matter that clog up arteries and contribute to roughly 30,000 deaths a year nationwide. And once we do, when we have clean air to breathe, we will wonder how we ever lived without it. And no one will remember opposing it.
In the comment pages, Emily Sheffield says that as society evolves, our moral codes are being tested like never before. While Paul Flynn declares RuPaul can throw as much glitter, mascara, leather and lace at their contestants as they like but a central truth remains: Drag Race is a grand metaphor for the gay experience.
And finally, want to feel inadequate but still keep it festive? We bring you the best Christmas wreath-making workshops in London.
Have a lovely weekend.
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