Ed Swanepoel discusses how privatisation and a lack of planning have led to increased congestion on London's roads and rising pollution levels in the air.

Recent data published by the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory has revealed the real extent of London’s growing air pollution crisis. Ed Swanepoel of the Reading Marxists discusses how privatisation and a lack of planning have led to increased congestion on London's roads and rising pollution levels in the air.

Recent data published by the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory has revealed the real extent of London’s growing air pollution crisis. The research focused on airborne particles known as PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5mm), which are found frequently in areas with high emission rates. London has been shown to have exceedingly high levels of PM2.5.

The degree of this airborne pollution is particularly frightening, with nearly 9 million Londoners now being subjected to levels of pollution that exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) limits by nearly 50%. The WHO has also confirmed that 44 out of 51 of Britain’s cities and towns have also failed air quality tests.

Regressive tax

London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has promised to tackle the London air pollution crisis with greater urgency. As of last month, therefore, Transport for London (TfL) introduced the long-awaited ‘T-charge’, which penalises drivers of cars with high emission rates by charging them an additional £10 a day for driving in central London.

The T-charge has faced criticism from campaigners for targeting vehicles that were purchased before 2006, a time when emission rates from motor vehicles were of much less concern to manufacturers. Drivers of vehicles purchased during this period are often from lower income households who don’t have the financial means to upgrade to vehicles that have been fitted with greener technology.

While reductions in transport emissions should be a key goal for governments and local authorities, the targeting of poorer families through the implementation of what are in essence regressive tax measures is not the way to go about this.

Grinding to a halt

LondonTrafficIn order to reduce emissions, governments need to look at issues such as public transport and the structuring of transport routes, which are often poorly managed and are subject to draconian funding cuts due to austerity measures and privatisation.

The re-nationalisation of railway systems and bus services in the UK, for example, would go a long way to reducing road congestion and traffic emissions. More and more people see the ownership of a motor vehicle as unnecessary and expensive, and recent polling by the Legatum Institute in London showed that 76% of the public would support the re-nationalisation of the railway system.

If adequate and affordable public transport were to be provided, the public would certainly make use of it. However, you need only look at the dwindling number of passengers who rely on buses to conclude that public transport is not as popular and efficient as it once was.

Over the last two years, bus use in London has fallen by 6% as passengers look for more efficient means of travel amidst a slowdown in the time it takes to travel between stops. The reason for this slowdown in bus journeys is the mismanagement of roads and transport routes. At the same time, London buses and Tubes are amongst the most expensive in Europe.

Local authorities have been quick to allow private contractors to dig trenches and holes for the installation of water pipes and internet cables, with little or no regard for the impact these roadworks might have on traffic congestion. Companies such as BT can essentially turn up to any borough, carve up as much of the road as they want, and expect a tiny fine from the local council for ‘traffic disruption’. These practices have caused major disruptions on transport routes across London, not least the bus routes.

Thatcher’s creation

The crisis in London’s transport network, with all that it has meant for the environment, can be traced back to the political climate of the 1980’s and the policies introduced by the Thatcher government.

Up until the 1980s, much of London’s public planning initiatives were conducted by the Greater London Council (GLC), a London-wide elected authority that was established to ensure the supply and management of public services in the capital, such as road planning, London Transport, fire services, certain council estates, waste disposal, and so on. In short, it was a planned system, established to ensure adequate public services for the city’s population.

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, she was determined to eradicate any public spending measures which were deemed “socialist”. She considered the Greater London Council to be an administrative body that was fiscally irresponsible with its spending and she wanted to get rid of it as soon as she could. Under the left leadership of Ken Livingstone, the Labour-controlled GLC was seen as a source of opposition to Thatcher.

One particular act that enraged the Tories was the introduction of the “Fares Fair” scheme, which sought to reduce fare prices to encourage people onto London Transport’s tubes and buses. The Tories (who backed car use and new motorways) used the law courts to rule this plan as illegal. A long legislative battle later ensued over the abolition of the GLC and other metropolitan authorities, with the Conservative government facing strong opposition from the Labour party and local people.

Eventually, however, the Conservative government did get its way, devolving powers after the GLC abolition to central government, local boroughs and unelected quangos. From this point on, London’s infrastructure slid into decline on the back of endless spending cuts, privatisation, and chaotic planning based on short-sightedness and an unwillingness to spend money on essential road and infrastructure work unless forced to.

The market based provision of utilities in London stands in stark contrast to a city such as Paris. In an article published in The Economist last month, a comparative graph showed the extent of roadworks in both London and Paris, with the French capital having about 10% of the amount of roadworks taking place than in London.

The reason for this? All French utilities are publicly owned and thus under the jurisdiction of a public authority which can regulate excavations, allowing for fewer congested roads and more people being able to cycle and take effective public transport.

Capitalism’s toxic emissions

A new attempt to take on the appalling traffic congestion situation was made after the Labour government created the new position of London Mayor and its first elected member - none other than Ken Livingstone, as it happened - introduced a new congestion charge in 2003 affecting all traffic travelling in the central London area from Monday to Friday during the day.

Although the charge has meant a decline in traffic, it has started to rise again and is now close to pre-2003 levels. In reality, the congestion charge is really just a tax, since very few people choose to drive through central London who don’t already have to, charge or not.

It is to be expected that the T-charge will have the same effect. It should also be noted that some traffic just diverts around the congestion charge zone - avoiding the charge but clogging up streets never intended to take such volumes of traffic, creating new pollution problems in other urban areas.

The air pollution crisis can therefore not be solved though isolated reformist measures, but rather through the public ownership of utilities.

The logic of the GLC’s “Fares Fair” scheme was that it sought to make public transport both affordable and attractive to car users. What is now needed is a free, fully functional and properly funded public transport system, linked to a socialist plan to develop London’s crumbling infrastructure for the benefit of ordinary people, not big business.

Capitalism has proven to be totally incapable of either of these tasks. A socialist solution is therefore needed to curb toxic emissions and ensure cleaner air for future generations.

Top image by David Holt / Flickr, CC by 2.0

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