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Clean Air Act: Lords’ debate shows cross-party support for tackling pollution in London

Joseph Delves
5 Jul 2017

However, many peers still believe cycle lanes are the cause, not the effect, of vehicle pollution

Moved by the Conservative Lord Borwick, earlier this week the House of Lords debated the case for improving air quality in London.

A trustee of the British Lung Foundation, Lord Borwick’s time with the organisation has led him to the conclusion that lung diseases disproportionately affect those on lower incomes.

Having spent two decades working for the company that manufactured the diesel-engined London taxi, his research prompted him to devote a further seven years developing a pure electric delivery vehicle. Since then he’s become an air quality champion.

‘We know poor air quality in London is a big issue. This can be traced back to the early 2000s, when we concentrated on carbon dioxide emissions,’ Lord Borwick said in introducing the debate.

‘That led to the introduction of preferential tax treatment for diesel cars which emit less than petrol engined alternatives. However, they emit much more particulate matter, which has a catastrophic impact on health.

‘Drivers, commuters, walkers, cyclists – all Londoners are at risk. Air pollution is a silent killer. We now need more research into these health effects and the solutions available.’

Members of all the three main parties spoke up on the need for action to tackle air quality, with several going as far as to call for a new Clean Air Act, the original version of which was passed in response to London's Great Smog of 1952.

The Act was most recently updated in 1993.

However, slightly less progressive were the views of some other peers, many of who blamed the provision of cycle lanes for the congestion on London’s roads.

The Earl of Caithness, Lord Blencathra and Lord Higgins were among the peers who lined up to advance the view that cycle lanes are in fact a cause of both congestion and therefore pollution. Segregated cycle lanes came in for particular criticism.

‘I have always considered London the greatest capital city in the world. Now our dedicated cycle lanes are destroying it and completely jamming up traffic... London has created dedicated racing tracks for cyclists who ignore red lights and pedestrian crossings, while tens of thousands of motor vehicles – buses, lorries and cars – sit jammed in traffic and belching out petrol and diesel fumes,’ said Lord Blencathra.

If you’ve never followed a Lords debate it's a worthwhile way to spend an hour. You can find a verbatim transcript online:

Charity Cycling UK criticised the continued belief that cycle lanes cause pollution, calling such views ‘out of date’. Commenting on the debate, policy director Roger Geffen said:

‘The sort of attacks on cycle lanes we heard in the Lords is the same out of date criticisms that were directed at bus lanes 40 years ago.

‘London and other cities are right to want to invest in more cycling lanes to make their streets cleaner, healthier and more efficient.

‘To suggest they do the opposite is contrary to the available evidence and experience of other continental countries which have made long term investments in cycling.’

‘Cycling UK is reassured to see the Government recognises cycling is part of the solution for addressing our clean air problem, however we would urge them to listen to the experts and campaigners and accept the urgent need for a new Clean Air Act.’

The UK Government was recently forced to publish a draft air pollution plan after a legal battle with environmental campaigners.

Many commentators were unhappy to find that it provided no provision for a scrappage scheme covering the most polluting diesel cars, and no indication of a new Clean Air Act.

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