Paul Braithwaite at Camden Cyclists AGM

Paul Braithwaite, a Camden Councillor spoke on “What I’ve learned about London’s poisonous air and what I’m going to try to get Camden to do about it”.

The meeting was chaired by Anne Boston who introduced Paul as Camden’s Cycling Champion and long time member of Camden Cyclists photo

Paul said that he became interested in air quality in the context of Alexis Rowell’s Sustainability Task Force. He had also noticed a couple of years back that he coughed and spluttered after cycling in London, but not in the countryside. Then Paul was diagnosed with mild asthma, which the specialist attributed to cycling almost daily and suggested the alternative was to move out of London!

Paul has made contact with Frank Kelly (Professor of Environmental Health at Kings College London) and Simon Birkett (founder of CAL – Campaign for Clean Air in London. Recently, he got Isabel Dedring – now London’s deputy mayor (Transport) – together with Camden Council Cabinet members. Further, meetings were also held with TfL and Defra.


Paul reported that air quality in the Euston Road is one of the worst in London, breaching EC directives for PM10s which are too small to be filtered by a face mask. The even smaller PM2.5 particles will be legislated for in 2015. PM10s are by-products primarily of diesel fuel engine vehicles. Unfortunately, even the newest, most fuel efficient diesel cars still emit very small particulates, which are the ones that can enter the lungs and blood stream with harmful effect. That is why the borough of Kensington and Chelsea has recently introduced a £15 annual surcharge for all diesel resident parking permits.

London’s 8,000 buses do have retro-fitted particulate traps, but our 23,000 black cabs account for 30% of central London air pollution and their retro-fitted filters (to bring them up to Euro 3 standard) are not all working satisfactorily. London had already exceeded the annual limit for PM10 particulates by this Easter – hitting 35 days of permissible exceedence on the Marylebone Road by day 106 – which has meant the UK is on notice from the European Commission and technically exposed to a potential £300m fine if action is pursued, London also risks a fine in the shorter term – next summer in the Olympics – if air quality fails European limits the Olympic Development Authority can summarily withhold payment of £175m of the broadcasting rights revenue.

Paul is writing a report for Camden’s Health Scrutiny Committee on the effect of air quality on health, with a dozen recommendations. His background research has revealed that the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) freely admits that pollution is taking an average of six to eight months off the lives of the UK’s 61 million residents. That doesn’t sound too bad until you grasp that 99% of the area of the UK does not suffer from poor air quality. So the deaths are all concentrated into 1% of the country – largely London. In practice, that translates to taking up to 10 years off the lives of some people living along our most congested roads. A study prepared for Mayor Johnson, revealed under an FOI request last year, attributed 100 deaths per annum in Camden to air quality and as many as 15 each year in the worst affected of Camden wards.


The same study estimated deaths in London alone in 2008, DIRECTLY attributable to air quality, at 4,267. COMEAP (the committee on medical effects of air pollution, the government’s advisory body) indicates that air quality is up with better know killers such as diabetes, alcohol or obesity.

Mayor, Ken Livingstone introduced the c-charge (and extended it), bendy buses, the low emission zone (LEZ) and he proposed to introduce tougher compliance requirements for “white van man” and taxis. Whereas Boris Johnson has reversed much of this, with abolition of the western extension of the congestion zone (WEZ), removal of all bendy buses before 2012, thus putting lots more buses on the road, and giving way on taxis so that even after January 2012 it will still be possible to license black cabs that are up to 15 years old (when the proposal was a 10-year limit).

Paul is concerned for commuting cyclists about the effect of riding on Boris’s new super highways which are mainly on the arterial roads and he suggested for their health, they should use back roads rather than ride in toxic canyons. A cyclist breathes in more than four times the volume or air compared to a car driver or pedestrian, with commensurately higher risk of the smallest particulates entering the blood stream.

He suggested:

  • Greater control over taxis, particularly over queuing and idling at out mainline railway stations and a possible scrappage incentive scheme to retire older, cabs.
  • TfL should set up a hot line for Londoners to report buses and black cabs with sooty exhausts. If you can see black smoke, the filtration is not working.
  • Encouraging clean fuel bio-methane engines and electric vehicles
  • A summer Camden summit on Air Quality
  • A new real-time visual display giving air quality on the Euston Road beside the Town Hall


The following points arose during the discussion that followed

  • The London Air Quality Network website and also iPhone app
  • DoE help line 0800 807 060 for reporting vehicles believed to be damaging the environment
  • The BBC’s online weather forecast gives air quality at the bottom of the page
  • PM10 pollution is inverseley proportional to distance from the polluter, whereas NO2 is spread like a blanket over the whole of greater London.
  • Powered Two Wheelers are not diesel fuelled, but have high emissions of other pollutants.
  • Camden Council has 17 bio-methane vehicles and is refuelling for Waitrose and John Lewis who are currently experimenting running some of their London fleet of delivery vehicles on bio-methane
  • Stefano noted that in Milan car journeys are resticted according to pollution levels

Anne thanked Paul for his though-provoking talk and emphasised how important is public awareness. This was a very worthwhile evening and hopefully may lead us to participate in publicising the issues.

The report will be published in advance of Camden’s Health Scrutiny meeting 1 June. It is hoped that the current administration will adopt the report as policy.

Draft Review of Air Quality (Camden Council) For Camden Council Health Scrutiny Working Group.