London mayor Sadiq Khan has said that providing clean air to the city’s children is a matter of “social justice” as he vowed to press ahead with controversial plans to get Londoners out of their cars if re-elected on 6 May.
Mr Khan was speaking ahead of Wednesday’s publication of what are expected to be wide-ranging recommendations to government from the chief coroner on preventing a repeat of the death of nine-year-old Londoner Ella Kissi-Debrah, whose landmark inquest was the first to identify poor air quality as a contributing factor,
Speaking to The Independent, the mayor described December’s finding as “ground-breaking” in drawing a tragic link between traffic fumes and children’s health.
“For me, the issue of poor air quality is an issue of social justice because poor quality air leads to children having stunted lungs forever,” he said. “It leads to a whole whole host of health issues from asthma to cancer to heart disease.
“That’s why we’ve got to make sure we don’t go from one health crisis of Covid, to another one – even worse – of air quality.”
Mr Khan made clear he would not be diverted from traffic reduction efforts by high-profile campaigns by a “vocal minority” which have seen one London council announce it is considering the removal of pop-up cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods introduced as an emergency response to the Covid pandemic.
“Anybody who knows London knows that our streets are very narrow, and we’ve limited street space,” he said. “The idea of 9 million Londoners jumping in their car is ridiculous but so is the idea of us having more drivers than before a pandemic and London grinding to a halt and gridlock.
“Our roads should be limited to blue light services, to electricians, to plumbers, to commercial drivers, to taxis, to those that need to use our roads – delivery drivers and so forth – rather than individuals that could be walking, cycling and using public transport.
“And by the way, ‘main roads’ are what it says on the tin – they are main roads where most of the traffic should go.”
Mr Khan said that councils were ready to “tweak” schemes in response to residents’ complaints, but gave his strong backing to the government-funded network of low traffic neighbourhoods in the capital, which have used temporary road-closures to free the streets for pedestrians and cyclists.
London should be a model for the rest of the UK and the world with its introduction of ultra-low emission zones and promotion of cycling and walking, he said.
“King’s College have said that we can make our air legal within six years, compared to 193 years under the previous mayor’s policies. That’s the difference that winning makes, and the difference between choosing me on 6 May or the only other guy that can win – the Tory candidate, who is against the Ultra Low Emission Zone, wants to rip out cycle lanes, is against safer streets, against low traffic neighbourhoods, against all the progressive policies that lead to better quality air.”
Ella, who lived near the busy South Circular Road in Lewisham, southeast London, died in 2013 following an asthma attack. She was the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.
Today’s coroner’s report on preventing future deaths is expected to require the UK government to take tough action to tackle air pollution, helping her mother Rosamund in her campaign for cleaner air.
Mr Khan said: “I’m looking forward to the report from the coroner. I think his finding was ground-breaking because of the fact that a child’s death caused by asthma was linked to things outside of her control that are man-made – pollution caused by traffic.”
The Labour mayor has been runaway bookies’ favourite for re-election on 6 May, with some observers expecting him to avoid a second-round run-off against Tory challenger Shaun Bailey by netting more than 50 per cent of first preference votes.
He has come under sustained attack over his record on knife crime, from Mr Bailey, who has promised 8,000 new police and a drive to cut crime within 100 days of taking office.
But Mr Khan pointed to his rival’s record of working as youth and crime adviser to David Cameron and George Osborne in an administration which cut police numbers and funding for youth services.
He insisted he had invested record amounts in the city’s police and supported youth clubs and organisations to give tens of thousands of young people constructive outlets.
Borrowing former Labour PM Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan, he said the results were coming through in a reduction in knife crime by under-25s, youth violence, moped-enabled crime and gun crime.
Brushing off attacks from former mayor Boris Johnson over his record on crime and funding Transport for London, he said: “You judge somebody by who their enemies are. My enemies are called Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. You can make of that what you will.”
Describing the mayoral election as “the most important one in my lifetime” after the Covid crisis cost 18,000 lives and 300,000 jobs and put 1 million workers on furlough in the capital, Mr Khan said his focus if re-elected would be “jobs, jobs, jobs”.
But he said he was “disappointed” by a campaign which has seen him targeted by anonymous social media ads – which the Bailey team insists are not linked to the Tory candidate.
“According to most experts, the 2016 mayoral election (against Tory rival Zac Goldsmith) was the most divisive campaign London’s ever seen,” he said. “But at least it was taking place in the open.
“What I think’s happening in 2021 is just as bad, but it’s taking place below the radar. And this time the Tories are being clever in covering their fingerprints. But London isn’t stupid and I hope that on 6 May, Londoners will choose unity over division, somebody who supports Londoners to unite them rather than somebody who scares Londoners to divide them.” Mr Khan said that he was “excited” when Mr Bailey’s selection as Conservative candidate meant the mayoral race would be run between two contenders from ethnic minority backgrounds.
“I thought it would be great as a platform for our city, so the world could see that diversity is strength,” he said. “But when I see him retweeting Islamophobic tweets that call me the Mad Mullah of Londonistan, when I see some of the things he has said about Eid, which I celebrate as a Muslim, or Diwali, that many Londoners celebrate as Hindus, I’m disappointed. I find them offensive, and I think the best way to respond is to win. And that’s why I intend to win and win big.”