Sadiq Khan accused of ‘using bullshit air pollution data to support Ulez’

Protesters hold up signs reading 'Ulez Khan Do 1' - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

Protesters hold up signs reading ‘Ulez Khan Do 1’ – Heathcliff O’Malley for The Telegraph

Sadiq Khan has been accused of using “bullshit” data on air pollution deaths to support his expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) in the capital.

Earlier this week, the mayor of London sent an open letter to four councils challenging the plan, claiming they were wasting taxpayers’ money by opposing his proposals.

He cited Bromley as having the highest number of premature deaths from air pollution, based on a report by Imperial College London.

But analysis of the report shows that the Imperial authors had warned that Bromley was in the highest category for premature deaths, not because it had worrying pollution, but because it has a large number of elderly residents.

Bromley currently has the second lowest air pollution levels of any London borough and even if it did nothing, pollution levels would still be lower than several inner city areas in 2030 after they introduce emission reduction schemes.

Bromley also benefits the least from measures due to its older population, the Imperial report shows.

Council leaders in Bromley, Harrow, Hillingdon and Bexley fighting the Ulez expansion have accused Mr Khan of picking the data.

Council ‘ashamed of mayor’

Coun Colin Smith, the leader of Bromley Council, said: “Frankly, I’m starting to feel a little embarrassed at the mayor and his desperately repeated claims that the people of Bromley suffer from a higher rate of mortality or premature death than any other borough in the capital.

“He seems to believe that if you repeat something often enough, it will come true. I have to tell you that while that might work for him in the very strange world of City Hall, it doesn’t work here in the real world.

“It’s really complete nonsense.”

The fraction of deaths from air pollution in Bromley is the third lowest in London, the council argues, saying the figures fail to take into account that many older residents spent their younger years in central London boroughs , where they were exposed to smog and smoke-filled pubs and clubs.

“We have cleaner air than any single borough already entangled in the mayor’s existing Ulez plan, and even his own scientific projections confirm that further expansion would bring only the most marginal benefits,” added Councilman Smith.

In the letter released on Monday, Mr Khan pointed to the number of premature deaths from air pollution in rebel councils, claiming that in 2019 there were 204 early deaths in Bromley, 162 in Bexley, 118 in Harrow and 155 people in Hillingdon who died prematurely .

However, the mayor was criticized for taking the highest death toll estimate in the report and ignoring the lower figure. The authors of the Imperial report noted that there was “greater uncertainty” surrounding the mortality burden.

The Imperial report also shows that Harrow, Bexley and Bromley will gain the least life expectancy from the changes, and the councils said introducing new charges could do more harm than good.

Baroness O’Neill of Bexley, leader of Bexley Council, accused the mayor of wrongly grouping London’s suburbs into inner city pollution problems and said Mr Khan was trying to get those who disagreed with his to “roll” policy.

“While Ulez could address air quality issues in central London, we don’t have the same issues in Bexley,” she said.

“The financial impact that Ulez will have on our residents, including those with non-compliant cars and taxpayers who will pay for the cameras, will mean that this scheme will do more harm than good to London’s suburbs and neighboring areas.”

Paul Osborn, leader of Harrow Council, said more could be achieved by upgrading London’s bus fleet, expanding accessible bus services in London’s suburbs and investing in more electric charging infrastructure.

“With so few benefits for Harrow families already struggling with the cost of living and having to choose between heating and food, this expansion will have a devastating effect on the poorest and most vulnerable people in Harrow,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who can’t afford to upgrade their cars to make them compliant, but who live in areas where they depend on them because public transportation is inadequate.”

‘Deny evidence from scientists’

A spokesman for the Mayor of London said: “It is disgraceful that councils opposed to this expansion are now denying scientific evidence to justify their opposition to the clear air policy. The simple fact is that nowhere in the borough of Bromley is currently meeting the air quality limits recommended by the World Health Organisation.

“The air quality data used by the Mayor is completely robust and is based on the most accurate independent scientific research into the human cost of bad air by world-renowned experts at Imperial College London. It is extremely disappointing that these four local authorities refuse to accept the categorical evidence that toxic air is truly a matter of life and death. around 4,000 Londoners die prematurely each year due to poor air quality, with the highest number of deaths occurring in the London suburbs.

“Sadiq refuses to sit back and do nothing when lives are lost and urges local authorities to support his plans to bring cleaner air to every Londoner – wherever they live in the capital.”

Politicians need to stop selecting data to win unpopular arguments

Ulez sign in central London - Yui Mok/PA

Ulez sign in central London – Yui Mok/PA

Sadiq Khan’s selective use of data is politicians’ latest attempt to use models to justify unpopular decisions.

Eye-popping mortality figures from Imperial models were often used to mandate lockdowns, even though their creators warned they should not be used as predictions, but as worst-case scenarios.

The government has often been criticized for scaring the public with unrealistic Covid death rates, which rarely materialised.

While Covid modeling was often done on the hoof, meaning it was already outdated by the time it was made public, it’s fair to say that the latest Imperial report is based on good evidence of air pollution damage.

However, the authors of the report make important caveats. For example, the Imperial researchers emphasize the uncertainty surrounding air pollution deaths by providing overestimates and underestimations. The mayor has chosen to ignore the lower figure.

The Imperial team also warned that estimates of the death rate could be biased by the age of the population.

The City of London, for example, has the lowest health burden from air pollution, simply because it has an unnaturally young population. Yet it has the highest levels of pollution.

Does that mean that air pollution there should not be addressed because it has no discernible impact on mortality? No, it doesn’t.

On the other hand, Bromley has some of the cleanest air in London, but they have the highest death rates as it has an elderly population.

This means that even significant efforts to clean the air will not have a major impact on the residents there.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to prevent the cure for a problem from becoming more deadly than the disease.

This is what municipalities fighting against enlargement are saying. Bromley, Hillingdon, Harrow and Bexley are on the outskirts of the capital and therefore have some of the lowest levels of air pollution.

But because they are outliers, they also have poorer transport networks and more disadvantaged populations, who often rely on their vehicles.

Charging people to pay for the privilege of driving in communities already forced to choose between heating and eating could do more damage to health than the benefits it brings.

It is time for politicians to consider the wider implications of seemingly health-focused policies and to be more honest about what models tell us and what they don’t.

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