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Privatisation is poisoning the very air we breathe

01 Feb 2018, 18:53

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Pointless competition and illusory ‘choice’ have choked our streets and literally undermined our cities

The second month of the year begins with London having already reached its legal air pollution limit for the whole of 2018. The city’s limit of 18 breaches of air quality regulations was used up in January.

Mostly invisible, this silent killer causes an estimated 40,000 early deaths a year in Britain. That’s about 25 times more than roads deaths. Imagine if there were that many murders or NHS accidents or flu epidemic deaths.

The capital may be worst, but around the country filthy air pollutes the lungs in many cities. Check this pollution map to see what you are breathing. Though don’t imagine we necessarily know the worst of it. In research for our book Dismembered, David Walker and I found environmental officers, cut by a third, were closing as many as two-thirds of air quality monitoring stations, for lack of staff to check them.


London reaches legal air pollution limit just one month into the new year

As with most of the gravest problems facing Britain, the solutions are relatively easy to find: the problem, as ever, in this fractured and fractious country, is summoning up the collective political will to take action. It turns out privatisation of national utilities is a significant cause of air pollution in a number of ways.

Take the explosion of van deliveries as the Amazon I–want-it-now impulse is followed by every company that wants to stay in business. Be it Argos or John Lewis, everyone delivers it to your doorstep fast, multiple vans criss-crossing each other and knocking on the same doors over and over. Van traffic has grown faster than any other vehicle type since 2005.

Why? Royal Mail visits every household once a day, these days delivering mostly junk mail at ever-rising stamp prices for lack of volume business. As predicted, private companies cherrypick easy deliveries, leaving Royal Mail to take single letters to every remote farm.

If Labour is going to renationalise it, the party should consider giving Royal Mail back its delivery monopoly, either by law or by incentive, with punitive levies on needless extra deliveries, making the last mile to front doors a presumed Royal Mail function for most parcels.

Consolidating collection points for parcels at railway stations needs an extra boost: the one at Victoria has a changing room so you can send back unwanted clothes there and then. But escalating door-to-door delivery is yet another example of the destructiveness of bringing competition into a national utility. That was done in the name of choice, price-cutting, investment and efficiency – but wrecking Royal Mail has helped cause traffic congestion and air pollution that no one chose.



Look how bringing pointless competition to utilities has caused an explosion of roadworks with all its extra trucks, as competing companies dig up miles of roads and slow the traffic, which idles at blockages. Although better public transport, congestion charging and congestion itself have cut car-use dramatically in London, traffic speeds are falling – down to 7.5mph in the mornings and predicted to reach walking speed soon unless there is change. Steep road pricing would force more consolidation of journeys and deliveries.

At privatisation, utilities were given a statutory freedom to dig up roads, with little regulation. Under Tottenham Court Road, for example, 80 different utility companies have their lines and pipes, digging up more or less at will. They refuse to share space or facilities with competitors.

Bus deregulation has also been a disaster. Competition meant 250 buses an hour in the toxic air of Oxford Street, until Sadiq Khan got a grip. But elsewhere in the country bus deregulation sees absurd competition for popular routes and bus-deserts in less profitable ones.

After Carillion and the shock suggestion Capita and others might be wobbling, the reality of the destruction caused by privatisation is beginning to dawn even on true believers, such as the infamous Barnet council. Labour is right to plan taking back control of utilities, mail and transport, though they have yet to make that case sound not just ideological but pressingly practical. They need to spell out the daily reality of the harm privatisation and illusory “choice” has done over the last decades, not least in the poisoned air we breathe.

By tomorrow the UK government and other countries must show how they will comply with EU air pollution laws, or face very hefty fines for breaches over so many years. But never mind: this Brexit government may soon free us of all such burdensome Brussels bossiness so we can take back control and die in droves from our own dirty air.


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