From where am I writing this one of, if not the most polluted places in London, is a walk of a few minutes, the junction of the A12 and A11 at the Bow Bridge intersection in East London. Nobody knows better than me, my family and neighbours just what the continual toxicity does to both health and the long term quality of life and no one is more pleased than I that finally, not just a small section of the population that has always campaigned on environmental issues is being listened to, but that the widest sections of business, politics and industry both in this country and worldwide are taking on board the scale and immediacy of the problem.
The problem isn’t simply one of air purity in one country at one road junction but of massive devastation in places like Asia and Africa where global warming is changing the local environment rapidly leading to massive movements of people as their home countries become unable to feed them, provide employment, housing or the other basic necessities of life. Within a few years the country I was born in, Bangladesh, will be half under water and some countries, like those low lying ones in the Pacific, will have disappeared altogether while millions of people are moving to the North African coast and the US border looking for the life they can see on TV screens and laptops in the globalised digital world we now inhabit.
At the same time, a half an hour observation of traffic at the junction I have mentioned above will show the economic reality of London. Thousands of vehicles making absolutely necessary journeys pass by bringing into London the things that make the capital function. Without them builders couldn’t construct the homes we so desperately need or repair the existing ones, food outlets from the biggest supermarkets to the local corner shop need deliveries, hospitals need medicines and so on. The basic stuff you might have thought but ones that it would seem that the more militant sections of the environmental movement haven’t thought about. Simply demanding clean air immediately isn’t going to make it happen.
It is, without doubt, the internal combustion engine that is the prime cause of air born pollution but the vehicles that it powers are essential for the continuation of life in our cities. The answer, of course, is electric vehicles but at the present rate of progress it will be many years before there are enough available to make the changes we need. The private industry simply cannot drive the massive changes without which the electric revolution can take place. The most stringent restrictions on petrol and diesel vehicles in the inner cities haven’t worked and won’t until there is a viable alternative and that isn’t going to happen without massive government intervention.
The problem isn’t just one of the vehicles themselves but how and where are they to be charged and where are the new set of skills that will be needed to maintain them to come from? The answer is that at the moment nobody knows because there is simply no overall strategy simply lots of suggestions from well-meaning individuals and groups.
If we look at the history of previous industrial revolutions it is clear that without their private member’s bills and control of Parliament the owners of railway companies, coal mines and steel mills wouldn’t have been able to advance Britain in less than fifty years from a largely rural, farming community to the most advanced technological society of the time and a model for the rest of the world.
When Henry Ford decided that he was going to launch his methods of mass production of cars and commercial vehicles in Europe the government and the London County Council gave him a massive area of farmland and swamp in what is now Dagenham. Far-sighted politicians, industrialists and financiers saw that if they didn’t move on the issue there would be plenty of their contemporaries in Europe who would.
We stand at, in technological terms, the early nineteenth century and the period just before the First World War when momentous decisions were made, not always democratically it’s true, that shaped not just this country but the world. This time around, however, instead of leading, Britain is in danger of being left behind. As a matter of national importance, the next Labour government must provide the infrastructure that the electric vehicles, without which we cannot function as a society, can be charged. I would suggest the following.
1)Every urban street to have at least one charging point but as many as possible.
2) Subsidies recoverable with a charge on the property for homeowners and industry to provide re-charging points.
3) A massive training programme to ensure that we have the mechanics who can install and service new and emerging technology.
But before any of this can happen we need a Labour government and that must be our first priority.