Dirty air is killing our chil­dren. Why does the gov­ern­ment let this hap­pen?

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Ge­orge Mon­biot

Dereg­u­la­tion, the gov­ern­ment and many news­pa­pers as­sure us, saves money and time and re­duces frus­tra­tion. That’s the the­ory. But, as I see ev­ery day, it doesn’t quite work like this. My youngest daugh­ter’s school has been try­ing to pro­tect its chil­dren from the toxic cloud in which they work and play. The teach­ers know how much dam­age traf­fic pol­lu­tion does to their lungs, hearts and brains. They know that it re­duces their cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment, their abil­ity to con­cen­trate and their ca­pac­ity for ex­er­cise. They know it’s a mi­nor mir­a­cle that no one has yet been crushed by the cars jostling to get as close as pos­si­ble to the school gates. But thanks to the gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to leg­is­late, there is lit­tle they can do. Far from free­ing us from ef­fort, the ab­sence of reg­u­la­tion wastes ev­ery­body’s time.

At my sug­ges­tion, the school in­vited the char­ity Liv­ing Streets to come in and en­thuse the chil­dren about walk­ing or cy­cling to school. I at­tended the first assem­bly, at which one of their organisers spoke. She was lively, funny and cap­ti­vat­ing. With the help of a gi­ant pup­pet, and the promise of badges if they joined in, the chil­dren went wild for her and for the cause. The school, led by its com­mit­ted head­teacher, has done every­thing it can to sup­port the scheme.

For a few weeks, it worked. Ev­ery­one no­ticed the dif­fer­ence. No longer were cars mount­ing the pave­ment – and al­most mount­ing each other – out­side the gates. The chil­dren were us­ing their legs, and fam­i­lies were talk­ing to each other on the way. But the cars have crept back in, and now, though the clever and catchy pro­gramme con­tin­ues, we’re al­most back where we started: school be­gins and ends un­der a cloud.

Some of the driv­ers are the peo­ple who were el­bow­ing in be­fore; oth­ers oc­cupy the space va­cated by those who re­spect the scheme. Liv­ing Streets will keep re­turn­ing. But now that the first flush of en­thu­si­asm has abated, sus­tain­ing the pro­gramme will be harder.

Aside from the dam­age to our chil­dren’s health, it’s the re­dun­dancy of it all that gets to me. The gov­ern­ment could solve much of this prob­lem at a stroke by in­tro­duc­ing a duty on coun­cils to im­pose the kind of park­ing ban around schools at ar­rival and de­par­ture times that is in place in parts of Ed­in­burgh and Soli­hull. Tech­nolo­gies such as num­ber plate recog­ni­tion cam­eras and ris­ing bol­lards (both of which al­low res­i­dents and driv­ers with a dis­abil­ity card to pass while ex­clud­ing oth­ers) can make en­force­ment au­to­matic.

With­out this in­ter­ven­tion, head­teach­ers all over the coun­try have to take on the is­sue one car at a time. Add up their ef­forts and you’re likely to find that this point­less repli­ca­tion runs into hun­dreds – per­haps thousands – of times the pub­lic labour that gov­ern­ment ac­tion would re­quire. If there is one group of peo­ple whose time is both stretched and so­cially valu­able, it is head­teach­ers.

Some schools have lob­bied their coun­cils for traf­fic re­stric­tion or­ders, gen­er­ally with­out suc­cess. But why should we have to fight the same bat­tle bor­ough by bor­ough for our chil­dren’s health? Why should their lung ca­pac­ity be sub­ject to a post­code lot­tery?

The lack of reg­u­la­tion also cre­ates so­cial ten­sion. There have been al­ter­ca­tions be­tween par­ents on this is­sue at my daugh­ter’s school, and I’ve been told of fu­ri­ous ar­gu­ments in other catch­ments. Last month a lol­lipop lady em­ployed by a school in Colch­ester to pro­tect the chil­dren from traf­fic re­signed be­cause of the threats and abuse she re­ceived from a few par­ents. De­spite her uni­form, she could ex­er­cise only moral power, which sim­ply bounces off some peo­ple. “Our chil­dren are now yet again at risk when cross­ing the road,” the head­teacher re­marked. With­out reg­u­la­tion, the most self­ish and an­tiso­cial peo­ple dom­i­nate.

I have be­gun to re­alise that get­ting as close to the school gates as pos­si­ble is not just about min­imis­ing the need to walk. It’s also about be­ing seen in your new car. The big­ger it is, the greater the in­cen­tive to be seen. This could ex­plain why some par­ents drive 100 me­tres to the school ev­ery morn­ing. By the time they’ve found a place to park, they could have walked back and forth three times.

Self-reg­u­la­tion can work well in a com­mons – a re­source con­trolled and man­aged by a com­mu­nity. But the streets are not a com­mons. They are a state as­set that is treated as a free-for-all. When the state owns a re­source but won’t con­trol it, the com­mu­nity has nei­ther the right nor the power to reg­u­late its use. All that is left is vol­un­tarism. The ef­forts of those who try to de­fend the com­mon good are un­der­mined by free­loaders.

The gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts are pa­thetic. Its cy­cling and walk­ing in­vest­ment strat­egy, pub­lished among a bliz­zard of mea­sures in April be­fore min­is­ters went into pur­dah for the dis­trac­tion of the gen­eral elec­tion, is based on this rous­ing vi­sion: “We want more peo­ple to have ac­cess to safe, at­trac­tive routes for cy­cling and walk­ing by 2040.” Yes, 2040. They bailed out the banks in hours. But our chil­dren’s health can wait un­til they have chil­dren of their own. It in­tends to halve its fee­ble in­vest­ment in cy­cling and walk­ing be­tween now and 2021.

When I have raised this is­sue on so­cial me­dia, I’ve been told: “Well, it’s your fault for liv­ing in a posh part of Lon­don.” But I don’t live in Lon­don, and the school has one of the poor­est catch­ments in the county. Per­sonal con­tract pur­chase for cars has helped to uni­ver­salise this is­sue (as well as threat­en­ing an­other sub­prime cri­sis: growth in car loans has been driv­ing the in­crease in un­se­cured con­sumer credit we’ve seen in re­cent years). Al­most ev­ery school gate is now shrouded in pol­lu­tion.

Air pol­lu­tion dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fects poorer com­mu­ni­ties, ex­pos­ing their chil­dren to yet an­other dis­ad­van­tage, as their lungs and brains are stunted. One study sug­gests that here in the UK 38 mil­lion peo­ple – 59% of the pop­u­la­tion – are im­mersed in pol­lu­tion above the le­gal limit. Only those who can af­ford to live in vil­lages and the leafy sub­urbs es­cape.

The state’s fail­ure to reg­u­late has not de­liv­ered free­dom. It has de­liv­ered waste and in­ef­fi­ciency, help­less­ness and frus­tra­tion, and a loss of trust in each other and of be­lief in our demo­cratic power to im­prove our lives. Far from re­leas­ing us, it has snarled us up in traf­fic. And it leaves a mas­sive pub­lic health is­sue un­ad­dressed, the scale of which we can only be­gin to guess. Our chil­dren choke on the gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to gov­ern.

• Ge­orge Mon­biot is a Guardian colum­nist

With­out reg­u­la­tion, the most self­ish and anti-so­cial peo­ple dom­i­nate

Il­lus­tra­tion by Nathalie Lees

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