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The hidden cost of London’s development

20th February 2013

The hidden cost of London’s development

“I must get some sea air” is an expression frequently heard by those of us living and working in London. It is different, invigorating, makes one feel healthy. Research carried out by Exeter University based upon the National Census 2001 did indeed reveal that the nearer people lived to the sea then the healthier they were. Long before there were ski resorts wealthy Victorians sought respite in the Alps in the belief that the cool, fresh mountain air would cure their ailments.

It is 60 years since London was enveloped in the Great Smog of the winter of 1952/1953 – considered to have been the worst air pollution ever experienced by the capital. A period of cold, still weather combined with mainly coal pollutants to form a thick layer of smog over the capital. Visibility was often less than a metre, there was serious disruption to transport and no football matches were played in London. Sadler’s Wells Opera House had to end a performance of La Traviata after the first act because the auditorium had filled with fog. In December 1952 alone, the death toll – where the deaths could be attributed to respiratory problems – accounted was over 4,000. All this led to the Clean Air Act 1956.

Anyone living in a post-industrial city before the various clean-up programmes of the last 15 years took place, will be familiar with the blackened brick and stonework caused by the smoke which would have been pouring out of factories, and from the use of coal, right up to the introduction of the Clean Air Act. But there are present concerns too about London’s office buildings. In the capital, the visible pollution has been replaced by the invisible – itself thought to be responsible for at least 4,000 deaths each year. Air quality in London is reputed to be worse than most other world cities and since 2010 has been in breach of European Union limits for N02, a gas present in exhaust fumes and which causes respiratory problems. As well as the effect on people, these nitrous oxides can contribute to acid rain which in turn damages the stonework of buildings, leading to a host of other problems, although it’s an easy issue to brush under the carpet, as it will probably only be many years from now that building owners see the visible effects of this invisible pollution. 

Obviously, one of the reasons behind these statistics is that London is so developed and has such a dense road network. While it does have its large parks and open spaces, these aren’t enough to compensate for the intensive development, which draws in business, the businesses’ workers, and the transport which gets them to work. And unlike other similar cities, like New York, it’s not on the water, so the air has really nowhere to escape to. And of course, as development itself takes place, this has a direct effect on the environment around it. 

There is already a City of London Air Quality Strategy in place which encourages the minimisation of pollution during demolition and construction. On Wednesday 13th February Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, announced that he has asked Transport for London, a body he chairs, to launch a feasibility study into the introduction of a ban on all but zero-rated or low emission vehicles in central London by 2020. Good news indeed, although clean air campaigners have been calling for anti-pollution initiatives for years. The more cynical see little substance in the mayor’s announcement, believing that it amounts to little more than staving off EU non-compliance penalties.

But on a positive note we may eventually get more bikes and fewer cars and better and cleaner public transport. That would make this great city an even nicer and healthier place to live and work – and give investors a little peace of mind. Air is the most essential element to sustain life. Fresh air influences the mind and soothes the nerves. That is what we all need and appreciate.

Morgan Pryce is a specialist tenant acquisition agent with offices in Oxford Circus and the City. Morgan Pryce specialises in search, negotiation and project management and works exclusively for tenants.


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