In 1952 the air pollution in London was so bad that 12,000 people died. The future Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan blamed the weather and said pollution was "a necessary evil." When asked why the government didn't do anything he responded "We do what we can, but of course, the honourable gentleman must realise the enormous number of broad economic considerations which have to be taken into account and which it would be foolish altogether to disregard."
In 1956 the government finally passed clean air legislation that banned the use of high sulphur coal for heating, and the air got much cleaner. Now the air is a mess again, as diesel engines fill the air with NO2 and particulates. The new mayor, Sadiq Khan, is actually doing something about it. He is doubling the size of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) where drivers of dirty cars have to pay a a £12.50 (US$18) charge, and that's on top of the already hefty congestion charge. Adam Vaughan writes in the Guardian:
“I have been elected with a clear mandate to clean up London’s air - our biggest environmental challenge,” Khan said at a school in east London. He said London had only acted on pollution in the past after emergencies, such as the Great Smogs of the1950s: “But I want to act before an emergency, which is why we need big, bold and sometimes difficult policies if London is to match the scale of the challenge.”
Fitting location for Sadiq Khan's air pollution news today - at primary school right next to this gridlocked road pic.twitter.com/yCKlAE4St5— Adam Vaughan (@adamvaughan_uk) May 13, 2016
Currently, the proposed ULEZ is the same area as that subject to the congestion charge. Cars allowed in have to meet "Euro standards- a range of progressive exhaust emission standards set by the European Union for petrol and diesel engines." After the Volkswagen scandal one might well wonder whether that is good enough. As one environmental activist noted,
“We will have to wait and see if the detail of the mayor’s proposals matches his ambition. With air pollution causing over 9,000 deaths a year in London it is vital that all options to solve this problem are on the table. It will be crucial that the ULEZ ensures vehicles meet the most stringent emission standards when driving on London’s roads, not just in discredited laboratory tests,” he said.
Perhaps they should do what the Dutch are considering and just ban gas and diesel vehicles from the ULEZ altogether.