According to data, just one in 1,000 drivers reported for unnecessary idling of their engine have been fined in central London.
Toxic air pollution kills around 4,000 people every year in the capital and the councils have targeted parked drivers who fail to switch off their vehicles.
In Westminster, more than 70,000 idle drivers have been reported since 2017 via the council’s ‘report it’ website. But only 63 £80 fines were issued and only half of those were paid.
Westminster Council claims it has the worst air pollution in the country and drew attention in 2017 when it quadrupled the fine for idling from £20.
“Toxic air needs tough action,” Councilor Andrew Smith said at the time. Nickie Aiken, then leader of the council and now MP for Westminster, called on the government in 2021 to increase the fine by £80, saying it was not an effective deterrent.
The data, released under Freedom of Information (FoI) rules, lists 99.9% of idle reports as ending in “soft action”. It does not indicate whether a driver was asked to turn off his engine and did so, left or was not stopped by a council officer.
“Westminster Tories speak well about air quality, but this data shows they have not used the powers at their disposal,” said Max Sullivan, the Labor candidate for the Bayswater council ward who made the request FoI. “The lack of firm action against engine idling is appalling and will be disappointing news for those concerned about air pollution.”
In Bayswater, only two fines have been issued over five years and none have been paid, he said. Lambeth Council has handed out three times the fines for idling as Westminster from 2019-21.
“It’s reasonable to have a gentle application,” Sullivan said. “The problem is that there’s hardly any tough action at all. I don’t know what you would have to do to get fined. The data would probably only be a fraction of the true scale of the problem, did he declare.
Air pollution can damage every organ in the human body, according to a 2019 comprehensive review, and is especially harmful to children. A recent study found that stopping an engine for even 30 seconds cuts pollution in half compared to idling.
“Tackling air quality is a top priority for my constituents — and therefore for me,” Aiken said. “In my experience, when I launched the Don’t Be Idle campaign as council leader, the vast majority of drivers who are asked to turn off their engines do so. Perhaps that is why very few fines are issued. For those who refuse, £80 doesn’t seem to stop their behavior. Maybe a larger fine will focus their minds.
James Spencer, Cabinet Member of Westminster Council for City Management, said: “Council has been running a successful anti-idling campaign for several years. The primary goal of the campaign is to educate and change behaviors, however, we fine the worst and repeat offenders.
“The impact of poor air quality on health should not be underestimated, especially for children. That’s why we also work closely with schools to distribute anti-idling posters and flyers.
Gary Fuller, air pollution expert at Imperial College London, said: ‘A lot of councils brag about their anti-idling work. This effort seems out of proportion to the knowledge base. Most of the evidence is over a decade old, with little evidence on emissions from modern vehicles with the latest exhaust technology.
“I’m not saying idling is acceptable, far from it. But I fear it will become a politically acceptable diversion that reduces the pressure to act on the much larger air pollution from moving vehicles.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Friday proposed that the capital’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez) be extended to cover the whole of Greater London by the end of 2023. Currently drivers of all diesel vehicles , except newer, and some older petrol vehicles, which enter the Ulez, have to pay £12.50 a day for cars, and more for larger vehicles. The extension is expected to reduce the number of most polluting cars on London’s roads by 20,000 to 40,000 per day.