Monday, 3 December 2018

Take a deep breath – no yet!

Most people under the age of 50 will have no memory of the choking smogs from which Sheffield – and most other cities – suffered in to the 1960s.
Concerns about Sheffield’s air quality go back over 400 years. It was a combination of industrial pollution, from the city’s heavy industrial production, and domestic pollution from open coal fires, which heated most homes. It was well described in George Orwell’s 1936 visit to the city: "Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World..."
Dramatic improvements were made between 1959 and 1972 when smokeless zones were established across the city, when residents could get grants to replace their coal fires with gas. Mrs Thatcher’s industrial strategy made its own impact in the 1980s as Sheffield’s steel, engineering and coal mining was devastated. It has effectively taken another 40 years to get to the position where parts of the Lower Don Valley can be redeveloped, including for housing.
However, concerns about air quality in parts of Sheffield – especially the city centre and near to the MI – continue. This is mainly due to nearly invisible pollutants from domestic and commercial vehicles, especially particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5); of most concern are nitrogen dioxide and fine dust particulates.
Poor air quality contributes to the early deaths of up to 40,000 people each year. Diseases attributable to air pollution in the UK result in over £20 billion in economic costs each year.
 In 2014, nine English towns and cities, including Sheffield, were named by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for breaching safety guidelines for air pollution. The latest WHO report states that at least 37 UK towns and cities are in breach of the WHO air quality standards for PM2.5, whilst a minimum of 10 UK town and cities breach their standards for PM10s. This is significantly higher than the five cities required to deliver Clean Air zones by the end of 2019.
Locally, there are automatic air monitoring stations measuring a variety of pollutants in areas of most concern and 160 locations across the city where just nitrogen dioxide levels are monitored.
Today’s challenge is to make as big a breakthrough on traffic pollution as the city’s leaders made on smog 50 years ago. If all buses and taxis in the city were low emission – and a good start has been made with the introduction of new buses - that would cut nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas by about 20 per cent, two-thirds of the way towards the required 30 per cent reduction.
Many MPs and the Local Government Association, as well as health campaigners, have been pressing the government to act. But the Coalition and Conservative government ministers have been unwilling to get to grips with the challenges. The government has had to be dragged through the courts every step of the way.
In February this year, the government was defeated in court for the third time in three years.  What's more, the judge was highly critical, saying that this was the third unsuccessful attempt by the government to produce a plan to bring down air pollution to legal levels as quickly as possible. He said ‘The history of this litigation shows that good faith, hard work and sincere promises are not enough... and it seems the court must keep the pressure on to ensure compliance is actually achieved.’ Effectively, in a decision which the judge described as ‘wholly exceptional’, the court said it was going to oversee the government’s plans.
The government’s air quality strategy, unveiled in May, was hugely disappointing. Again, it simply fails to rise to the challenge.
For many years, I have been specifically pressing the government about the need to take action in respect of pollution from the M1, over which the city council has no power but whose concerns led to one school having to be relocated to protect children’s health. Ministerial response has been to duck and dive.
However, at the very least now, ministers seem to understand that they will have to act in a number of ways to cut the M1 pollution.
Last week, my colleague, Paul Blomfield (MP, Sheffield Central) and I again pressed the case with the Minister in the House of Commons. The response? After encouraging Sheffield City Council to ‘considering introducing a charging clean air zone (in the city centre) – which will undoubtedly be controversial, on the M1 issue, the Minister said:
My Department (DEFRA) and the Department for Transport have a joint air quality unit, and I am in regular contact with Highways England about its progress on improving air quality on the strategic road network. I welcome the work that it is considering to change speed limits and to install the barriers to which the hon. Gentleman referred.”
So, don’t take a deep breath … yet.