YouReport – air quality

A member and Gosforth resident had a good look at air quality, zooming in from the EU and national situation to the subject’s relevance to Gosforth High Street – one of Newcastle Air Quality Management Areas (AQMA) (1).

This youReport article rightly argues that air pollution caused by motor traffic should be recognised as a serious public health crisis, and as such must be adequately addressed, as were open sewers and smoking in the recent and more distant past.

As a campaign group we hope that an alliance with partnering organisations will get the subject of air quality a due “airing” with widespread public dissemination and recognition.

We believe air quality should add yet another very strong reason to Local / Highway Authority’s toolkit to reduce the roads’ car dominance and provide real alternatives by making space for walking and cycling. It as yet appears Newcastle City Council are oblivious to the scale of the problem and its solutions.

Air pollution is now thought to be responsible for 29,000 early deaths per annum (2). Just before Christmas an all-party group of MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee produced a report calling this a “deadly public health crisis” (3) causing nearly as many deaths as smoking; and slamming the government for not having implemented its previous recommendations from 2010. Amongst the report’s recommendations were mentioned, to no great surprise: “active travel such as walking and cycling—the ultimate low emission options” (4).

Successive governments have attempted to address problems with air quality using financial incentives: taxing fuel as it taxed cigarettes. It’s worth noting that road traffic is responsible for about 70% of air pollution (5). Just as with smoking, this meant more income for the Exchequer but hasn’t prevented the current crisis from worsening. It hasn’t even met the modest targets set by the EU despite these having been around for more than 15 years. And in November, in a case citing North East England – where Tyneside is not forecast to be compliant until 2025 (6) – as well as 15 other cities and regions, the UK was judged to be in breach of those targets and potentially facing a £300m fine (7).

Real progress was made against smoking, and in particular the impact on those who do not smoke, in the 2006 Health Act, which enacted a smoking ban in public places. While this effectively stopped the impact of smoke in these areas, air pollution will be much harder to avoid unless tackled at source. The Transport Operations Research Group at Newcastle University backed this up in February 2014 saying that “Research we have done along the Gosforth High Street corridor (one of Newcastle’s two AQMAs) demonstrates that unless the volume of cars is reduced and the congestion removed, pollution will not fall significantly” (8).

There are further precedents for direct intervention with legislation and engineering solutions. After the great smog of 1952, which brought London to a halt and killed an estimated 12,000 people the Government, after initially resisting pressure to act, introduced the Clean Air Act. Further back, cholera outbreaks in London and the Great Stink of 1858 led directly to the construction on London’s sewers.

In both these cases the underlying public health issues had been present for a while, but it took a defining moment (the stink and the smog) and brave leaders, scientists and engineers to stick their necks out before action was finally taken. Unfortunately history repeats itself. Extreme worsening before a major clean-up takes place may be happening again: the experience with Gosforth High Street shows that even with multiple consultations (9) and strong cycling advocacy [thanks, ed.] it is still a challenge even to get a painted cycle lane, almost certainly the very minimum needed to enable visitors to Gosforth to replace a car journey with a bike.

While everyone suffers, it could be the motorist who is most impacted by the pollution and has most to gain from switching to walking and cycling. According to the astonishing findings of a study by the Healthy Air Campaign (10), switching from car to bike does not only reduce overall pollution, but the motorist could be reducing their exposure by a factor of up to eight times.

But this is dependent on having the right infrastructure for cycling, and in the right places too so it provides access to all the same places that we all want to go whether that is Gosforth High Street or the schools or hospitals that the parliamentary report highlighted as being particularly in need of protection.


References and further reading (please note that external links may go out of date)

  1. Managing and improving air quality in Newcastle
  2. Air pollution: European commission launches legal action against the UK 20/2/2014
  3. Air pollution ‘causing deadly public health crisis’ 8/12/2014
  4. House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Action on Air Quality 26/11/2014
  5. HealthyAir – the problem
  6. UK cities will exceed EU pollution limits until 2030, figures show 10/7/2014
  7. Independent 20/2/2014
  8. Air quality fear backs council plan for Gosforth High Street 28/2/2014
  9. Gosforth Transport Improvements 2014
  10. Which transport option is the healthiest? 12/8/2014

Air quality update

On 29/4/2015 the UK Supreme court, in its final definitive ruling, required that the UK government act on air pollution.  This is the culmination of a five year legal battle fought by ClientEarth for the right of British people to breathe clean air.

As part of its ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously ordered that the government must submit new air quality plans to the European Commission no later than 31 December 2015.

The court goes on to say that “The CJEU [Court of Justice of the European Union] judgment leaves no doubt as the seriousness of the breach, which has been continuing for more than five years, nor as to the responsibility on the national court to secure compliance. Further, during those five years the prospects of early compliance have become worse (2014 projections predicting non-compliance in some zones after 2030). The Secretary of State accepted that a new plan has to be prepared. The new government should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action, which is achieved by an order that new plans must be delivered to the Commission not later than 31 December 2015”

The Client Earth press release is here:

The formal judgement and a summary for the press is here: