‘It’s just complete inaction’
The renewed attempt to get Northampton’s air pollution problem up the agenda
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By Sarah Ward
On Thursday it is expected that hundreds of people will gather at Northampton’s Guildhall to protest. It’s been a busy few weeks for public demonstrations in the town - following on from the call by the Fire Brigades Union for the commissioner to quit and by special needs families objecting to poor education standards - but this protest will be about urging the unitary authority to act on air pollution.
Organised by the Umbrella fair organisation, its 1000 Voices: clean air campaign aims to mobilise a peaceful protest that it hopes will be the largest ever outside a meeting of the West Northamptonshire full council.
And inside the council meeting (which starts at 5pm) the opposition Labour group will be asking the Conservative administration to devise and publish a clean air policy by January, while the Liberal Democrats will propose the council redeclares its climate emergency and makes sustainability a consideration in every major decision taken.
A long running issue
Poor air quality is not a new topic in Northampton as it has been known for two decades, when a section of the M1 was discovered to have over the permitted levels of nitrogen oxide.
Since then a number of other locations in the town have been identified as being above the legal limit including an area just outside the town’s general hospital.
In 2017 the British Heart Foundation attributed one in 20 deaths in the town to air pollution and said the death rate would only rise if action was not taken.
But for several years the discourse from the local authority has been about monitoring and coming up with a plan. The former borough council produced an air quality annual status report in 2020, which said:
“The main source of air pollution in the borough is road traffic emissions from vehicles on major roads, notably the M1, A43, A45, A4500, A5101 and A5123. Traffic emissions are a major source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter of different size fractions (PM10 and PM2.5). Other pollution sources including commercial, industrial and domestic sources also make a contribution to pollutant concentrations.
“Currently there are seven Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) declared within the Council’s designation. All of these are related to traffic emissions and have been designated for exceedances of the NO2 annual mean objective.”
But rather than setting out an action plan, it was claimed in the 2020 borough council report that the authority could not produce a plan ‘due to delays in obtaining reliable and accurate traffic data to inform the modelling.’ No reason was given why the data could not be gained.
The authority did however adopt a low emission strategy from 2017-2023, which sought to speed up the uptake of cleaner vehicle fuels. It also started to produce the Northampton Electric Vehicle Plan.
However, since 2021 when the West Northants unitary replaced the borough council, a new air quality annual status report has not been produced.
Dave Pearson, who set up pressure group Clean Air Northampton earlier this year said:
“The borough council used to produce an annual report but the new unitary authority has not continued that tradition.
“Every six months I write to them and say ‘Where is the action plan?’ because they are legally required to complete an action plan for each of the areas and frequently they say ‘We don’t have anybody in place to do the work.’
“I’m hoping that this is to do with our pressure, but about a month ago they actually posted a job advert for an environmental health officer to focus on air quality, so once they’ve recruited somebody hopefully we should get some movement. It’s a pretty poor excuse really.
“The longest standing area was announced in 2003, so that’s 20 years that they identified there is a problem and they have not even come up with an action plan to tackle it.
“We sent a list of ten things that the council could do and we’d be happy for them to do any of them, but the problem is they are doing none of them. It’s just complete inaction.
“We are kind of hesitant to tell them what to do as they’ve got professional environmental health officers who know far better than we do what will be effective, it is just that they are doing nothing.”
Policy suggestions put forward by Dave to council leader Jonathan Nunn include:
Lower speed limits in residential areas; 60mph speed limits on arterial roads such as the M1, A45 and A433; Clean air zones; Ceasing the licensing of diesel taxis,introduce electric buses and Improve active travel.
In February the authority received just shy of £300,000 funding from the Government for new initiatives to improve air-quality in Northampton. This comes after an earlier grant of around £150,000 which the council says ‘is focused on active traffic management to improve congestion and poor air quality in existing air quality management areas.’
It says the second grant will:
“Provide funding to develop an evidence base for possible action to deal with particulate pollution in the West Northants. Work proposed will include air quality monitoring and modelling, along with survey work to identify patterns of fuel use in the area. This will be supported by communications to residents to advise on how to ensure that solid fuel burning is carried out in the most efficient way and providing details on alternative methods.”
In its most recent annual report, giving an overview of all departments, the authority sets out ‘progressing the air quality schemes as a priority’ and also ‘working with partners to develop an action plan to improve air quality in the area.’
According to the government’s own website: “In the UK, air pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health.”
And while the country’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty made air pollution the subject of his annual report last December claiming the country can and should go further, there appears to be no requirement on his public health teams - which are based within local authorities - to do anything to actively tackle the issue.
In the latest West Northamptonshire Council public health report for 2022, air quality and its impact on public health is not even mentioned, perhaps indicating how low a priority it currently is. *After publication the authority has said air pollution was not mentioned because the theme of this year’s public health report was the cost of living.
On Thursday Labour councillors Paul Joyce and Danielle Stone will put forward the following motion:
“Poor air quality is among the greatest health threats in West Northamptonshire. The British Heart Foundation attributed 1 in 20 deaths in Northampton to air pollution in 2017 and predicted air pollution would cause 1,700 deaths in Northamptonshire before 2030.
In 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its guidelines on safe pollution levels. This included a maximum annual average of 5 µg/m3 for PM2.5, the most dangerous pollutant which causes heart and lung disease and cancers. Recent measurements from IQ Air shows levels in areas of Northampton are worryingly twice this amount.
West Northamptonshire Council have made several commitments to deliver clean air, including signing up to the UK100 Net Zero Pledge in 2022, committing to be ‘Clean and Green’ in the corporate plan, and inheriting Northampton Borough Council’s Northampton Low Emission Strategy (NLES) until 2025. Yet this council still has no overarching policy towards tackling air quality.
Recognised change in pollution levels has been achieved by reducing idling through introducing smart traffic lights and School Streets initiatives. A trial of school streets in London effectively reduced levels of lethal nitrogen dioxide outside schools by 23%, whilst the introduction of smart traffic lights at roadworks in Kent successfully reduced car idling and journey times by up to 41%.
This council recognises:
· Poor air quality is a major problem that is affecting the health of residents in West Northamptonshire and pollutant levels are dangerously above recognised safe level’s
This council resolves to request the Cabinet to:
· Publish a cohesive clean air policy, pulling together the efforts of LAPs, parish councils and community groups, for their meeting in January 2024
· Commit this council to meet WHO guidelines on safe air pollution levels by 2028
· Outline its plans for the £292,378 given to WNC to improve air quality for their meeting in December 2023
· Consider and explore a trial of the School Streets Initiative for West Northants, looking at available sites, appropriate locations and inviting members and local residents to suggest locations to plan and initiate a trial.
· Conduct research into trialling smart traffic light systems for future roadworks in West Northants and any funding available to trial a sensor or AI-based traffic system”.
And Liberal Dem councillors Jonathan Harris and Rosie Humphries will propose:
“In July 2021, West Northamptonshire Council passed a motion recognising the climate emergency. In December 2021, a resolution was passed to sign up to the UK100 net zero pledge, reaffirming the council’s commitment to deliver a net zero position on its carbon emissions by 2030 and 2045 for the wider West Northants area.
Since that time the scale of the challenge has become greater, and the need for action more urgent. Climate change is driving extreme weather such as heatwaves that cost lives. Wildlife is under extreme pressure, and species loss is accelerating.
The surface temperature of the world’s oceans has hit its highest ever level as climate breakdown from burning fossil fuels causes the oceans to heat.
Following the hottest June on record and a series of extreme weather events, including heatwaves in Europe, North America and Asia, and wildfires in Canada and Greece, data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S*) show that the first three weeks of July have broken several significant records.
This motion therefore offers members the opportunity to renew West Northamptonshire Council’s commitment to taking action to tackle the climate and ecological emergency.
That this Council resolves to redeclare its recognition of the climate emergency, and calls on the executive to:
a) Fully Integrate consideration of climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature recovery, into all council decision-making; ensuring that all decisions are compatible with the goal of a zero-carbon council by 2030.
b) Formalise the procedures for this decision-making, with automatic decision referral being made to the Sustainability Manager/and or the Sustainability team for input and contribution to key decisions, in much the same way as finance and legal contribute to sign off of all major decisions.
c) Commit to taking every opportunity to improve wildlife protection and better management of land for nature, including on council-owned land, therefore ensuring wider biodiversity net gain in line with the forthcoming legislation.
d) Support and strengthen action with partners, i.e., NPH, towards the goal of a zero-carbon, nature-rich West Northamptonshire by 2045.”
Both motions will be voted on and NN Journal will bring you a report from the meeting to let you know whether the conservative administration backed the motions of the other parties.
You can sign up to the 1000 Voices campaign here and the protest will take place outside the guildhall from 4pm.