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Brentwood Liberal Democrats: We need to start tackling air pollution

December 4, 2020 8:29 PM
By Gary MacDonnell

air polluting carThis week, in South London, a coroner's court is holding an inquest into the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah back in February 2013.

Why is this important?

It is a potential landmark legal case. A coroner is being asked to rule that air pollution caused the death from an acute asthma attack. This finding would make legal history. It has never been identified as a cause of death before in the UK and this is thought to be the first case of its kind in the world. Representatives from Lewisham Council, the Mayor of London and government will give evidence about their knowledge of the levels of toxic air around where Ella lived, the health impacts and what was being done to reduce the pollution. It has already been decided that article 2 - the right to life - of the Human Rights Act, that scrutinises the role of public bodies in a person's death, apply to the hearing.

What is beyond dispute is that air quality levels were poor and spiked to Illegal levels in and aroundthe time of Ella's death. That is levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) exceeding legal limits. The public health team at Lewisham Council also accept that exposure to these levels of Nitrogen Dioxide can affect public health.
We await the outcome but should air pollution be identified as a cause then all councils will be on a high state of alert and I believe we will start to see authorities properly start tackling the matter of air pollution. Standing by will no longer be a viable option for those with the power to make necessary changes.

Currently, all borough and district authorities have responsibility for air quality. To be clear, in Brentwood it is the role of the borough council, not the county council, to ensure that air quality is not in breech of public health guidelines. I take the position that all local authorities do take this responsibility seriously but as has been stated at Ella's inquest authorities move at a "glacial pace" in response to these matters. Ella's inquest could change this, local authorities and public health officials could in the future be legally responsible for our health with legal implications should they not fulfil these roles properly and act to control air pollution.

Within Essex we have started to see some interventions happening to improve air quality. Those that travel regularly on the A127 will know that 50 miles per hour speed restrictions were introduced in 2019 through the Basildon area. This required a ministerial directive from central government to improve
air quality on certain lengths of the A127. The implementation of a 50mph enforced restriction can deliver a reduction in the NO2 levels in order that they will comply with the Air Quality Directive by 2021.

Like all areas of the country, Brentwood has its issues. Brentwood suffers negatively in terms of air quality due to its proximity to major congested roads like the M25, A12 and A127. There are localised hotspots, again in common with all areas these seem to cluster around schools at drop off and pick up times, urban centres, supermarkets and - most ironically - health centres. Brentwood has had three declared Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs). These are declared when there is an exceedance or likely exceedance of an air quality objective. After declaration, the authority must prepare an Air Quality Action Plan (AQAP) within 12-18 months setting out measures it intends to put in place in pursuit of compliance with the objectives. 12 to 18 months is to my mind, far to long to tackle such a serious issue. The three AQMA's were:

To note that the Brentwood Borough Council 2020 Air Quality Annual Status Report proposed revoking these AQMAs with higher levels of air quality being measured which is clearly a positive step. However, I was struck by how little actual proactive work was considered for the reduced levels of pollution. Instead the case for revoking seemed to rest on weather conditions affecting readings and the proposed extension of the London Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) from Central London out to the North Circular boundary. It was noted that this "is likely to drive an improvement of the vehicle fleet emissions on routes in to and out of London, through Brentwood either along the A12 or around the M25 which could lead to further downward trend of concentrations in AQMA2 and AQMA4". (A copy of Brentwood Borough Council's 2020 Air Quality Annual Status Report (ASR) can be accessed here).

Brentwood Liberal Democrats have a very clear position. We must now start to make local changes to improve air quality. This isn't a question of reaching legal minimums, it is about ensuring heathy streets. The Healthy Streets Approach is a system of policies and strategies to deliver a healthier, more inclusive urban area where people choose to walk, cycle and use public transport. We will work to put in place infrastructure that will encourage cycling, walkable neighbourhoods and safer school streets. We will encourage more active travel, improving physical health and wellbeing, reducing congestion and pollution. The Liberal Democrats will be proactive on air quality.

Cllr Barry Aspinell and Gary MacDonnell (Karen Chilvers)

Gary MacDonnell with Cllr Barry Aspinell in Shenfield

Gary MacDonnell is Chair of Brentwood Liberal Democrats and our candidate for the 2021 Borough Council election for Shenfield Ward. You can contact him at gary.macdonnell@brentwoodlibdems.org.uk