The Conservative Party and its local politicians are ducking and downplaying one of the greatest health scandals of our times, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people each year, condemning many of our children to asthma and lung-related diseases, and heart problems in the elderly.
Salisbury is very much a victim. I am Paul Sample, and I am determined to lead a UK and Wiltshire fight for breathable air, if you elect me as Liberal Democrat MP for Salisbury on June 8.
In Britain, outdoor air pollution directly causes 40,000 deaths per year, according to research by the Royal College of Physicians, published last year, by stoking health problems including cancer, asthma, strokes and heart disease. That is more than 20 times the number of deaths from traffic accidents (1,732 in 2015), and more than half all deaths in England caused by smoking (nearly 80,000 per year).
When you compare the attention to health risks from smoking, you can see why this issue needs addressing.
According to the World Health Organisation, there are four main outdoor air pollutants to worry about: particulate matter: (smoke particles and dust); ozone; sulphur dioxide; and nitrogen dioxide.
In city centres, air pollution is mostly caused by traffic, and not least burning of diesel by cars, lorries and buses. UK efforts to cut air pollution and save lives are driven by European Union legislation (perhaps Leave campaigners would have called this “red tape”, or “burdensome regulation”), leading to corresponding laws and air pollution limits in the UK.
Where a UK local authority finds that it may struggle to meet these legally binding limits, it must declare an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA).
Salisbury has three AQMAs: one for the whole of Salisbury city centre within the ring road, and one each for properties facing London Road and along Wilton Road.
But we have just one air quality monitor for the whole city, on Exeter Street. That is more concerning given an independent finding by Clean Air UK, that four sites are more polluted than Exeter Street: Fisherton Street, Castle Road, Castle Street and Southampton Road.
And even the data from the Exeter Street site is poor. The station measures only two of the four air pollutants which are the focus of the WHO: nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, ignoring ozone and sulphur dioxide.
But let us dig into these data that we do have.
Long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide increases symptoms of asthma in children, and is associated with reduced lung function growth, according to the WHO. It is a pollutant whose levels parents must be acutely aware of. Under EU law, the UK has to stay below an annual average of 40 micrograms. That is the same as WHO limits.
What about Exeter Street? We reviewed the station for the last 12 months, up to May 30 2017. We found that the average for the period was 34 micrograms. That is only just within the maximum annual limit: I think that is a bad performance, not least because, as I have said, it turns out that this is far from the most polluted site in Salisbury.
Turning to particulate matter, exposure is associated with lung and heart disease. The WHO reports that there is no limit below which there are no effects. In other words, there is no safe level, only less dangerous levels. The UK is committed to stay below an average of 40 micrograms annually. That is double the WHO-recommended limit, of 20 micrograms.
What about Exeter Street? We found that the annual average level was 17 micrograms, in the past 12 months. That is within the UK limit, but very close to the maximum WHO limit. Given that the WHO warns that there is no absolutely safe level, that is worrying to me.
So, let’s summarise.
In Salisbury, we have three Air Quality Management Areas, defined as pollution hot-spots, but just one air quality monitor. That monitor measures only two of the four of the most dangerous outdoor air pollutants, as defined by the World Health Organisation. Levels of both pollutants almost breached maximum WHO limits in the past 12 months. There are at least four streets in Salisbury that are more polluted than Exeter Street. And two of those streets (Castle Road and Southampton Road) are not in an Air Quality Management Area.
This is a situation of scandalous neglect, where the complacency of local politicians speaks for itself.
Instead of welcoming the Clean Air UK study, and expressing appropriate concern and urgency, Tory councillor Richard Clewer attempted to smear its credibility.
“We are carrying out a longer term study to rule out any freak events or inaccuracies,” he said, quoted in the Salisbury Journal. “You have to be careful with any study because things like weather patterns have to be taken into account. We are not interested in any grand plans but looking at things we can do locally.”
Personally, I cannot think of a subject deserving of grander plans, greater resources and fuller attention than one that is killing 40,000 people per year, and whose wider health impacts – in particular asthma – especially target children. To remind Councillor Richard Clewer, these are not the claims of activists, but facts, from the World Health Organisation and the Royal College of Physicians.
His local Tory complacency is, if anything, amplified at the national level.
The government has been defeated twice in the High Court, by rulings that it is doing too little. This year, the court forced the government to publish an air pollution strategy, to get serious. That strategy, published last month, lacked teeth, however, calling for yet more toothless clean air zones, without hard measures, such as traffic charging or scrappage schemes to phase out diesel.
What will I do if I am elected your MP, on June 8?
First, I pledge to increase air quality monitoring in Salisbury. What you don’t measure you can’t manage. What I find most shocking about this issue is the low level of hard facts, which is breeding the complacency we see in our local politicians.
Second, I would strain, by hook or by crook, to halve the pollution I referred to: halve the nitrogen oxide, halve the particulates. This may demand initiatives such as pedestrianizing more of Salisbury; switching to electric buses; or banning older diesel vehicles from the city centre. So be it. Yes, we must enjoy our cars, but we must also enjoy our health, our children, our city.
Third, I will work tirelessly for a Brexit – if Brexit it must be – that retains EU codes to protect our health and environment. If there is one major institution that has strived to improve UK air quality, it is the EU. The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), led by Eurosceptic and prominent Leave campaigner, Andrea Leadsom, itself states: “Action to manage and improve air quality is largely driven by European (EU) legislation.”
Steered by Leadsom, it is no surprise that Britain has squirmed to avoid publishing an air pollution strategy. We deserve better.