The Covid-19 lockdown has reminded us how wonderful clean air is. Normally there are more than twenty streets in the borough of Stockport that are either illegally polluted by nitrogen dioxide or border-line, according to Greater Manchester’s official air quality map.
In 2018 the Government, under orders from the courts, finally started compelling local councils to locate pollution and take action. In Greater Manchester this means that HGVs, taxis and buses that breach the limits on emissions of nitrogen dioxide will face a pollution charge – probably from 2022.
The Government’s belated action is still inadequate. The pollution limits, originally established by the European Union, are weak and only half as effective as the restrictions recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Pollution from nitrogen dioxide and other toxic emissions from vehicle exhausts is distinct from the problem of CO2 from traffic and other sources, which causes climate change. For a while, use of diesel vehicles was encouraged to reduce CO2, even though diesels produce more toxic pollutants than do petrol engines.
Before the judges stepped in, Stockport Council was doing nothing about toxic vehicle emissions – except where pollution could be misrepresented as an argument for building more roads. The consequence of this policy was zero effective action.
Sine the beginning of the century, Stockport Council has been saying roads must be built to reduce pollution. The A6-Manchester Airport Road (A555) was completed in October 2018. Although some roads are less busy as a result, it is worsening existing illegal pollution on the A6 south of Hazel Grove and along the A34. In the longer term, traffic generated by the new road could also bring increased pollution to other roads.
If the proposed A555 extension to Bredbury (A6-M60 Bypass) were to be built before widespread uptake of electric cars, it would spread pollution along its route as well as on congested feeder roads such as the A6 in High Lane and Disley..
The road death toll
Traffic fumes are by far the biggest killer on our streets. According to the latest official estimate, air pollution contributes to 50,000 deaths a year in the UK: vehicle emissions play a part in most of them. In comparison. 1,775 people died in road accidents in 2013.
Cancer, heart disease, asthma and emphysema can all be caused by air pollution. Effects of exposure may develop quickly or over many years. Children are particularly vulnerable even to low doses. There is a growing international consensus that schools should not be within 150 metres of busy roads. The A6-M60 Bypass would run close to Dial Park Primary School, Offerton and the Overdale Centre in Romiley.
While traffic fumes are most dangerous in prolonged exposure for people living close to major roads, the highest concentrations are found within vehicles themselves. Frequent and professional drivers are at risk.
Thanks to the work of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, we now know that the following Stockport roads have severe problems with nitrogen dioxide: Chestergate, Corporation Street, Kingsway, Didsbury Road, Travis Brow, Ashton Road, Great Egerton Street, Knightsbridge, Stockport Road West, Buxton Road, London Road, Wellington Road North, Ashton Road, Hall Street, Spring Gardens, St Marys Way, Tiviot Way, Carrington Road, New Bridge Lane and Lancashire Hill. Sometimes only a short stretch of road breaks the limits.
However, the above list of roads is not the full extent of illegal pollution caused by vehicles in the borough. The worst polluters are the motorways; these are not included in the list because they are not controlled by local government.
In January 2018 a company called EarthSense produced air quality estimates for all post codes in the country. St Mary’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Heaton Norris next to the M60 had a particularly bad score.
Another major source of deadly pollution is sooty particulates, particularly from diesel engines. Particulates are left out of the current activity by local authorities.
The source of the problem
Politicians could stop the pollution epidemic by ordering the urgent phasing-out of vehicles powered by conventional engines, preferably including a scrappage scheme – starting with the main culprits, diesel HGVs and cars. Low- and no-emission alternatives are available. Germany is planning the end of the internal combustion engine in 2030. The British Government has a less ambitious target of halting new sales of conventional engines in 2035.
Until compelled by the courts to take action against air pollution, the British government had been relying on improvements in engine efficiency and technology to reduce emissions. Revelations that VW had rigged the testing of its diesel cars’ emissions has made it harder to believe car manufacturers’ claims for their engines.
We should not have to wait until the 2030s for clean air. The continuing delay in enforcement even of the modest legal limits set by the European Union is shocking. People are getting sick and dying now.
- SEMMMS Major Road Schemes Stage 2 Environmental Assessment (Full report PDF held by Stockport MBC)