Across the UK, children are walking to school along roads choked with both traffic and with pollution. These issues are inextricably linked, and although medical professionals are reluctant to suggest cause, incidences of respiratory disease are higher in the areas where the air pollution is particularly bad.
Nationally, the government is being slated, both for the speed of its response, and the perceived inadequacy of that response, and it remains to be seen whether they have a real understanding of the scale of the problem.
Closer to home, similar criticisms could be directed at our local administrations. Northampton has a long-standing air pollution problem, and although the Borough Council has produced a strategy to deal with this, campaigners have suggested its another case of too little, too late.
Councils have a specific requirement to monitor air quality in their locales. If they find an area that regularly exceeds pollution levels, then they must declare it as an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) and they have to prepare a plan to outline how they will resolve the issue.
As you would expect, Northampton has a few of these AQMAs. Unsurprisingly, most of these are in the town centre, with additional ones in Kingsthorpe, adjacent to the M1, and on the A45 as it approaches the M1 at J15.
More surprisingly, all of the AQMAs have been in existence since at least 2009 with the oldest of them (AQMA 1, bordering the M1 between J15 and J15A) having been declared in January 2003. You might ask yourself what is being done about it? That’s a good question.
DEFRA guidance suggests that an Air Quality Action Plan (AQAP) should be prepared within 12 months of an AQMA being declared, and that this plan should develop measures that will achieve the air quality objectives. For the AQMAs in Northampton, that means we have had at least 8 years to prepare AQAPs, or 14 years for the M1 area.
We’re still waiting.
The Green Party submitted a FOI response to the council in February 2016, asking for the AQAP, and received the following response :
“The Council has written its Clean Air/Low Emission Strategy which replaces the need for an action plan. This is currently in draft form, therefore the Council is withholding this information.”
That’s right. As of February 2016, Northampton Borough Council did not have an Action Plan for any of the AQMAs in Northampton, but they did have a Low Emission Strategy, which would supersede this. However, because they were still consulting with partner organisations, they couldn’t release it to us at that time.
Environmental Services are under resourced. Over the past two years, I’ve spoken to representatives of local authorities across the country, and it’s obvious that Northampton isn’t unique in this respect. As budgets are squeezed, it seems to be harder for councils to fulfil requirements that are not seen as core, and, despite the undoubted seriousness, it seems that air quality monitoring often falls through the gaps.
Although it’s fair to say that the response of the Borough Council in Northampton over the past 15 years has been inadequate, they have managed to free the resource to produce the Low Emission Strategy that the FOI request referred to, and for that they should be applauded. It’s not a strategy that’s going to solve Northampton’s air quality issue, but it’s a step in the right direction.
This document has three core messages, one of which is “Creating a Low Emission Future”. This acknowledges that a key part of this is changing behaviour by offering people the options to use their cars less and the document hopes that this might complement the active travel strategies already in place across the County.
Broadly speaking, the hope is that people will use bicycles or buses as an alternative to cars, and when they come to replace their cars, they might consider electric ones rather than diesel or petrol engines.
For this to happen though, the Council needs to start taking action. They have acknowledged the paucity of electric vehicle charging points in the town, and are discussing ways to resolve this. They’re also in discussions with bus operators about reducing bus emissions, but this inevitably leads to the situation with Northgate Bus Station and whether it is fit for purpose. The persistent traffic jams around the Bus Station means that the air pollution there is as high as anywhere else in the town, and passengers waiting in the Drapery are now exposed to exhaust fumes from buses whilst they wait.
The Low Emission strategy has now gone through a 6 month scrutiny period which came up with a large list of recommendations, including the adoption of an AQMA across the whole town centre, rather than the piecemeal approach that we currently have.
There’s also discussion about a Clean Air Zone, which would effectively ban high polluting vehicles from the Town Centre. It’s just about possible that Northampton could position itself at the vanguard of the air pollution crisis by pushing to do this, setting examples to other towns with similar problems, and possibly unlocking national funding in the process.
At some point, a decision has to be made. Is the recovery of our town centre possible without it being easily accessible by car? Is the health of our town centre more important than the health of the people that live and work in it? Because of the lack of alternative infrastructure, it seems that the administration in Northampton are wedded to the idea that car is king. Free parking in the town centre won’t solve the air pollution crisis. We need a Council with the foresight to not just adopt the Low Emission Strategy, but to embrace its recommendations and ensure that this strategy works in consort with any plan for town centre redevelopment. Otherwise, in 2027, we’ll be having the same discussions in the 10th Anniversary issue of the NeneQuirer, and by then it will be too late.
List of current AQMAs
(from DEFRA – https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/aqma/local-authorities?la_id=186)
AQMA 1 – Declared January 2003
Area of land alongside the Southside carriageway of the M1 within Northampton Borough Council boundaries
AQMA 2 – Declared April 2005
An area along Bridge Street, Victoria Promenade and Victoria Gardens, including the Plough Hotel.
AQMA 3 – Declared April 2005
An area along St James Road, Weedon Road, Harlestone Road and adjoining streets.
AQMA 4 – Declared April 2008
An area along parts of Kingsthorpe Grove, Harborough Road, Cranford Terrace, Alexandra Terrace and Boughton Green Road.
AQMA 5 – Declared April 2009
An area along Wootton Hall Park, Cottesbrooke Gardens, Hermitage Way, Stratford Drive and Chestnut Drive close to the A45 London Road.
AQMA 6 – Declared April 2009
An area along or near Campbell Square at the junction of the A4500 (Grafton Street0 and Regent Street in central Northampton
AQMA 8 – Declared April 2009
An area along St Michaels Road and close to the junction on Kettering Road.
Steve Miller was born in Northampton in the 1970s, and still lives there today with his family. He still misses Spinadisc Records on Abington Street. He’s been a member of the Green Party since 2010 and was their Parliamentary candidate in Northampton North earlier this year.
More details about the Green Party’s Northampton Air Quality campaign can be found at https://northants.greenparty.org.uk/northampton-air-quality.html or on email at firstname.lastname@example.org