Andrea Lee and Claire Garside: No child should have risk their health just by going to school – why action is needed over illegal air pollution

What mkore can be done to counter pollution in cities like Leeds?
What mkore can be done to counter pollution in cities like Leeds?
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NO child should have to risk serious health issues just by going to school. That seems an extraordinary thing to have to say, but illegal levels of air pollution around our schools mean many children are doing exactly that in the UK today. And Yorkshire is no exception.

ClientEarth has won three cases against the UK Government over illegal and harmful levels of air pollution across the country, which has prompted action. But things are not moving quickly enough, particularly for our children, who suffer the effects of breathing bad air more acutely than adults.

Indeed, in some towns and cities, which were ordered to further investigate and produce plans to tackle the problem after ClientEarth’s last legal victory, the problem has been found to be far worse than we originally feared.

Bradford is one such city, where it was revealed that air pollution would not meet legal limits until 2027 – 17 years after those limits were first introduced.

That is why the Clean Air Parents’ Network – a group of parents from across the country – recently launched its Clean Air for Children Programme in Parliament.

More than 70 MPs came to meet parents from across the country to hear their concerns about the dirty air our children are breathing and what needs to be done to clean it up.

It calls for, among other things, a ban on any new schools, nurseries and playgrounds in pollution hotspots and a comprehensive audit of the air quality outside of current ones because, shockingly, the Government doesn’t measure air pollution around our schools.

It asks the Government to commit £153m of new funding to emergency measures which would tackle this public health crisis for children with the urgency it calls for.

Leeds City Council has consulted on its plans for a Clean Air Zone, which would charge certain vehicles, like buses, coaches, HGVs and taxis, to enter some of the most polluted parts of the city if they did not meet the latest emissions standards.

The evidence suggests that expanding the charge to car and van drivers may also be needed to meet the legal obligation to bring air pollution to within legal limits in the city in the shortest time possible.

These solutions are not disproportionate given the overwhelming evidence of the damage air pollution is doing to our children’s health.

But the problem cannot be dumped on councils by central Government. Funds are needed for scrappage schemes and other ways to help people and businesses, particularly those from low incomes and small businesses, move to cleaner ways of getting about the city.

Despite the scale of the problem, the event in Parliament was an inspiring example of people power. MPs were impressed by the strength of feeling and the common sense policies.

And we don’t need to look to Westminster for positive examples of action. There are inspiring examples across the country, not least in Leeds.

Community-led groups such as Moortown Living Streets support parents and carers to make a difference to the health and wellbeing of families in their local area, with a focus on activities such as the recent International Walk to School Month.

They are helping others to make behaviour changes to improve the lives of everyone in the community. This is shown by the reduction in the proportion of journeys to school by car from 15 per cent to four per cent since January this year.

There are also schemes that harness digital technology to highlight – and solve – local air quality issues.

The Foundation for Digital Creativity gives people the chance to create and code monitoring devices and collect data on air quality themselves.

Long waiting times for pedestrians at crossing points in the area are a concern voiced by more and more parents recently. The Foundation is using smart sensors to examine the health implications of this and see what changes can be made.

The Clean Air Parents’ Network helps others to understand the key issues around air pollution, and that is a catalyst for change when parents, carers and communities collaborate to demand change to protect the health of children.  

Andrea Lee is a senior campaigner for ClientEarth. Claire Garside lives in Leeds with her husband and daughter. She is the Co-founder of the Foundation for Digital Creativity.