On 25th January this year our local newspaper (now called GetWestLondon) published what was clearly meant to be a good-news item announcing the creation of green screens at Westway Sports Centre, funded by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London, and designed to offer some measure of protection to users of the sports centre against air pollution from the Westway flyover under which the largely openair complex sits.

The project was welcomed by Westway Trust chief executive Angela McConville who expressed delight that users of the outdoor Westway facilities would now have greater protection from emissions coming from the flyover and associated ramps.

Councillor Tim Ahern, head of environment at RBKC, was quoted as saying;

“Following the installation of a green screen at one of our primary schools, the council approached the Westway Trust with the idea of locating one alongside the Westway’s outdoor sports pitches. We have spent over a year working with both TfL and the Westway Trust to get this project off the ground and are delighted that it has now been installed and we hope in time sports pitch users will benefit from reduced exposure to pollutants.”

Casual readers of this article might be forgiven for believing that this was, as stated above, a ‘good-news’ story, and that patrons of the Westway Sports Centre have reason to be grateful to Ms McConville and Councillor Ahern for their efforts. However, there is a lot more to this story than the ‘GetWestLondon’ article suggests and any illusion that a few green-screens at one or two discrete locations might have any significant impact on the seriousness of London’s air pollution crisis can be very quickly dispelled by reading a report posted on 8th January on the wesite of environmental lobby group ‘Clean Air In London’ which reveals that the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) hourly legal limit for the whole of 2016 was breached in London in just eight days in January.

Simon Birkett, an internationally recognised expert in the field, and Founder and Director of ‘Clean Air in London’, said:

“It is breathtaking that toxic air pollution in London has breached the legal limit for a whole calendar year within a few days…..In London and across Europe, air pollution is killing more than 10 times the number of people dying from road traffic accidents. The known health effects of air pollution have rocketed in recent years with the World Health Organisation classifying outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans in October 2013 as it did smoking in February 1985.  At its simplest, in public health terms, ‘invisible’air pollution is where smoking was 30 years ago in terms of the scale and certainty of the risks and the lack of public understanding of them.”

In a recent interview for the RT television news channel Mr Birkett compared the mortality rates associated with the current air pollution crisis to the mortality caused by the notorious London smogs of the 1950’s. At that time the smog was caused by burning coal on a massive scale, mostly for domestic heating. The solution was the ‘Clean Air Act’ of 1956 which banned the burning of coal, and similarly toxic domestic heating fuels, in high risk metropolitan areas. According to Mr Birkett the main cause of London’s current air pollution crisis is diesel exhaust, and the solution he suggests is analogous to the solution implemented in 1956. Diesel fuelled vehicles must be banned or strictly limited in high risk metropolitan areas. He goes on to say;

“Put simply, diesel exhaust is the biggest public health catastrophe since the Black Death.”

Regular readers of this blog may already know that the Grenfell Action Group has been campaigning against air pollution since July 2012, and since that time we have repeatedly voiced our concerns and confronted poor air quality in the vicinity of the Westway flyover generally, and at the Westway Sports Centre in particular.

(Please see below a full list of links to our previous blogs)

During the course of our campaigning we contacted ‘Clean Air In London’ and subsequently assisted a research group from King’s College, London measuring air quality in the Sports Centre Area. Throughout the entire period of our campaign we received no cooperation or encouragement from either the Council or the Westway Trust, both of which maintained, until recently, a pretense that there was no air quality problem in the vicinity of the sports complex. We now believe that they introduced the green screens largely in reaction to adverse publicity generated by our stubborn determination to keep this issue in the public eye.

When we began our campaign we were largely ignorant of the full implications of London’s air pollution crisis, and especially of the associated high mortality, but the more we researched the subject the more we learned and discovered. The same cannot be said of Councillor Ahern, or his advisors in the Council’s environment department, who surely had all this information at their disposal all along. They surely knew that the provision of a few green screens would amount to no more than a sticking plaster which would completely fail to address the scale or urgency of the air pollution problem.

It is equally clear that neither Councillor Ahern, nor the whole RBKC Cabinet for that matter, would have the power or influence to affect change on the necessary scale. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that RBKC did not even fund the green screens at the sports centre, opting instead to depend entirely on funding from the GLA and TfL. In light of what we now know of the seriousness of the health risks associated with diesel exhaust emissions, we feel dutybound to restate the opinion expressed to us by Professor Frank Kelly of King’s College when we raised our concerns with him about the possible effects of air pollution at the Westway Sports Centre;

“It was clearly not the right decision to provide planning permission to locate a sports facility at this location – one at which children would be exposed to high NO2 concentrations while exercising.”

In light of Professor Kelly’s comment we would have to say that installing green screens that will provide only limited and partial protection against the air pollution risk at the Westway sports complex strikes us as too little and too late. All things considered we believe it is past time that both the Royal Borough and the Westway Trust gave serious consideration to the future of the Westway Sports Centre, starting with the question of the appropriateness of the site and whether it might be better to move the entire complex, or at least the outdoor sports pitches, to a more suitable location.

The solution to the wider air pollution crisis suggested by Simon Birkett, is a simple but not an easy one. The UK’s whole freight transport system has long been overly dependent on diesel fuelled road transport and the changes required will need legislation by Central Government which are likely to be econonically costly and unpopular with many, not least the freight transport lobby. It is doubtful whether the political will exists, either at the GLA or in Downing Street, to prioritise public health and the saving of human life, and quality of life, over whatever competing economic or political interests the government are committed to, or the vested interests they are aligned with.

What is absolutely clear, however, is that London’s air pollution crisis is nothing short of a public health catastrophe that needs to be urgently addressed using all means necessary.

Change has got to come!

Links to previous Grenfell Action Group blogs ;

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