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What can be done to clean up Norwich’s dirty air?

PUBLISHED: 06:46 03 May 2018 | UPDATED: 09:31 03 May 2018

Norwich's Castle Meadow is one area with high air pollution. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norwich's Castle Meadow is one area with high air pollution. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

Closing roads around schools, fining drivers for leaving their engines running and getting cleaner buses.

Smog over Norwich in 2014. Photo: Mike Newman/citizensideSmog over Norwich in 2014. Photo: Mike Newman/citizenside

These ideas have all been touted in the fight to clean up Norwich’s air.

The city’s air is dirtier than New York, Birmingham and Newcastle and air pollution contributes to thousands of deaths a year, according to health experts.

The latest report from the World Health Organization (WHO) found 31 towns and cities in the UK, including Norwich, had fine air particle pollution levels above the guideline amount.

Fine air particle pollution is particularly bad when breathed in and is linked to diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory infections.

The particles can only be seen under the microscope but come from vehicle exhausts, wood burning and power plants.

From 2013 to 2015 levels fell in places like London and Sheffield, but in Norwich they have stayed at a similar level.

In 2013, the figure was at the guideline of 10 micrograms per cubic metre, increasing to 12 the next year and stands at 11 in the latest reading which is for 2015.

It means Norwich’s air pollution is as bad as London and worse than bigger northern cities such as Birmingham and Newcastle.

Dr Louise Smith, director of public health at the Norfolk County Council said air pollution can lead to heart and lung disease. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYDr Louise Smith, director of public health at the Norfolk County Council said air pollution can lead to heart and lung disease. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Richard Jennings, 49, chair of the Norwich Cycling Campaign, said: “It’s really surprising to see Norwich in the list. These pollution figures have been flagged up for many years.

“There are a lot of plans to reduce pollution that haven’t been acted upon like on Rose Lane and Prince of Wales Road. These figures reinforce the need for these plans.”

In 2014 Public Health England estimated that 5.5pc of all deaths of people aged 25 years and over in Norwich and 5.5pc in Broadland and South Norfolk were linked to fine air particulate pollution. That meant 1,900 potential years of life were lost.

Dr Louise Smith, Director of Public Health at Norfolk County Council, said: “Poor air quality contributes to ill health such as breathing problems, heart disease and cancer.”

Norwich Green Party councillor Martin Schmierer wants the council to close roads in front of schools at the start and end of the school day. 
PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAYNorwich Green Party councillor Martin Schmierer wants the council to close roads in front of schools at the start and end of the school day. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

County Hall is supporting Norwich City Council’s attempts to reduce air pollution by encouraging more public transport, cycling and walking.

But particular areas in Norwich have been identified as having especially high levels, such as Castle Meadow in the city centre, which has several bus stops.

Norfolk County Council was given more than £400,000 of Government cash at the end of 2015 to clean up the worst polluting buses.

The money was used to retrofit the exhaust systems of 24 buses, 19 of which have been done.

The council said the remaining five would be fitted in the coming months.

But the Green Party said at the time over 250 badly polluting buses remained in operation.

First Buses, meanwhile, brought in 11 new buses last November for the Norwich Network Green Line services emitting 99pc less carbon monoxide than the older engines.

The company said it would be retrofitting more buses this year with lower emission diesel engines.

But other green bus schemes have been less successful.

AnglianBus’s fleet of carbon neutral vehicles serving rural routes in Norfolk and Suffolk were moved to Plymouth in 2016 because they were deemed unsuitable for country routes.

Meanwhile the city council asked the Government in March for powers to fine drivers for leaving their engines on.

It follows research by the University of East Anglia (UEA) into how putting signs up on Riverside Road telling drivers to turn off their idling engines when the lights were red, led to more switching them off.

The city centre has also been covered by something called an “air quality management area” since 2003.

Green Party city councillor Martin Schmierer said: “The latest WHO figures demonstrate that it is clear that we need faster and more drastic action locally and nationally on this public health emergency.

“We support a rapid phasing-out of diesel vehicles, along with financial support for people to switch to cycling, public transport or car clubs.”

He also called on the council to close roads in front of schools at the start and beginning of the school day.

The British Lung Foundation, which has a support group in Norwich, called on the Government to set legal limits on pollution levels.

“This report reconfirms that air pollution is one of the leading environmental public health crises in the UK today,” said Alison Cook from the Foundation. “Action to reduce the toxic particles in the air we breathe can no longer be delayed.”

The body which commissions NHS services in the city, Norwich CCG, said it was a matter for the city and county council.

The city council did not provide a response to our request for comment.

•Reaction to the WHO figures

-Chris Jackson, 45, from Norwich, said: “It’s surprising to see – you’d expect somewhere industrial to be on the list, not rural Norwich.

“I’m a big fan of buses though because I don’t drive – I use them a lot.”

-Trevor Jones, 62, from Brundall, said: “I’m astounded, I wouldn’t have thought that at all – not that I’m a person who reads up on this sort of thing.

“The more I think about it actually, it must be so congested by the buses at Castle Meadow.”

-Trevor Riches, 80, of the Norfolk & Fens Cycling Campaign said: “The world has got to get its act together – there is no second planet; this is the only one we’ve got.

“Our grandchildren are inheriting a mess our past and present lot have brought upon us.”

-Mark Ray, also from the Cycling Campaign, added: “We’d expect to see King’s Lynn suffer from that problem too but they don’t actually measure fine air particulate pollution here.

“Coarse particulate pollution actually exceeds the WHO limit in King’s Lynn.”

•The 31 UK places on air pollution list

The WHO found 31 places in the UK exceeded the limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre of fine particle air pollution.

They were: Port Talbot: (18 micrograms per cubic metre), Scunthorpe: (15), Salford: (15), Thurrock: (14), Manchester: (13), Swansea: (13), Gillingham: (13), Carlisle: (12), Chepstow: (12), Leeds: (12), Leicester: (12), Liverpool: (12), Grays: (12), Eccles: (12), Nottingham: (12), Plymouth: (12), York: (12), Prestonpans: (12), Royal Leamington Spa: (12), Sandy: (12), Sheffield: (12), Stoke-On-Trent: (12), London: (11), Coventry: (11), Hull: (11), Londonderry: (11), Middlesbrough: (11), Norwich: (11), Southend-On-Sea: (11), Stockton-On-Tees: (11), Storrington: (11), Wigan: (11).

The cities with the worst air pollution were in India, including Muzaffarpur, Delhi and Agra.

Chinese cities also featured highly, while the places with the lowest air pollution were Muonio in northern Finland and Sinclair in Wyoming.

•What is the government doing?

Lawyers from ClientEarth have taken the UK government to court three times and won claiming the government’s plans to tackle air pollution are illegal.

They argued the plans failed to clean up air pollution in UK cities and bring them below legal levels.

But responding to the WHO report, a Defra spokesman said: “While air quality in the UK has improved significantly since 2010, this report from the WHO clearly shows the impact air pollution is having on the health of men women and children in the UK and across the world.

“Tackling this important issue is a priority for this government which is why we have a £3.5 billion plan to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions and will set out further actions through a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy later this year.”

ClientEarth wants high-polluting vehicles to be charged for entering city centres.

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