Hooray it’s hot! Brighton (and every other beach place) enjoyed a weekend bursting with business boosting visitors. Traffic trailed from country to coast, choking seasides with congestion, noise and fumes. While so far breezes have kept summer smog at bay, recently released reports mean air pollution (which is with us all year round) is hitting the headlines now. And more people in the UK die prematurely from the effects of air pollution than from traffic accidents, obesity or alcohol – so it’s not just our councils’ problem.
It’s all a bit confusing though – while Brighton and Hove Green party say city air quality shows significant improvement – a weekend Evening Argus headline pronounces the city centre’s North Street one of the most polluted in the EU – as some very high levels have been recorded.
Well, looking at the numbers both are true – levels of the rarely visible pollutants that tickle throats and at worst affect blood pressure and harm hearts have in many areas reduced. On the city fringes things have got better. However the central hub of North Street forms a canyon of high sided buildings, busy with buses, taxis and delivery vans. Many are oldish diesel vehicles hence a lot of pollution gets trapped. While in other areas levels are dropping – mainly at busy junctions and arterial roads – legal levels set to ensure healthy air are still being exceeded (these are measurements averaged over a year for most pollutants). So, yes, down the town pollution levels are high. For those who come to the seaside for some fresh air – levels on the seafront outside the Grand Hotel often hit unhealthy levels too…. and then there is the annual beach barbecue fug.
However, for those fond of blaming the Greens on the council for all the cities’ woes – if the council was a different colour would it be any better? Look along the coast – Worthing, Shoreham, sleepy Storrington, Lewes and probably soon Newhaven all have air quality management areas (ie pollution levels so high that, by law, a plan has to be put in place to reduce pollution, and avoid the risk of being fined by the EU for exposing people to unhealthy air). In Brighton, the 20mph speed limit and the Lewes Road scheme , Seven Dials works and the Elm saving saga, and increasing parking charges are all measures that have caused a furore – but have a long term aim of making streets cleaner and safer and encouraging journeys that can be done without a car.
It’s ironic that the annual London to Brighton Bike Ride in June, in aid of the British Heart Foundation, causes humongous congestion around Brighton – and very likely increases the pollution that can exacerbate heart disease, as buses and cars come to collect many of the 28,000 riders and take them home – as bikes are banned on trains for the annual event. (When in the days of slam door trains a train took riders to Clapham in the morning and others were able to use the train to get home!).
Brighton needs traffic to thrive, changing the nature of that traffic to a kind that won’t lodge in our lungs is a huge challenge for any council.
But – mention parking charges or speed limits and residents, traders and drivers in general generate huge amounts of hot air predicting the death of business through anti-car attitudes. To date that is demonstrably not the case as no manner of rules or charging seems to deter drivers from swarming the shops or heading to the beach when the sun comes out!