"We have to do everything we can" - Angela's fight for clean air in Hull

Angela Needham is campaigning for clean air in Hull and North East England.

There are 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year as a result of dirty air. Air pollution is linked to lung cancer, heart disease, asthma and diabetes – and children and older people are particularly badly affected.

Most areas of the UK – including Kingston Upon Hull urban area – are breaching EU legal limits for the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

In addition the World Health Organisation says 40 towns and cities in the UK - including Hull – are breaching their Air Quality Guidelines for fine particle pollution (PMs). 

Angela Needham shared her experiences of fighting dirty air in Hull and the North East with Neil Baird.  

I read somewhere you don't like going to London because of the pollution. 

Yes, I have COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder]. And I have it, because of the same reason as 90% of people who have it, because I used to smoke. I fully recognise that I did it to myself! 

I know when the air is polluted because I have COPD. I don’t go to London if I can help it because it takes me a week to recover. 

But that doesn't mean there aren't other factors that can aggravate it. If I go to London and walk around, I notice that my breathing deteriorates for about a week afterwards. 

Photo of Angela Needham by the Humber

Angela Needham by the River Humber. Photo: Neil Baird

Can you tell me about the air pollution work you’ve been doing? 

We were approached as Hull Friends of the Earth some months back asking if we would pilot some of their [Friends of the Earth] ideas around air pollution. We tried a survey [to find out people's views on air pollution], and we have also put up tubes that test for air pollution around the city. 

We did the survey at an event where most people were broadly part of the green movement so it wasn’t exactly a cross section of the Hull population. We did it again in the city centre, so we would be talking to whoever happened to be passing by. 

There wasn’t a lot of difference in what was said. We received a lot of engagement with the question: "Who gets the most polluted air? The cyclist, the motor-cyclist, the car driver, the passenger in car, on a bus or on foot?" 

Most people said the cyclist. But in most circumstances, the answer is the car driver. And when we told people that, we got quite a lot of surprised reactions. Two people said: "Maybe I’ll drive less." That doesn’t mean they will, but it does mean it’s something the public should be more educated about. 

What about air pollution in the North East and Hull? 

There is only one place in Hull which is recognised as illegal, from an air pollution EU law point of view. And it is recognised as such by the city and is being worked on. But at the moment it's still pretty bad. 

The city has loads of air pollution monitoring devices all over

I haven't put an air pollution monitor up here [by the Humber] and looking around it seems like the local authority hasn't got one here either, but the air must be fairly good. 

The city has loads of air pollution monitoring devices all over and the results are all obtainable online. 

How does Hull measure up with regards to the legality? 

There are 40 cities on the list. We're in the 40, but fairly low down. We're not in the top 20, like Leeds is for instance. But obviously we need to get out of it. 

When we talk to people in the city centre about air pollution, most of them said they thought the air was good in Hull. Some of them thought it was unusually good in the city. 

Interestingly, you talk about air pollution, and people don't hear the word "air". Their biggest concerns are always litter and dogs fouling. With air pollution, they can't see it. They might smell it, and taste it after a while, but they don't see it. 

When we talk to people in the city centre about air pollution, most of them said they thought the air was good in Hull.

I grew up in Birmingham and we saw air pollution or "smog". You couldn't walk in it. I knew a lady who got lost walking between her front door and the shops. Then we had the Clean Air Act. And my goodness gracious me, it worked. 

Photo of City Hall, Hull

Photo: John Lord

What can the city do? 

They are encouraging bus transport. The buses are being replaced and moved towards lower emission buses. They can look at where cars are allowed to go and control which areas are used. On the city's plan there are all sorts of things being considered: car sharing, raising awareness in schools, etc. We’ve been in touch with the local authority who are tremendously enthusiastic.  

There is an 84-page document available online, which discusses in detail all the things that can theoretically be done, and their likely cost effectiveness. They seem to be very willing for us to be involved. But in the end we are in one of the 40 worst cities for those particulates, and that is from diesel. 

I remember back in the 90s driving a diesel car because everybody was telling me "get away from petrol," so I did. Now I'm told, "don't drive a diesel car, because of the particulates. Drive an electric car…" I would love to if somebody gave me the money to buy one! 

Trying to discourage diesel is something the local authority could do more about. Hull Friends of the Earth could try and raise awareness because it is mainly freight that is the big problem. How much can we influence that unless the government itself were to bring in further laws which forced the big business to change things? 

Turbine blade in Hull city centre

Turbine blade on display as part of the Hull's UK City of Culture events. Photo: Jeremy Weate

What are your hopes? 

I believe we have to do everything we can, just because we have to do everything we can. Not out of any kind of nobility, but just that there is something there, so you deal with it. 

We're gradually picking our way around, making it a little bit better here and there. Maybe we can get the cities' air where it should be. 

Do you have a message to people to help them understand what they can do? 

Have the courage to be who you want to be, and if that means sticking your head above the parapet, doing it differently, or people not understanding you, try not to let that be a problem. 

Find like-minded people. Friends of the Earth may well help you find like-minded people. Their website will take you to your nearest local group and tell you what's happening. 

Find a local group