Fighting air pollution in the North East – a clean air campaign

Angela Needham, a Friends of the Earth activist from Hull, shares her recent experiences of campaigning against air pollution 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 (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). 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.

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

We were approached as Hull Friends of the Earth asking if we would pilot some 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 there 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.

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There wasn’t a lot of difference in what was said actually. We received a lot of engagement with the question: "Who gets the most polluted air? The cyclist, the motorcyclist, 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 actually 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 the air pollution in 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.

Angela by the Humber.
Angela by the Humber. There are now air pollution monitoring devices across Hull. © Neil Baird

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.

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.

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. 

But in the end we are in one of the 40 worst cities for particulates [pollution] 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.


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Angela Needham, Friends of the Earth Hull activist, in her community vegetable garden.