Uttlesford politicians speak about air quality to mark World Environment Day

PUBLISHED: 20:21 10 June 2020 | UPDATED: 20:30 10 June 2020

Picture: DANNY LOO

Picture: DANNY LOO

©2019 Archant

Air pollution in parts of Uttlesford may still be dangerously high, a councillor has warned in the light of United Nations’ World Environment Day.

Google Maps recreation of the circular area of 1,400 metres diameter centred at Elm Grove, which was identified in UDC's report as Saffron Walden's AQMA since 2012. Photo: Andra Maciuca.Google Maps recreation of the circular area of 1,400 metres diameter centred at Elm Grove, which was identified in UDC's report as Saffron Walden's AQMA since 2012. Photo: Andra Maciuca.

The warning comes as last year’s Annual Status Report (ASR) is being updated - with previous findings on Uttlesford’s air showing a pollutant has been consistent on Saffron Walden’s central streets since 2007. R4U town councillor Paul Gadd, Saffron Walden MP Kemi Badenoch and Essex County Council have all spoken to the Saffron Walden Reporter about air quality in the area, challenges and solutions.

The ASR acknowledges that air pollution can contribute to the development of heart disease and cancer and discusses Uttlesford’s monitoring of pollution - with an emphasis on Saffron Walden.

UDC’s 2019 ASR also says air pollution affects the most vulnerable of us and poor air is often found in less affluent areas – and, although Uttlesford was found by government data to be one of the least deprived areas in the UK, Saffron Walden’s town centre has been consistently exceeding nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels over the years.

A UK government report from 2015 found that NO2 on its own is likely to cause ‘adverse effects’ on health, ultimately impacting on life expectancy, as the World Health Organisation pointed out as well.

Paul Gadd, R4U town councillorPaul Gadd, R4U town councillor

This air pollutant has been reported as significant for the following Saffron Walden areas since 2007: High Street, George Street, Castle Street, East Street, Thaxted Road and Radwinter Road. Since 2012, these have been replaced with a bigger area and declared as an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) - a necessary label for a zone found unlikely to meet air quality objectives, which prompted a local action plan.

Uttlesford’s AQMA for the past eight years has been identified as a circular area of 1,400 metres diameter centred at Elm Grove – and UDC said traffic emissions are the biggest source of pollution.

Last year’s report said nitrogen dioxide did not exceed legal levels across the district in 2018 and 2017, and that even the highest concentrations were well below the legal limit. This means that the AQMA could be written off, as consistent low levels result in the status being reviewed.

But R4U town councillor Paul Gadd says the “surprisingly low levels” should be regarded with a “great deal of caution”, and that they were registered as a result of faulty monitoring stations, which led to estimative levels being reported.

Saffron Walden MP Kemi BadenochSaffron Walden MP Kemi Badenoch

“It is too early to consider lifting the AQMA.

“It is difficult to be sure whether pollution levels were below the legal limits. If they were, air pollution levels are still high and causing damage to human health, and we should be trying to reduce them as much as possible,” Cllr Gadd said.

The ASR also highlights the “historic layout of the town” as leading to traffic congestion, which Essex County Council and Saffron Walden MP Kemi Badenoch have also identified as a key problem in accommodating an increasing number of cars.

The MP called for residents to be mindful about their transport – and said she will lobby for a better walking and cycling network in Uttlesford, in order to tackle air pollution.

“As the Government eases the lockdown restrictions and with the current advice to avoid public transport, we are seeing increased car use. Whilst I recognise some residents, particularly in more rural villages must travel by car, it is important before travelling we always question whether we are using the most environmentally sustainable option,” Mrs Badenoch said. She added:

“The Government recently announced a £2 billion package to create a new era for cycling and walking. In the first tranche of funding, Essex County Council has received £1.9 million to enhance current cycle lanes and pavements and create new ones, and I will continue to make the case for improvements in areas within our constituency.”

Last month, several R4U councillors said Essex County Council (ECC) “won’t spend a single penny” on Uttlesford’s ‘sustainable’ infrastructure.

Cllr Gadd maintains his position, and says “every single cycle proposal” that has been put forward to ECC Highways over the past five years has been rejected, and only one pedestrian proposal has not been “blocked” so far.

But an ECC spokeswoman said ECC is currently working with UDC to reduce local emissions by potentially making Ashdon Road a one-way, or a wider street, if found suitable.

ECC also said the reshaping of the town’s layout will be tackled by UDC’s Local Plan.

Increasing pedestrian and cycling routes is one of the measures stated in the 2019 ASR to tackle air pollution. The August report says the implementation phase finishes in 2022, but no date is provided for completion.

The Saffron Walden Reporter has asked ECC for the estimated completion date, and how many cycling and pedestrian routes have been provided for Uttlesford in 2018 and 2019.

ECC said: “New walking routes are rare anywhere, particularly in historic towns, but these are emphasised in plans for new development.”

ECC was also asked why a January 2020 Local Highways Panel from Essex Highways shows no money was allocated for cycling and congestion schemes.

An ECC spokeswoman said: “Some delay in looking at the latest proposals for local cycling schemes has been inevitable due to Covid restrictions, but it is hoped this will be re-invigorated as restrictions are eased.”

Another measure the ASR found would help to tackle air pollution would be if ECC bought further bus services with a “reliable service linked to the rail service at Audley End”. But the report says no progress was made on this, and there is no estimated date of completion.

The ECC spokeswoman said: “Bus routes in the area have been rationalised, following a review, to improve service to the public, efficient routes and to reduce pollution where possible.

“Essex County Councillor for the area, John Moran, is an advocate of introducing less-polluting public transport. It is likely that new services or amended routes will follow new developments in the area.”

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