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Opinion: Time for Hackney to lose the spin and start truly putting children first

The latest apparent error by Hackney Council around air quality at schools rings major alarm bells and is enough to convince me that children are far from its priority.

In the past year the council has:

- Incorrectly measured the distances between school facades and pollution monitors, (which could be used to make schools appear less polluted),

- Used a less stringent pollution limit for school playgrounds than other local authorities and the GLA and

- Given wrong information about the likely traffic increases its proposed road closures will bring past schools.

Those bells ring even louder when you realise the Council’s road closure agenda seems to be born out of a motivation to clog up main roads to make driving less attractive and convince people to leave their cars at home. That’s a slow and painful strategy and schoolkids are collateral damage: those main roads are home to numerous primary schools – most of which already have harmful levels of pollution.

And they ring louder yet when the Council makes no effort to apologise or set the record straight.

Hackney Council claims to be doing amazing work around air quality, but much of this is spin. Yes, they’re creating ‘school streets’ (closing roads outside schools to traffic at certain times), but most of these are easy-wins, They’re quieter back streets rather than heavily polluted main roads. And they're doing an awful lot of monitoring - but monitoring doesn't fix the problem.

I and fellow campaigners for clean air at local schools have been labelled “extreme” by the Mayor and we’ve been badged as caring more about publicity than the facts. All part of a nasty campaign by those in power to discredit, belittle and silence those who threaten their proposals.

For the sake of clarity: I’m a journalist with years of experience covering councils and I’ve worked as a PR consultant for major projects for a local council. My fellow campaigners include a highly respected lawyer, a clean air consultant who works for the likes of Great Ormand Street, a scientist, mathematician, economist, traffic and transport expert and a producer who studied law at Oxford University.

We have submitted freedom of information requests, unpicked council reports, gone out measuring, sought the views of a leading paediatrician and fitted pollution monitors to children to get a true picture. We only care about the facts, yet at every step the Council seems intent on blocking our access.

Freedom of information requests have gone unanswered or only partially answered - such that we’ve now escalated some to the Information Commissioner. Media enquiries triggered by this group often take weeks to be answered and then fail to glean a proper answer.

Four months on we’re still waiting for Hackney Council to explain why it doesn’t think the annual legal limit for nitrogen dioxide applies in a school playground when the GLA and 23 other London councils who responded to a survey said it does. It’s the most stringent protection and applies in most public spaces.

What unites us is that we’re all parents of children at the same school, many of whom have been campaigning to clean up the air in the playground for two years. We all feel that not only is not enough being done to make things better, but the Council’s proposals will actually make air quality worse.

Hackney has a duty of care to protect children while they’re at school and they have a duty to act honestly and with transparency so their actions are open to public scrutiny.

I was at a clean air event recently. at which Rosamond Adoo-Kissi-Debrah asked a panel of experts what they had learned from the death of her daughter Ella Roberta to asthma. A wonderful lady from Unicef said words to the effect of: “When it comes to making policies such as whether to remove a bus stop outside a school, we should be looking at things through the lens of a child first.”

She’s right. From the moment they’re conceived, foetuses in polluted areas are at a disadvantage. Their mothers are more at risk of miscarrying and, if they make it to full-term, they’re more likely to be born smaller and with respiratory problems. Children growing up in polluted areas and attending polluted schools are more likely to develop life-threatening respiratory problems like asthma and pneumonia. Pollution impacts their cognitive development and it shortens lives.

So, if we seem extreme and if you wonder why I keep banging on about this it’s because my child and hundreds of other children in Hackney attend schools where pollution levels breach the EU limits, and it’s because Hackney keeps getting its facts wrong.

The Ultra Low Emission Zone and other measures like cleaning up the buses and making all new black cabs electric will help, but not quickly enough to help these children now in these crucial formative years.

Closing roads and increasing traffic past highly polluted schools by around 20% is a dreadful, unethical idea when nothing has been done to improve air quality at those schools. Moving the bus stop outside William Patten Primary School would improve the air quality in the playground considerably. But two years since we started urging the Council and TFL to act, it’s still there, allowing 540 buses to stop during school hours alone every day.

Lulling parents at William Patten into a false sense of security by claiming pollution isn’t in breach of EU limits when the Mayor of London’s independent air quality consultants says the whole site is illegally polluted is downright appalling. Especially given both the GLA and a senior air quality officer at the Council have said closing a section of the school playground would be a good idea.

Last February, independent air quality expert Dr Norrice Liu, from Queen Mary University, monitored a child at William Patten. She wanted to see how much soot was in the air he breathed. She recorded a “sustained spike” while he was playing football at the back of the playground, furthest from the road and a “spectacular peak” on his way home. She said: “For a small child to be exposed to that level of black carbon is shocking.”

The reason pollution is so bad on Church Street is because of the large volume of traffic using this street and the A10 and because buildings are wide and the road narrow, creating a canyon effect whereby pollution gets trapped.

I believe the badge “extreme” would be more suited to councillors in positions of trust and power, such as the Deputy Mayor Cllr Feryal Clark, who seems hellbent on pushing ahead with road closures and on downplaying the very real risk they pose to children who attend schools on busy roads.

Pushing plans that will increase traffic by 20% outside highly polluted primary schools (also increasing hazards for pedestrians there) is also an extreme and irrational response to a rat-running problem when other options (such as one-way streets with traffic calming) would reduce the problems in and around Walford Road without causing such harm. The Council's own Air Quality Status Report admits road closures in other areas have increased pollution on other roads.

Local councillors have failed to speak out in defence of the children of William Patten and St Mary’s and it seems have opted instead to toe the party line. I urge them now to do the right thing.

The Council says they're carrying out detailed modelling to see how the closures will impact traffic and pollution but it doesn't take a genius to know a 20% increase in traffic past local schools wont make things better. These proposals are harmful - they should have been kicked out a long time ago.

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