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Why the Deputy Mayor got it badly wrong

This week children at William Patten and some from St Mary’s joined a campaign against plans that would send more traffic past their schools.

The protest was held to mark national Clean Air Day. Some made banners and placards and gave up time after school to try to join their parents in trying to stop the Council doing something many believe will worsen pollution at their schools.

They have a legitimate reason to protest. The schools are in an illegally polluted street, a recent report by the mayor of London considered pollution at William Patten so bad they’re suggesting closing a section of the playground. Using the Council’s traffic counts on the streets they wish to close, 2,000 vehicles a day could be displaced to Church Street – past both schools.

Sadly, the Deputy Mayor of Hackney Cllr Feryal Demirci got wind of the protest and set to work on an unpleasant and unfair statement that aimed to belittle it. Before she had even seen the photos, she described the event as “a publicity stunt” and added: “It appears that they are more interested in getting publicity than the facts, which is not helpful for anyone, not least the pupils whose interests they claim to be looking out for.”

Let’s just be clear – the campaign is all about facts and it’s motivated by a genuine concern to stop the council going ahead with road closures that will cause harm. The group includes an air pollution expert, a traffic expert and a lawyer. They’re not in the business of making stuff up.

The facts are these:

· An air quality audit of William Patten commissioned by the Mayor of London and released last month considered pollution so serious they suggested closing a section of the playground. In addition, in an email to StokeyParents in January Hackney Council said: “Based on the monitoring obtained so far and our audit of the school we provided an indication of some of the measures that would probably be proposed for the school, including: - As a precaution restrict access to the portion of the playground adjoining Stoke Newington Church Street until air quality improves along the borough’s roads.”

· On February 8th, 2018 ITV London carried out an experiment in Stoke Newington working with scientists from Queen Mary University of London to establish how much soot is in the air children breathe. They fitted pollution monitors to a William Patten primary school pupil and measured all day. The evidence showed a sustained spike in pollution during his football practice in the school playground and a peak on his walk home that was 20 times higher what scientists consider to be safe. Dr Norrice Liu of the Queen Mary University of London, said: “It’s quite a spectacular peak – you see over a million nanograms per cubic metre air of soot. For a small child to be exposed to that level of black carbon is shocking.”

· A traffic expert analysed the Council’s calculations of how much traffic would be displaced to Church Street by the road closures and concluded them flawed. They removed 50% of the traffic from their methodology, describing it as “local” before calculating evaporation and displacement. The result was to vastly underestimate the likely impact for Church Street. Even Cllr Demirci, when she met with the Clean Air Group, was unable to explain the calculations. Now they’re redoing their traffic modelling – but people responded to their consultation based on the original data.

· In a recent response to the Hackney Citizen, the Council conceded that the National Air Quality Objective for nitrogen dioxide is failed at St Mary’s Primary.

· Among those urging the Council not to go ahead with the closures, citing the “threat to children’s health” were the head of the Musallaa an Noor Mosque, Rev Dilly Baker of St Mary’s Church and four local nurseries. And almost 900 people signed a petition objecting to the closures.

· The data upon which the Council has based their claims that William Patten isn’t illegally polluted was collected from a continuous monitor that’s in the wrong place (much further back from the façade and further from the road) and they only measured for five months. That isn’t enough for an annual mean.

Whatever the actual traffic increase for Church Street, the road closures will create more traffic past these and other schools. Hackney admits one of those schools is illegally polluted and, while the legality of the pollution levels are in dispute at the other, the levels at William Patten are so severe experts suggest closing a section of the playground.

Creating more traffic on an already busy street means slowing everything down and idling traffic is bad news for pollution.

So, the children and parents who campaigned after school on Wednesday had a very valid reason for doing so. They were proud to do so – they’re learning that if you want something to change you have to speak out. And senior politicians should be gracious enough to listen.

In her letter to the press Cllr Demirci described the campaign as being: “against proposals to reduce traffic on residential streets in the area”. That isn’t the case at all. Of course campaigners are in favour of reducing traffic – but displacing it past already polluted primary schools is appalling. There must be a better option for improving life on Walford, Beatty and Brighton Roads that won’t mean children in playgrounds breathing dirtier air.

As this map from the GLA shows, the back streets the Council seeks to remove traffic from aren’t illegally polluted. The main roads are, and people live, work, shop and go to school there, they sit outside in cafes and they walk to work and to the park. Church Street is narrow in places, at times it struggles to cope with the volume of traffic it already has and, because the buildings are high the GLA auditors described a “canyon effect” where pollution gets trapped.

I hope the Deputy Mayor will be gracious enough to apologise.


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