'Hearts and minds' approach needed to tackle Sheffield's air pollution 'health crisis'

Emissions are at an illegal level outside Sheffield railway station.
Emissions are at an illegal level outside Sheffield railway station.
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It's time to take a 'hearts and minds' approach to tackling the air pollution that causes 500 deaths in Sheffield every year.

That was the conclusion of a roundtable discussion on the issue of poor air quality, which asked what could be done to solve the city's problems.

Jack Scott, the councillor responsible for transport and sustainability, said there was no hiding from the fact that emissions in some parts of Sheffield were illegal.

He said the council would be forced to make some difficult decisions that might initially face opposition. But he promised people would see change through the authority's new air quality strategy by the end of the year.

Among the ideas expected to be put forward are community air quality 'champions' and fines for people who leave their cars running outside schools - something the council has already announced.

And Coun Scott said the city should not just focus on new technology, but also on changing people's 'hearts and minds'.

Air pollution leads to 500 deaths in Sheffield per year.

Air pollution leads to 500 deaths in Sheffield per year.

"We believe our poor air quality is a public health crisis," he said.

"Deaths of up to 500 people per year is not just a massive moral problem, but a social and economic issue as well.

"We also know that, broadly speaking, people who are creating the problems are not the same people who are suffering."

This week a UN report revealed the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere was higher in 2016 than it had been for three million years.

Coun Johnson said more people were raising concerns about pollution.

Coun Johnson said more people were raising concerns about pollution.

Governments around the world are trying to figure out how to tackle what is commonly thought to be a man-made problem.

In Sheffield, residents in and around Tinsley are fully aware of the effects of air pollution. Their position next to the M1 means they suffer from some of the poorest air conditions in the city. Two schools have been closed as a result.

Neil Parry has been campaigning for better air through the East End Quality of Life Initiative for years.

He said moves to combat pollution had historically been seen as bad for business or 'anti-car' - an attitude that needed to change.

Coun Scott said a 'hearts and minds' approach was needed.

Coun Scott said a 'hearts and minds' approach was needed.

"That's something that's around and it's very outdated," he said.

"In terms of city leaders and other people, that's a message that they have got to buy into."

He echoed Coun Scott's 'hearts and minds' sentiment, and said it was important to show 'what a city in the 21st century looks like'.

"Is changing everything to electric vehicles the answer?" he asked.

"You will still get congestion and a lot of smaller particles from brakes and tyres.

"I would expect modern cities to have other forms of transport than cars.

The Star's editor Nancy Fielder hosts an air quality roundtable with coun Douglas Johnson, coun Jack Scott, Dr Abhishek Asthana, Luke Wilson and Neil Parry.

The Star's editor Nancy Fielder hosts an air quality roundtable with coun Douglas Johnson, coun Jack Scott, Dr Abhishek Asthana, Luke Wilson and Neil Parry.

"In the here and now this is something that's got to be sorted. It's a public health emergency."

Another area of high pollution is the city centre, and in particular around the railway station.

Douglas Johnson is a Green Party councillor who represents the city ward. He said his party had been 'banging on' about air quality for years, but was increasingly finding concern on the streets as well.

"We are finding, as we do door knocking, more and more people are talking about it - often unprompted," he said.

"People in the city ward are worried because it's very poorly-polluted. But it's often the people who are living here that aren't driving in and out. There is a gap in who's causing it and who's suffering from it.

"When we are talking to city centre residents we talk to people who don't have cars, or those that do are living in the city centre so they don't have to use them as much."

Bicycle use is something the council is keen to see more of, but many in Sheffield believe the city is not set up for safe cycling. Campaign group Cycle Sheffield regularly lobbies the authority to prioritise cyclists in order to meet its aim of getting more people on bikes.

"People would be willing to cycle into the city centre," said Coun Johnson.

"It's just that city centre cycling is a bit of a mess at the moment, and that puts a lot of people off."

One group trying to take a city-wide approach to air quality and the global problem of climate change is Sheffield Renewables.

Luke Wilson is a director of the volunteer-led social enterprise. He said there was a community of people in Sheffield that wanted to do something to tackle problems - but they needed leadership.

"The council is still the anchor organisation in the city," he added.

"They can have conversations with organisations in the third sector. We look up to the council for how we can work on the forward plan. We are reliant on the council and evolved from a pot of council funding.

"Leadership is essential and and we do want to hear the right things being said."

Sheffield Renewables was set up 10 years ago with help from a council grant. Mr Wilson said it was difficult at first to get projects going, but once people got the idea into their heads they were more than willing to help out - and this again echoed Coun Scott's approach.

"Part of that is hearts and minds, and education," he said.

"It took us a good five years to launch projects. But when you gather people together to make changes, it does come off.

"That was shown by us raising £300,000 in community shares. Most people waived their interest. And that money goes back into the community, such as through the South Yorkshire Energy Centre."

Mr Wilson called on the council to tell the right story in order to convince Sheffield people of what needed to be done.

"If Sheffield wants to benefit more from technology then we need to start thinking about that now," he said.

"It's spending the money now - but what are the long-term benefits for the people of Sheffield?"

"That's the story we need to be telling people."

And he added: "We would love to spend a lot more time looking at the bigger picture. We are about making the city a better place."

One person who is looking at the bigger picture is Dr Abhishek Asthana, a reader in energy engineering at Sheffield Hallam University and director of industrial research group Hallam Energy.

He said there were many aspects to air pollution and it was important both to identify 'low-hanging fruit' but also consider long-term solutions.

Dr Asthana said: "In Europe 25 per cent comes from road transport. Twenty-two per cent comes from combustion in agriculture. Some of the pollutants don't necessarily stay where they are generated. They can travel hundreds of miles.

"So first there is a need to build this objective database. Then you can look at a range of solutions. Legislation, but there are also technological solutions. Some more established, some are coming up.

"Then there is introducing behavioural changes, such as running an advertising campaign. Looking at it from an educational point of view, starting from early elementary ages."

Dr Asthana said cities around the world were carrying out experiments to try to combat their particular problems.

"There are so many city-specific solutions we need to apply," he said.

"Sheffield is a special situation. It's in a valley surrounded by hills."

Using a personal example, Dr Asthana said he was once reluctant to cycle to work because the route home to Norfolk Park was uphill. But after buying a relatively inexpensive electric bike, he can now do the journey in five minutes in either direction.

"There are city-specific solutions that we can look at," he said.

Coun Scott promised an 'exciting announcement' about bikes in the coming weeks. He also recognised that pollution was not just a health issue.

"We have to recognise that good air quality is a driver for economic growth," he said.

"If we want to be The Outdoor City, we can't tell people to go outside if the air isn't safe to breathe."

And Mr Parry ended the discussion by highlighting the need for air quality issues to be taught to children at a young age.

"We have got people who are concerned but we really need to get schools in general thinking this is something we have got to do," he said.

Sheffield Renewables director Luke Wilson.

Sheffield Renewables director Luke Wilson.

Pollution from the M1 is a particular concern in the Tinsley area.

Pollution from the M1 is a particular concern in the Tinsley area.

Dr Asthana and Mr Parry.

Dr Asthana and Mr Parry.