How clean air campaigners aim to cut pollution in Sheffield

Graham Jones on Barnsley Road. Picture: Dean Atkins
Graham Jones on Barnsley Road. Picture: Dean Atkins
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When Graham Jones' son was a schoolboy there was a must-have accessory in class that he pestered his parents for.

"He came home one day and said 'I want one of those inhalers, all the other kids have got one, I want a blue one'," says Graham. "We said 'No, you don't.' It must have been in about 1990. Anyway, his day came, he got asthma and he was admitted to hospital. It was just so prevalent."

Luise Hunt and Graham Jones on Barnsley Road. Picture: Dean Atkins

Luise Hunt and Graham Jones on Barnsley Road. Picture: Dean Atkins

Graham is standing on the corner of Barnsley Road and Orphanage Road in Sheffield, just yards away from his home of 30 years and close to where his son went to primary school. It's just after 11am on a weekday and nearby there's a constant noisy flow of cars, buses, vans and taxis, creating the thick, sooty smell of exhaust fumes. The site marks the spot where, last September, he fixed a monitoring device to a lamppost to measure the level of nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of burning fuel, in the air.

"I got a result of 47 parts per million," he says. "The legal limit is 40."

Air quality is on the national agenda amid a growing realisation that pollution - linked to lung disease, strokes, heart attacks, cancer and dementia - has reached dangerous levels. The Government has made it a key environmental policy priority and in Sheffield, one of five UK cities that regularly breaches EU and World Health Organisation thresholds, dirty air is understood to be the root cause of at least 500 deaths a year, costing the city £160 million in lost working days annually because of illness.

The council has approved a wide-ranging strategy to roll out measures including the prospect of a 'clean air zone' that could involve certain vehicles being charged, and a ban stopping drivers from leaving engines running outside schools and hospitals.

Graham, who lives in Burngreave, has started a group alongside fellow residents with the aim of bringing down the level of harmful emissions in their neighbourhood, as well as ensuring Sheffield's plans are implemented in full. The Burngreave Clean Air Campaign is winning local support with its message that everyone can do their bit.

"People are ready for it, for a change in how things are done," says Graham.

"It's not just about lobbying the council. We've all got a personal responsibility to cut down on emissions. I can't drive anyway, so I walk as much as anyone. But I can walk more if need be."

Graham, 67, a retired nurse, introduced the campaign with a petition, and encountered little difficulty in gathering signatures.

"Everybody knew somebody in the family with asthma or respiratory problems. I didn't expect people to be so willing, it was like pushing at an open door."

The elderly, taxi drivers, people living in poorer areas and children are particularly vulnerable to pollution. Worrying research has shown young people exposed to noxious fumes could be stuck with smaller lungs and health problems for life. Of the 12 most polluted locations for schools in Sheffield, five are in Burngreave, and Tinsley School, only four miles away, was closed in 2016 and moved away from the M1 because of fears pupils were being exposed to hazardous gases.

Schoolchildren in Burngreave have been urged to walk and cycle more, but Graham says this is 'passing the buck'.

"In this area you've got the Northern General Hospital, 5,000 people work there and thousands of people go there as patients and visitors. But there's a completely inadequate bus service to get to the hospital, so people use cars and taxis. Even around here we've had people parking to go to work at the hospital, even though it's quarter of an hour's walk away.

"We've got a Better Buses Partnership, but it hasn't improved the buses at all. All it has done is speed up the traffic going through. Buses idle at stops because they've got such generous timeframes, and that creates pollution. I feel like we're being used as a traffic corridor with no respect for the people who live round here."

Carlisle Street, a route 'ideal for getting to Chapeltown and Ecclesfield', was blocked when the large Tesco on Spital Hill was built, sending more traffic through Burngreave, he adds.

In October 2015, air sampling on Barnsley Road recorded a nitrogen dioxide level of 75ppm, almost twice the legal limit. A feasibility study two years earlier showed road transport, especially diesel vehicles, was the most significant contributor to the city's NO2 emissions.

Graham is enthusiastic about efforts to boost cycling - the new yellow hire bikes are a much greener, easily available way of getting around, he thinks - and has met with taxi drivers to discuss the risks they face.

"Inside the car the pollution's worse than it is outside," he says.

Ultimately, the campaign argues, society as a whole has to accept that high levels of pollution are not tolerable, and people have to adapt their own lives for the sake of their health and that of their families. Leaflets handed by Graham to taxi drivers said 'serious discussions' were needed in homes, schools and on the streets about cleaning up the air.

"The council has got some good ideas, and some original ideas too," Graham says. "A lot of it depends on proper backing and finance. If you look at other cities like Oxford and parts of London, they have done a lot. We do seem to be behind. People have such busy lives. They think by going in a car it's going to get things done quicker and it's not necessarily the case."

Graham is confident the penny is beginning to drop.

"There's something in the papers every week about air quality now. People's awareness has increased. I'm really pleased people are taking it on board."

Email burngreavecleanair@gmail.com or see the Burngreave Clean Air Campaign page on Facebook for further details.