NORTHERN LIGHTS: How can we make the air cleaner in Sheffield?

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As I write this column, the city is being visited by Horasis which styles itself as a global conference about China.

The opening dinner was attended by 300 people, many being highly influential Chinese business people.

It was all fairly high end.

I went to the opening seminar and after the panel had their say it was open to the audience for questions.

I had been primed to ask a question if there was that awful silence as no questions appeared.

I need not have worried as the first questions appeared immediately.

It was a surprising first question, although on reflection maybe I should not have been surprised.

It was from a representative from Beijing and the question was simple.

It was “how have you managed to get your air so clean in Sheffield? It is beautiful”.

The responses initially were a bit jokey, but for me it set two thoughts running.

The first was that Sheffield does have a good story to tell, and help to offer, about how it has become the city it is today compared to the days when you could not see across the city, or worse.

The second was that we are about to embark as a city on our next drive to improve the air that we breath.

I said in one of these columns previously that I think that air quality will be the next cause of social justice, and I stand by that view.

So what’s the problem?

Well, our air may be a lot better than Beijing, but it is not good enough.

The same is true for just about every major English city.

The problem is also largely invisible.

Poor air can be clear, as we now know.

And the causes are multiple – cars, lorries, buses, industry, businesses, our homes etc.

But we have sorted our air out before, and I have no doubt we will do it again.

As the panel at the conference answered the question from the man from Beijing, I was thinking what I would have said in response.

It would have been that to succeed you need two ingredients.

The first is a plan that you know will work, whether it is based on technology or behaviour or, more probably, a bit of both.

The clean air movement of the 1950s and 1960s knew what would work and they were right, it did work.

The second is support for that plan.

This sometimes gets seen as community permission but that idea worries me as it suggests that it will be good enough just to let others do it.

It won’t.

On this one we truly all are in it.

Of course, it will never be that simple.

We have recently seen the Mayor of London being criticised by both sides as he increased the charge for driving the worst polluting vehicles in the centre of the city.

For some the increased charge was unfair as it would hit the poorest hardest.

For some he had not gone far enough.

We as a city will face our own dilemmas, and before the speculation starts, let me say that no decisions have been made and, for me, the solutions have to be more varied than just relying on charging.

Those solutions will also need to reflect the distinctive features of Sheffield.

Our inner ring road is very close to our city centre; our major roads lie in the valleys that characterise our city; the M1 goes through some communities in our city and all that is before you play in the impact of industry and our homes.

So the option of a ‘lift and shift’ from somewhere else would not be right.

What fits Manchester won’t fit Sheffield and vice-versa. We are going to have to design the solution by ourselves and for ourselves, but the national government will need to support us and they have already been put on notice about that.

As ever with Sheffield our strength lies in our history.

The modern manufacturing of today is actually what we have always done – invent, develop and make.

The independent spirit that singles out our music, shopping and brewing scene has always been there.

There are more examples.

Fixing our air is the next challenge.

We’ve done it before, and the man from Beijing was envious of what we have achieved.

But where we are is not good enough.

So, more on clean air will be coming our way soon as citizens of this city.

Watch this space, and let’s engage with it and let’s all play a part.