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Report: The 2024 Northern Air Quality Conference

On 19th March we hosted our fourth Northern Air Quality Conference in Manchester which was held, for the first time, at the spectacular Bridgewater Hall.

There seemed to be consensus among everyone we spoke to that the venue was perfect, not just for hosting an exhibition/conference event but for hosting one that pertained to air quality. 

Without wishing to denigrate the grand old dame of Mancunian hospitality that was our former home, the move from a venue without windows to one that seemed to be made from nothing but, literally cast light on what we were all there for. 

As she did last year in Manchester, and at our London conference in November, Beverley Nielsen proved an excellent Chair. She got the conference underway by presenting us with a succession of bleak statistics that served to highlight why we were here. The battle for clean air is a long way from over. 

A notable warrior in this fight was the first to speak. The much-travelled and hugely experienced Andrew Whittles spoke in the context of his current role as the Director of Air Quality Programmes at Bradford Council.

In 2018 the city was directed by the government to improve air quality within three years. Andrew’s background is rooted in low emission zones – he designed the UK’s first, on the Greenwich Penninsula – so this was an obvious mechanism to introduce in Bradford.

A CAZ C+ was opted for. This left private motorists unaffected but did address the issue of the 7-8,000 taxis – many of which were from outside Braford- that represented 10% of all traffic. Currently, 99% of the Bradford-based taxis are compliant, the largest proportion in the UK. 

Local conflict was avoided by the issuing of 10,000 exemptions to businesses and over time the number of non-compliant vehicles has fallen from 4.6% to 1.5%.

The bottom line is that NO2 levels are now lower than ever. Pre-CAZ, 36 locations were in exceedance, that figure is now three.

The Clean Air Zone forms only part of Andrew’s story however, there is much more going on in Bradford than that. The city itself is transforming, it will be the UK City of Culture next year and its preparations include new pedestrianised areas, cycle routes, a new train station and a district heat network .

Andrew also discussed HyBradford which will be one of the UK’s largest hydrogen production facilities. This is a fuel that interests him enormously and the city have already trialled hydrogen buses. Andrew has also been investigating the potential of the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai car which can cover 400 miles for around £15.

Next to speak was the first of two double-headers at the conference: Alice Handy and Dr Rhys Archer who were here to talk about the SAMHE (Schools’ Air quality Monitoring for Health and Education) project.

1070 schools have signed up to the project and each received an air quality monitor that measures PMs, CO2, VOCs, temperature and humidity. The schools can examine the data in detail via an app to see how air quality changes – whether over time or just following a brisk exercise session. The important aspect however,  is the collaborative citizen science element of it – putting students at the heart of the project and making them more informed about what’s happening to them and what actions they can take.

Rhys explained that care had to be taken in how health information was communicated to the children – some as young as four – for fear of causing them anxiety. 

As well as educating the children, the project gives teachers a huge data set that they can work with. For example, using the air quality data to teach children how to use graphs in maths lessons rather than confining the project to science lessons.

Alice then discussed the air quality aspects of the venture, explaining how CO2 levels rose in colder periods because the teachers, choosing thermal comfort over air quality, closed the windows. Similarly, indoor spikes mirrored outdoor events such as bonfire night and Diwali.

The project, has been running for nearly ten years – it comes to an end later this year – but Alice told us that schools can still acquire the monitors and will be able to continue using the app and appealed for everyone present to spread the word to interested schools before the  project comes to and end. 

After a break it was time for our traditional panel session. Hosted, of course, by Beverley the five panel members were Dr Gary Fuller from Imperial College London, Andy Frechter from the conference sponsors Yunex (formerly Seimens Mobility), Hilda Palmer from the Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN), Dr Rhys Archer (see above) and Cllr Eamonn O’Brien who is the Clean Air lead for Greater Manchester. 

As panel discussions go, this was just what you’d want. An observation made by one panelist would be picked up by and developed by another. So when Hilda commented on the poor air quality that a huge amount of working people have to endure to earn a living, and how Covid exposed the parlous state of ventilation in the workplace, Gary Fuller extrapolated this to inclue people who drive for a living, spending all day with someone’s exhaust in front of them.

Interestingly, Andy Frechter – whose company supplied the cameras that enforce the ULEZ expansion – believes that Clean Air Zones might not always be an appropriate solution, observing that ‘every town and city is different. You have to start with the data and understand the issue you’re trying to solve’. Eamonn agreed, ‘We looked at a CAZ but we feel that our opportunity in Manchester is to embrace the Bee Network. We’ve brought the busses back under control and we plan to have them all zero emission by the end of the decade and the trams are all electric.’

Another discussion everyone contributed to was that of making the public understand why you are taking the measures you are and the effectiveness of enforcement measures. Hilda believes that there are good laws in place to protect people but they need to be enforced. Of course, compelling employers to act is not the same as imposing measures on the general public and in this respect Rhys argued that we should not let people think we’re taking something away from them, that the message is important: ‘Traffic lights are an enforcement measure but no one complains about putting them outside a school because they can see why they’re there. Education and attitude change needs to be in there before we consider enforcement.’

From the early days of the mooted Manchester CAZ, Eamonn has found that people will object to someone trying to change their behaviour but, that notwithstanding, in order to enforce anything, you need resources, you need money. Taking a different approach, Gary asked, ‘Do we have to enforce? Can’t we design things to be better? Don’t punish people speeding, design the road so people naturally drive more safely.’

Following lunch, or ‘dinner’ as I should be allowed to call the midday meal at the Northern Air Quality Conference, we enjoyed the day’s second double-hander. In this instance it was Amber Titchener, the Air Quality Officer at Southampton City Council, and Pablo Garcia, Senior Air Quality modeller at EarthSense. 

The two had worked together in a fascinating dive into domestic wood burning in the area. Pablo talked to us about the science behind the project while Amber addressed the policy.

EarthSense installed a network of 18 sensors around residential areas to gather localised monitoring, rather than background air quality or that from traffic. The company’s MappAir technology gave a near real-time, high-resolution air quality model which provided visualisations of woodburning emissions.

It was seen that in winter months, heavy periods of wood burning can triple PM2.5 outdoors on a sub-neighborhood scale a problem that is exacerbated because PM from fires is comparatively heavy and doesn’t get dispersed far from it’s source. Interestingly, one particular site being monitored ‘miles from anywhere’ saw spikes in summer which was caused by people barbecuing. 

Amber then described the Council’s award winning campaign against domestic wood-burning  which was based on four main messages: ‘burn less, burn cleaner, burn better, burn different’ – a soft approach rather than one that is enforcement based. 

Interestingly, during the subsequent Q&A, one of our delegates, Mark Tebbutt,  an enthusiastic campaigner against domestic wood burning asked if there was any prospect of a total ban on domestic wood burners coming into force in the UK. Pablo suggested that there might be data protection issues with targeting individual people using monitoring equipment, which you could argue would be the only effective way of prosecuting those breaking such a law.

The estimable Professor Roy Harrison was next to speak. Every conference benefits from an academic perspective and Roy’s credentials in the field are second to none.

His talk was a fascinating overview of where we have achieved success in improving air quality and where we are failing. The historical element was illuminating, how instantly effective certain measures have proved to be in the past.

An early success was the compulsory introduction of catalytic converters on car exhausts which was a huge step towards reducing the amount of benzene emitted by cars.

Data from a specific monitor in London’s Marylebone Road shows how, from around 2011, the fitting of diesel particulate filters on cars saw a marked improvement of air quality on this extremely busy road. Similarly, NO2 levels began to tumble in 2017 when the Euro 6 standard began to be introduced.

An issue that remains, is ultrafine particles which diesel filters are not effective at controlling. We are shown a slide of ultrafine particle distribution in the West Midlands and the areas in which their presence is particularly high follows the exact routes of the M6 and M5 motorways. 

When asked how we might address the issue of ammonia, Prof Harrison wryly offered an interesting, if pessimistic view: ‘Parliament is so full of farmers there is no political will to change anything.’

After the afternoon break we heard from Sarah Rowe, the Manchester Campaigner for Clean Cities. As we reported recently, a Clean Cities study into the development of shared transport policies in major European cities saw Manchester finish in last place. Although the disgrace is shared with other UK cities who also fared dismally. 

Sarah explained that Clean Cities is a network of campaign groups across Europe who have a shared enthusiasm for making public spaces more livable for people, rather than convenient for cars. 

As she has a particular focus on Manchester, Sarah pulled no punches in highlighting the city’s failings in terms of air quality: It suffers from the highest levels of NO2 in the country while both Salford and Manchester are in the top ten for emergency admissions for lung conditions.

Tomtom congestion data shows Manchester is second only to London in terms of traffic congestion, with the average commuter losing 88 hours in rush hour traffic annually.

Having established the primacy of cars in UK cities, Sarah contrasted this with the huge differences in the implementation of School Streets both in the UK and across Europe. Clean Cities have an ambition to see a School Street outside every school in Europe but a photograph showing a such a street in Milan which had been transformed into a playground, contrasted jarringly with a Stockport equivalent, where a road sign showed damage from being driven over. 

Evidence exists that School Streets reduce expose to NO2 and reduces the number of car journeys made to school. Parents also say they are happier to let their children walk to school if there are no cars parked on the pavement.

A Sarah points out, people have a built in acceptance of the harm caused by motor vehicles. When surveyed, she tells us, 75% of people questioned believed that people who smoked should not do so if it affected people around them. Only 17% thought the same about driving a car. 

On a more positive note, Sarah introduced us to the Godwin curve – a phenomena much in evidence with the UKEZ expansion. The curve demonstrates how people’s reaction to an intervention such as a CAZ changes from ambivalent towards being hostile as the date of the intervention approaches. After that however, acceptance and approval becomes the norm.

Our final speaker was Dr Karen Barrass, whose current ‘job description’ is founder of Climate Insights but who, prior to that, developed the Clean Air Net Zero programme for UK100. 

Karen began by examining the potential dichotomies inherent in simultaneously striving for net zero and improved air quality. She focussed first on measures that could be considered ‘win-wins’ for both, such as modal shift,  heat reduction and decarbonisation, agriculture nitrogen management and the empowering of communities with air quality data. 

There are some challenges too and she advises the councillors present to consult experts on their green infrastructure, given that some organic matter will deprecate air quality. Similarly, net zero-friendly airtight buildings pose a challenge in air quality terms. 

Karen used the second half of her presentation to address domestic wood burning. This might seem like a recurring theme – indeed our latest magazine has two articles covering the topic – but this particular source of dangerous emissions is becoming more, rather than less, prevalent. There is also a huge push-back against the idea of legislating against it and on top of that, not the slightest indication that local authorities are using their powers to act on it.

Karen points out that a recent Mums For Lungs FOI request revealed that 10,600 complaints had resulted in one prosecution – which turned out to be related to a bonfire rather than a wood stove.

The main problem, Karen tells us, is inconsistency at every turn. The way LAs react to complaints, the fact that many authorities are not even aware that it’s their responsibility to ensure wood being sold for domestic burning is compliant with current legislation. But the problem comes from above too. The design of the law is fundamentally flawed, she says, if a complaint is investigated the day after it is made.

Karen finished by calling on the government to give local authorities long term certainty that they have funds to address the problem and that they have  better data and more information regarding the shape of future policy.

And that was that. It was not only a conference which boasted a line-up of fascinating and authoritative speakers but we were blessed with a room full of delegates ready to up the ante by asking revealing and occasionally difficult questions that expanded the debate.

As previously mentioned, our new venue genuinely played a part in making the event what is was. Ironically, our National Air Quality Conference, which has always been held at Lord’s Cricket Ground, will also be in a new home later this year, due to a three year long development of the ground. We’ll certainly be looking for somewhere as good as Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. And we hope to see you there.


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