Sunday, 21 July 2019

Slow fight for cleaner air is beginning to succeed

Slow fight for cleaner air is beginning to succeed

TO mark National Clean Air Day, on Thursday, PHIL SIMMS spoke to a Henley environmental campaigner who is trying to reduce the levels of air pollution in the town and improve the lives of residents, especially children.


ABOUT a fifth of primary schoolchildren in Henley probably suffer from asthma.

That’s according to air quality campaigner David Dickie, who visited the town’s four state and two independent primary schools.

He used school assemblies to see how many pupils used an inhaler to help their breathing and was shocked by the response — about 20 per cent put their hands up.

Nitrogen dioxide and fuel particulates cause respiratory illnesses and Henley has not met the European level of legal emissions for more than a decade.

Mr Dickie, 76, of St Katherine’s Road, and his fellow volunteers have given talks and led activities over the past year to warn children about the dangers of air pollution and encouraged them to walk, cycle or take the bus to school.

They have also urged parents to switch off their engines when stationary and dropping off or waiting to pick up their children.

Mr Dickie says: “I have been to all the primary schools and 20 per cent of the children have to use inhalers, which is shocking.

“Two weeks ago, 80 per cent of children at St Mary’s School walked there, which is great, but it is about encouraging others to do the same. We should all be doing something about it.”

He is trying to raise awareness of the problem by placing banners around the town with the slogan “Switch your engine off to save a life” and a logo which says “Turn your key, be idle free”.

Mr Dickie says: “Clean Air Day has come about because there are now lots of groups fighting to get clean air. It has been going for a number of years and it is about time that we in Henley acknowledged it.

“Henley does not meet the legal emissions for pollution and we haven’t done so for 12 years.”

Mr Dickie, who is a member of environmental campaign group Henley in Transition, has launched various campaigns to help improve air quality over the last seven years.

These include the Close Your Door initiative, where businesses are encouraged to shut their doors to protect staff and customers from pollution, and the Clean Air Henley and No Idling campaigns.

He has also measured the extent of air pollution in different streets using a monitoring device.

Mr Dickie says: “The state of air quality in Henley is traffic-related as far as I am concerned.

“The worst place is outside the police station at the bottom of Greys Road. Cars idle there, while waiting for the traffic lights to change, letting out pollution

“Even at the bridge, where traffic goes slowly up the slope, you have lorries and heavy goods vehicles with diesel engines which just pump out pollution.

“There is also slow-moving traffic outside Hamilton Avenue and Vicarage Road right by a school and also in Northfield End — anywhere that you have slow moving traffic creates pollution.”

Mr Dickie, who is married with two children and two grandchildren, says he has had some success in getting people on board, including Henley Town Council, which is planning to introduce a 20mph zone in the town centre.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he says. “The town council has started to lead the way and spend a bit of money on trying to improve the situation and we need South Oxfordshire District Council and Oxfordshire County Council to follow suit.

“In addition to my campaigns, the town council has also introduced the hydropower bus, which is so much better than the one before.

“We have talked to the bus companies, asking them to ask their drivers to turn off their engines, with some success.

“I also feel we have done a good job in the car parks. People have stopped idling and there’s only one or two who still do it.”

Mr Dickie, who is on his third hybrid car and has 16 solar panels on the roof of his home, began campaigning when he discovered that people’s health was suffering as a result of breathing Henley’s polluted air.

He recalls: “I got involved because I knew people who worked in Henley who had asthmatic-type conditions, which doctors would call ‘the Henley throat’, then moved away and said that they felt much better.

“We in Henley in Transition started campaigning because our children were suffering and nothing was being done about it.”

Mr Dickie says it has not been easy to get the authorities to take the problem seriously.

He says: “We got the town council to support writing to the county council to ask for a weight restriction on the bridge to restrict HGVs but they did not respond.

“We worked alongside Watlington and Nettlebed for John Howell, our MP, and he said the problem was too difficult to solve — people were just saying ‘no, no, no’.”

Now Mr Dickie says he is finding it easier to get support for his campaigns, which has been helped by children learning in schools about the scourge of plastic and other green issues.  

Businesses have also come on board, with many in the town centre displaying posters supporting his clean air and no idling campaigns.

The manager at Crew Clothing in Bell Street told him that he had been given permission by his head office to shut the front door of the shop to stop fumes from buses pulling up outside from coming inside.

The Henley Pet Shop, also in Bell Street, gets so dirty that the owners have to regularly clean it.    

Joan Bland, owner of Asquiths teddy bear shop on the corner of Bell Street and New Street, says the building is covered in black soot from the passing traffic, which is often stationary.

She says: “We can’t open the front door of the shop because of the pollution and our plants outside need washing every day as they are thick with black soot. Our windows are also cleaned every day.

“It is just ridiculous — we have to hose the building down.

“The Arriva buses still idle with their engines on and they stop on the most polluted parts of town, especially outside Boots.

“In the layby by Domino’s Pizza there is nearly always somebody sitting there idling. Waiting taxi drivers are also a problem.

“There has to be something that can be done. I think the key to it will be more electric cars.

“I went to Norfolk last week and there were four electric car charging points outside a Co-op store — why can’t we have that here?

“I have had a hybrid car for about six years — I am on my second one — and they are fantastic.”

Darren Morris-Spruce, a director of D & G Travel in New Street, says: “In this street the air pollution is really bad.

“You can see it on the cars outside, which are quite often stationary. There is also a fine film on the front of all the shops and, with these old buildings, it finds its way inside.”  

Gary Truman, co-owner of Henley Cycles in Duke Street, said: “As a bicycle shop, we are supporting Clean Air for Henley.

“Our electric bikes have sold well as residents are finding that bicycles are easy to use and get around on with the power helping them to get up those hills better than normal pushbikes.

“With the shop being where it is, the traffic outside builds up and that builds up the pollution, meaning we have to clean our windows.”

• Mr Dickie won the community champion award in the greener Henley category of the inaugural Henley Heroes awards last year.

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