Where is Britain’s worst air pollution?

Oh, how lovely. Image: Getty.

Just before the general election was announced, criticism of the Government’s Clean Air Act made air pollution big news.

Despite this, most of the parties have failed to address an environmental issue which affects UK cities and over half of the UK population. Let’s have a look at how an issue barely mentioned in the manifestos will play out across the country.

Data from Public Health England provides estimates of particulate matter –  the sum of all solid and liquid particles suspended in air many of which are hazardous – on a local authority basis. This allow sus to look at the geography of something that is both responsible for a number of deaths and has recently been linked to poor sleep.

The 10 local authorities with the worse and best air quality. Source: Public Health England.

Three findings emerge from the data:

Firstly, London boroughs dominate the list: the 19 local authorities with the worst pollution in Britain are all in London. Westminster and Kensington, two of the richest authorities in the country, lead this list. It’s estimated that long term exposure to air pollution was to blame for 8.3 per cent of all deaths in 2010 in these two areas.

Secondly, and unsurprisingly, urban areas have worse air quality. When looking at the 50 most polluted local authorities, just five are outside of urban areas (you can see our definition of urban here). Meanwhile those least polluted tend to be rural authorities.

Thirdly, larger urban authorities aren’t necessarily the most polluted. Nottingham, Leicester and Luton have worse air quality than Manchester. Ipswich has higher levels of particulate matter than London, and York and Glasgow are among the least polluted cities in the UK.

Ed Glaesar would describe pollution as a “demon of density” – a downside of concentrating growth in specific places. While it may have fallen off the agenda in this election, it’s a problem that both central government and cities must tackle if they are to stay attractive to both people and businesses.

London already has a low emissions zone, a traffic pollution charge scheme with the aim of reducing the tailpipe emissions of diesel-powered commercial vehicles; and Sadiq Kahn is proposing further restrictions, including a new toxicity charge to be introduced from autumn 2017. Similar steps will be required to tackle this problem elsewhere.

Adeline Bailly is a research intern at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.


Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”

In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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