Podcast: Estuary English

The Estuary. Image: Getty.

As I write, it’s local elections day here in England. There are elections in large chunks of the country, but to my shame I’ve only really been paying attention to two: the London borough ones (where there’s a lot of tension around how they might go for the various parties), and the Sheffield City Region mayoral one (where there’s no tension whatsoever because we’ve basically known that Labour’s Dan Jarvis was a lock for months now).

Anyway. I talk about those, briefly – but because we won’t have any results until some silly time this evening, our main feature this week is something else entirely.

Caroline Crampton was for many years in charge of the internet here at the New Statesman, and is one of the hosts of our pop culture podcast Srsly. Last year, she took on a new role as head of podcasts, and moved to Merseyside to write a book about the Thames Estuary.

So, all things considered, I thought it was about time I invited her onto Skylines to talk about it. She tells me how her parents’ journey from South Africa and her childhood in Kent inspired an interest in the estuary; how and why its human, natural and economic geography all differ so radically from the proper Thames, up-river; and why the towns of the estuary keep showing such an enduring enthusiasm for right-wing populist racists.

She also tells a frankly horrific story about 600 Victorians who drowned in sewage. It’s a fascinating conversation.

Next week, in all likelihood, will be the local election post mortem episode. See you on the other side.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.

The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.