Is Manchester doing enough to fight its air pollution crisis?

Clouds over Manchester. Image: Getty.

In June 2018, think tank IPPR released a report calling Greater Manchester’s pollution levels “lethal and illegal”. The report called on mayor Andy Burnham to urgently ramp up measures to improve air quality and for central government to give him the tools to do so.

Yet one year on, the Northern Quarter Forum has had to fight tooth and nail to close Stevenson Square to traffic for just five hours to celebrate Clean Air Week. This, coupled with the Great Ancoats Street fiasco – a multi-million pound plan to create a “European style boulevard” without any cycle infrastructure – raises red flags.

So what’s actually being done to fight Manchester’s air pollution crisis – and is it enough?

An ambitious pledge

Andy Burnham has pledged to make Manchester a leading green city in Europe. It’s an ambitious goal, considering central Manchester currently has the highest rate of emergency admissions for asthma in England – over double the national average – and Manchester is the second-worst council area in England for inhalable particulate matter. Greater Manchester is also the most congested region outside of London, with 152 roads in breach of legal NO2 levels.

The 152 roads in breach of air pollution levels. Image: TfGM.

 

All in all, 1,200 lives are lost each year due to air pollution. If that number is to be brought down to zero, Manchester better look for inspiration.

Oslo, European Green Capital 2019, prioritises pedestrians and cyclists in the city centre, and is transitioning to a completely car-free city centre. All public transport will run on renewable energy from 2020, and over 700 on-street parking spaces were removed, replaced with cycle lanes, pocket parks, and seating areas. Since the 1980’s Oslo has had tolled ring roads, and in 2017 introduced a further congestion charge.

The message is clear: becoming a leading green city means reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Switching to electric cars won’t be enough to save us, because worn tyres and brakes produce particulate matter, the micro plastic particles penetrating the deepest parts of our lungs and bloodstream.

What’s required, instead, is improved public transport – currently often both less convenient and more expensive than driving – as well as prioritising walking and cycling.

So with Burnham’s ambitious – and worthy – pledge in mind, let’s see what Manchester is doing.

Is enough being invested in public transport?

Last year, Burnham revealed his “Congestion Deal”, which includes a £122m Bus Priority Package (shepherding 9,000 more passengers a week) and spending £83m on 27 new trams. The deal also commits 40,000 more seats on commuter trains, and trebles the number of electric vehicle charging points in the region to 1,000.

Manchester’s Clean Air Plan also includes £116m government funded schemes for HGV’s, buses, taxis, and businesses upgrading to cleaner vehicles, as well as loans with preferential rates for those taking advantage of the funds.

While that may look like a lot of investment, it pales in comparison to the nearly £6bn being considered on road schemes. Moreover, research has repeatedly shown the benefits of road expansion are short-lived, “inducing” more car journeys leading to increased congestion and pollution overall.

The biggest cue for public transport in Manchester is Burnham’s recent proposal to franchise buses, bringing them back under public control. This will allow GMCA to develop a truly integrated public transport system and ensure all communities are served, not just those that are most profitable. It will also allow them to set the fares, bringing them in line with those in London; whereas it costs £4 in Greater Manchester for a single bus fare, the rate is currently capped at £1.50 in the capital.

That being said, there’s still a pressing need for more funding. When I asked the Clean Air Plan folk at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) what’s the one thing government could do to help, they told me this: “To agree a devolved multi-year transport funding settlement with Greater Manchester” that includes ongoing funding, “to help us to transform public transport services to meet modern expectations as people experience in other cities across Europe.”

Despite the progress being made, as long as central government doesn’t provide new funds – and the bulk of existing funding is pumped into motorways instead – Manchester won’t become a leading green city.


Is walking and cycling being prioritised?

Burnham’s Congestion Deal also outlined a “Streets for All” approach, in which streets would be designed “for all road users” to enable alternatives to driving.

Chris Boardman became Greater Manchester’s first Walking and Cycling Commissioner in 2017 with an initial £160m earmarked to begin creating “Bee Network” safe cycle routes throughout the city – making Manchester a truly European city. That funding has now been allocated, and the first projects are coming to fruition.

However, it only accounts for 11 per cent of the £1.5bn needed to complete the Bee Network, and Boardman along with five other leading cycling commissioners are demanding government commit long-term funding to safe cycle infrastructure.

Boardman calls painted bike lanes a “waste of public money”, which encourage drivers to speed up, endangering cyclists. “Actual” bike infrastructure is needed, such as segregated cycle lanes.

He’s pointed out that government has recently agreed to spend £1.4bn on upgrading a roundabout near Bedford and building a new 10-mile dual carriageway – two projects that together may save drivers 10 minutes of travel. For the same price, Manchester could have a fully integrated cycle network that would revolutionise the way people travel around the city. Central and local government simply aren’t prioritising the measures needed to reduce air pollution.

That’s why Manchester City Council’s announcement of the £9.1m “Great Ancoats Street improvement scheme” – maintaining five lanes of motor traffic with no cycle infrastructure along one of the city’s most polluted and dangerous thoroughfares – has provoked anger and despair.

Cyclists protest on Great Ancoats Street. Image: David Saddington/author provided.

The council’s justification – “This scheme does not incorporate a segregated cycleway, as we need to balance the needs of different road users” – Illustrates a business-as-usual mindset of car dominated planning. It’s completely at odds with the scale of the challenge Manchester faces in turning around its air quality crisis.

There’s also a long way to go towards prioritising walking and cycling in the city centre. When Manchester City Council refused permission to close Stevenson Square to traffic for just five hours for the community to celebrate Clean Air Week, Northern Quarter Forum members took matters into their own hands.

They developed a plan to reroute the 13 buses that traverse Lever Street and presented it to the Highways department (essentially having done their job for them). Then it was actually Labour party councillor Angeliki Stogia who took the reins and pushed the request through.

Apart from Stogia, this lack of support for a resident’s group advancing what should be the council’s agenda is troubling. This, along with Great Ancoats Street, suggests a council not taking a “Streets for All” approach seriously, wand lacks the will to prioritise alternatives to driving in the city centre.

Is a congestion charge being introduced?

In the past year, the main focus has been developing a “Clean Air Zone”, covering all of Greater Manchester. The scheme would charge the most polluting buses, taxis, heavy and lights goods vehicles entering the zone.

This Clean Air Zone isn’t a congestion charge because it doesn’t charge polluting private vehicles. However, congestion charges are shown to be highly effective.

When Stockholm introduced its congestion charge 11 years ago, it was dubbed “the most expensive way ever devised to commit political suicide.” The charge began with just 25 per cent public approval – but when congestion dropped by 20 per cent, public opinion changed rapidly. After a seven month trial period, a referendum made the scheme permanent, and public approval now stands near 70 per cent. Revenue from the scheme has funded new metro lines and active travel improvements.

TfGM argue that charging private cars will hurt the poorest in society. However, ONS data show that while nearly all households in the richest 10 per cent by income own a car, just a third of those in the lowest 10 per cent own one. And nearly all homeowners have at least one car, compared to less than half of households in social housing.

In reality, households on lower incomes are far more likely to rely on public transport, and are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality.

The elephant in the room: the airport

Burnham has pledged to make Greater Manchester carbon neutral by 2038.

It’s difficult to imagine how this is possible, considering that Manchester Airport – 65 per cent owned by Manchester City Council – is expanding. Over the next 20 years, it plans to double passenger numbers.

Globally, aviation emissions are growing so quickly that by 2020 they’re projected to be 70 per cent higher than in 2005 and are currently 26 per cent higher than in 2013. If it were a country, global aviation emissions would be within the top 10 emitters. Here in Manchester, Pete Abel of Manchester Friends of the Earth says the current airport expansion plans would blow “our carbon budget twice over”.

A lack of follow-through

The stakes are high, the consequences dire. Strong, decisive action is required to rid Manchester of its poisonous air.

While Burnham has the vision, he doesn’t have the power. Without buy-in and consistent action from the 10 councils as well as central government, there’s only so much that can be accomplished – and it won’t be enough.

Public transport must become convenient and cheaper than driving. All city streets must enable walking and cycling. Mancunians – as well as city dwellers around the country – must hold elected representatives to account, let them know "business as usual" is no longer acceptable, and demand action to match the rhetoric.

An earlier version of this article was originally published by Manchester Confidential

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.