Cllr Harris on Life After Lockdown

April 22, 2020 7:00 PM
By Cllr Sharon Harris

SharonHNow that we have all been in lockdown for several weeks, self-isolating and social distancing, thoughts are turning towards how we return to some semblance of 'normal' life after Coronavirus.

Have you noticed how clear the stars are at night now? Have you noticed that you can actually hear the birds? I wonder if nature is reminding us, now that we have time to stop and stare, that our world is wonderful and has an amazing capacity to heal if we let it.

Fewer planes in the skies and fewer cars on the road seems to be having an impact on air pollution right across the UK with similar trends in Europe. The Coronavirus outbreak has brought Britain to a near standstill, with road travel plummeting by as much as 73%, to levels not seen since 1955.

In an article in The Guardian on 23rd March, Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester asked some salient questions - ones which have recently been going through my own mind.

Do we have lessons to learn from this crisis? Professor Monks states: "We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen ... Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy?"

As car journeys have significantly fallen with fewer people are spending time in offices and factories, roadside air pollution monitors appear to be showing a significant reduction at hotspots in London. Could it be that now is the time for Warrington Borough Council to reconsider its relentless focus on promoting car use?

The Local Plan baseline figure for Warrington in 2014 established a figure of 792 houses per annum. The Council's adopted fifteen-year 2014 LDP predicted there was sufficient land for housing: 10, 500 dwellings between 2006 and 2027 without the need to touch the Green Belt. However just a few years later, the proposed LDP is for a minimum of 19,080 new homes (equating to 945 per year) between 2017 and 2037. These 'bullish' projections are used to justify an exceptional number of new houses which, judging by Warrington's previous history in not being able to fulfil its housing targets, mean that the LDP is undeliverable. The housing figures required to achieve Warrington's target of 945 per year over a 20-year period are over-ambitious. In recent years Warrington has only ever been able to build around 500 homes a year.

The number of houses projected, many of which will be satellite housing estates, mean that almost all households will need at least two cars. This will further increase Warrington's dependency on cars. Now that we are all walking and cycling more is it time for WBC to reconsider and build upon this current behaviour change?

LTP4 has laudable aspirations but does not seek to reduce car dependency. The emphasis now needs to shift to focussing on integrated bus and tram networks. Warrington's Own Buses are moving towards an electric fleet. Trams are also electric and produce no pollution. It is now recognised that exhaust fumes are not the worst pollutant but Non Exhaust Emissions (road surfaces, tyres and brake linings) are the killer pollutants. Trams would not only revitalise the town centre but regenerate local connectivity within Warrington itself, vastly reducing a high percentage of car journeys and most importantly air pollution. Warrington's identity has become interlinked with connectivity between Manchester and Liverpool. Perhaps new housing needs to be located next to employment zones? Would an integrated bus/tram system further develop Warrington's prosperity by developing connectivity between Liverpool, Manchester and beyond creating an almost seamless rail network?

The Covid-19 has brought dreadful consequences for all of us, either directly or indirectly, and some of these consequences we have yet to experience. However, it has caused us all to pause and reflect on what is really important in life and what our priorities should be in future.

Thoughts are beginning to move toward developing an 'exit' strategy. Across the UK, it is estimated that 40,000 people die prematurely each year due to poor air quality. In 2013 4.8% of all mortality in the town could be attributed to man-made particulate pollution. That equated to 95 premature deaths and more up to date surveys carried out by the World Health Organisation in 2018 show that air pollution in Warrington is higher than most towns in the country. I wonder what the current death rate is now?

This week, The Guardian also reported that "a preliminary study has found the first evidence of a link between higher levels of air pollution and deaths from Covid-19 in England. The analysis showed London, the Midlands and the north-west had the highest levels of nitrogen oxides and higher numbers of coronavirus deaths."

Do we want to return to the same polluted world we had only a few weeks ago? Will we jump straight back into our cars to go to the office? Will we continue to work from home? Will we walk or cycle more when practical to reduce car journeys? Will Warrington Borough Council re-consider certain aspects of the Local Plan and LTP4 to make our town a healthier and less polluted place to live?

Will the rush to stimulate economic recovery put air pollution on the back burner once again?

There is now a unique chance to realise a considerable potential to change working styles and lifestyles. Each one of us now needs to consider how we can make an effective change and I am aiming to ensure that some of the changes I have made myself continue after lockdown.