Opinion: Local residents March For Life as Wandsworth declared air pollution crime scene

  Posted: 27.07.21 at 12:43 by Caroline Hartnell

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On Saturday 24 July over 100 local residents, members of XR Wandsworth and many others who are worried about air pollution in the borough, marched from Balham to Tooting Broadway in protest against Wandsworth Council’s dismal failure to address the problem of toxic air. Other local groups represented on the march included Wandsworth Stand Up To Racism, the Save York Gardens campaign, Putney Pollution Busters and Little Ninja UK.

Accompanied by the stirring beat of South London XR Drummers, six pallbearers with white ‘death masks’ carried a coffin for the 300 Wandsworth residents who die prematurely each year because of air pollution. The protest attracted a lot of interest. People came out of shops to take pictures on their phones, and many passersby took leaflets and asked what it was all about.

The march paused briefly at the end of Drakefield Road, where Cllr Kim Caddy lives. Cllr Caddy has lead responsibility for climate and sustainability in Wandsworth. The message delivered was a clear one:

• ‘What do we want?’
• ‘Clean air’
• ‘When do we want it?’
• ‘Now’
• ‘Wake Up Wandsworth’
• ‘We want to … LIVE!’

At Tooting Broadway, a ‘Tree of Life’ grew from the coffin, and passersby were invited to write their messages to Wandsworth Council on ‘leaves’ to be hung on the tree. Messages included:

• ‘Be brave. Make the changes needed for us to breathe’
• ‘Wake Up Wandsworth, clean air is not a luxury’
• ‘Wake up or die choking, Wandsworth Council’
• ‘Stop chopping trees’
• ‘Act Now Please. We elected you, please listen’

Writing a message to tie to the Tree of Life

The tree will be delivered to Wandsworth Council on Wednesday 28 July at XR Wandsworth’s regular ‘Wednesdays for Wandsworth’ vigil at the town hall.

Two of the four speakers at Tooting Broadway talked about how hard it is to move Wandsworth Council to act. ‘Residents have always, always wanted to work with the Council on decreasing the levels of air pollution,’ said Andrea Gilbert of Putney Pollution Busters, ‘but they’ve been met with ignored emails. At the end of the day it’s the Council that has to do more about this, and they have to listen to residents by having a Citizens’ Assembly where residents can put in their views and their objections to proposals.’

‘We shouldn’t have to bully and embarrass the Council to look after our kids,’ said David Smith of Little Ninja UK, talking about the lengths to which parents had had to go to get the Council to set up School Streets. ‘That’s their job, that’s what they’re supposed to do. We’re talking about an emergency, a climate emergency and an air pollution emergency, CO2 and NO2, two sides of the same coin.’

Earlier in the week, chalk outlines of dead bodies appeared on pavements along the route of the march – at Balham, Tooting Bec and Tooting Broadway stations, in Balham’s Hildreth Street market, outside Balham Sainsbury’s, at the end of Drakefield Road. The borough had been declared an air pollution crime scene.

The protest is part of XR Wandsworth’s Wake Up Wandsworth campaign in response to the Council’s failure to act on the climate and ecological emergency, which it declared in July 2019. The campaign was launched on Wednesday 7 April, when protesters declared themselves to be ‘in open rebellion against Wandsworth Council’. The first of XR Wandsworth’s four demands of Wandsworth Council is to reduce air pollution to within legal levels by May 2022.

Passing Balham station

Why are we so worried about air pollution in Wandsworth?
Over 300 people die prematurely in Wandsworth each year because of illegal levels of air pollution, with many others left struggling to breathe. Four out of ten of London’s worst air pollution areas are in Wandsworth. And air pollution in Wandsworth is actually getting worse despite some respite owing to the national lockdown. Visit https://addresspollution.org to check the air quality where you live. Just the day before the march, the Evening Standard revealed that Putney High Street had the second highest level of toxic air in London. (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/health/mums-london-diesel-children-toxic-air-hotspots-ulez-b947360.html)

New research shows that air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil was responsible for 8.7 million deaths globally in 2018, a staggering one in five of all people who died that year. In the UK, it is estimated that air pollution is responsible for around 36,000 premature deaths annually, with up to 9,400 in London according to a recent report by London Councils. (https://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/node/33227). Dirty air has been linked to many different health problems in children, including reduced lung capacity and increased asthma. On 16 December 2020 a south London coroner made history by ruling that air pollution was a contributory cause of the death of 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. And people who live in deprived areas are often exposed to higher levels of air pollution, so poor air quality is a social justice issue.

What is Wandsworth Council doing to address the problem?
The Council declared a climate emergency in 2019; their job is to ensure the wellbeing of local residents. But they are not taking the urgent measures to address the climate emergency and protect us from the dangers of air pollution. The Council has failed to act. In fact they are making things worse by cutting down large numbers of mature trees, as has happened recently in York Gardens. The recently published Wandsworth Air Quality Action Plan lacks all sense of urgency and offers no radical solutions.

XR Wandsworth is calling on Wandsworth Council to convene a Citizens Assembly to help the Council work out how to reduce air pollution.

XR Wandsworth’s other three demands are around trees and green spaces, food waste collections and divestment from fossil fuels. Ahead of the next election of Wandsworth Councillors in May 2022, we will assess whether the Council has met our demands. We look forward to sharing the Council’s successes – and will not hesitate to share their failures – with the electorate, using local press, social media and any other means necessary to ensure we reach every household in the borough.

Arriving at Tooting Broadway

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