Updated: Apr 11, 2021
Despite its elevated position, High Barnet High Street still suffers from significant air pollution. At 34 mcg/m3 it is dangerously close to the World Health Organisation 40mcg limit, and poses untold health, environmental and even financial costs to residents, workers and visitors. This shouldn't come as a huge surprise as 76% of respondents who completed our survey earlier this year said they either agreed or strongly agreed that air pollution in High Barnet is a concern.
The pollution on our High Street comes from the burning of fossil fuels. The biggest culprit is transport. The exhaust, or by-product produced when converting fuel (petrol / diesel) in our cars / vans etc to energy, releases unhealthy CO2 and other toxins into the atmosphere, which effectively poison the air. Other contributing factors include the waste from our boilers, which is made up or CO2 and water vapour (the steam you see coming out of the side of houses). Whilst the local pollution implications of this are relatively low, they are not negligible. Furthermore, the environmental cost of extracting natural gas (and oil for fuel for that matter) have much graver consequences globally, but this is another issue for another day.
The largest consequence of poor air quality is to our health. A CO2 level of 34 may compare somewhat favourably to some inner city post-codes, however, long term exposure (for a year or more) to even 30mcg leads to a 5.5% increased risk of disease related mortality. If we take just the 2369 immediate residents in Chipping Barnet, that equates to 130 of us locals potentially dying (directly or indirectly) from the effects of our pollution. This in itself is of course a concern, but when we factor in those who develop chronic illnesses as a result of the poor air quality, and the additional strain this places on an already crippled NHS, the health implications for the community are in fact, shocking.
The toxic chemicals released into the air as a result of pollution will eventually settle into local plants and water sources. So whilst we think we are doing the right thing by eating and shopping local (and from an environmental perspective, this is the right thing to do), in an area with high air pollution, the produce we buy will inadvertent have been contaminated by those toxins (plants, water, and animals via the crops and water). The poison then travels up the food chain – to us. Leading on to -> health issues (see above!) When toxins in the air are exceptionally prevalent, especially nitrogen and sulphur, local ecosystems could also be adversely affected. Vegetation and animals could struggle to thrive, and the local natural landscape that we know and love, could be forever changed.
Local air quality can significantly affect the housing markets. Areas where pollution is high will see house prices fall. According to an independent study, 76% of Londoners would expect money off sale prices to compensate for poor air quality. Furthermore, High Streets which are considered more "unhealthy", with high levels of congestion and pollution generally perform worse in terms of revenue and footfall than their cleaner counter-parts. This, in turn, will again have a negative impact on local house prices...
If you're still reading after that cheery stuff, I am pleased to say it is not all doom and gloom! We should soon be seeing an improvement in our air quality as a direct result of the pavement build-out. With cars no longer stopping and slowing to look for and trying to manoeuvre in and out of parking spaces, driving actions that exert the most energy and hence are the most polluting (in the context of driving in built up areas), CO2 levels should drop significantly. Furthermore, the additional trees that are planned for the high street should help absorb some of the remaining CO2, further helping to reduce levels.
If we want to see these come down further, however, our public transport infrastructure and network needs a serious overhaul. I think everyone can agree that we need to re-think our relationship with cars and the way we travel. You only need to look at the High Street during rush hour to realise that something needs to give. Having said that, if we are to change, we need comparable and reasonable alternatives. At the end of the day, we still need to get to work, get the kids to school etc...(I, for one, would definitely struggle without my car, and I work from home!) In the environmental survey mentioned earlier, even though 55% of respondents said they think the bus service works well, 26% of the respondents said they still use the car to get to work (37% use the Underground, 5% use the bus and 5% walk). So whilst public transport theoretically could and should be the answer, it is clear that in it's current state it leaves a lot to be desired. The bus network needs to be made more efficient for a start, enabling more people to switch from car to bus. Even locally it shouldn't have to take someone the better part of half an hour to get from the top of the high street to the Underground. Perhaps a shuttle between the Underground and the High Street is one answer?
We also need to improve our cycle and pedestrian infrastructure, not just locally but nationally. We are lagging way behind our European neighbours to an extent that is actually quite embarrassing.... In the survey, 83% or respondents say they cycle around High Barnet or to work less than once a month to never, and 65% say they feel cycling is either too dangerous and / or impractical. By comparison, in Sweden, 20% of people bike to work / school every day, even in the winter by changing to studded tyres (only 2% of our respondents use their bike daily / to commute). So whilst I agree that it may not be that nice in the rain / cold, and that many car journeys are unavoidable, it does seem like we we have some catching up to do, and that change shouldn't be too impossible...? And with climate change (rightfully so) taking centre stage at many political debates these days, I do feel there may be hope, and conversations like these will not only become more common place, but also more productive...
So for now, I will keep an eye on air levels and will keep you posted, and who knows, in the not too distant future, we may witness a public, or pollution-free transport revolution...
I am not an expert on this subject, and don't claim to be! I have used other experts' findings / articles to inform the above article, all of which are listed below: