Air Pollution and Peterborough City Council

Picture is at… and the status of the Air Quality Management Area (two small areas in Whittlesey) has not changed since 2007 when the breach of legal limits was notified to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Peterborough City Council’s other progress on air pollution since then:

Council has never had a public information campaign to stop domestic and commercial burning of landfill, construction and commercial wastes, which is particularly prevalent in high housing turnover areas close to the railway station. Smoke and smog affect visitors’ perceptions of the city as they step onto the platform and air quality has a serious and ongoing impact on residents’ health and wellbeing. Many people living in the city have actually forgotten what fresh air smells like: they are no longer aware they are living in smoggy conditions: they simply don’t smell the smoke any more. These fires (many of them illegal) are set in the evening, just as council officers go home and since they are usually “safe” (i.e. someone is supervising the fire and it isn’t getting out of control) the fire brigade is not required to take action.
Council decided to approve, construct and launch (2016) its very own landfill waste incinerator with Cllr Kreling (on the planning committee at the time of approval) observing that if she couldn’t see anything coming out of the stack (the planning committee was taken on a tour of a similar monster), nothing was coming out. The council has never agreed to and is not live streaming data about its emissions from the stack.
Peterborough Renewable Energy Limited who were the first to propose an incinerator for the city did agree to live stream their emissions data on their website. But this is not the incinerator which has gone live.
The Chair of the Planning Committee, Councillor for East Ward, the ward with both planned incinerators sitting in it, offered to throw Richard Olive and me out of the council chamber She couldn’t throw us out because she couldn’t find a bailiff. But she was perfectly able to make a lousy decision without listening to evidence. For me, this was my introduction to the realities of politics in Peterborough. Most people have a vague sense of trust in their elected representatives. I lost whatever tiny bit I had left that day.
Between then and now council decided to knock down and pulverise numbers of large buildings made of brick, cement and plaster (Thomas Deacon School and several other predecessor-to-PFI schools, Bridge House, Peterborough District Hospital & assorted buildings on site). No dust suppression in place during the works and no coverage of the remaining mountains of dust (I observed the 20 ft high mountain of grey dust next to Aldermans Drive yesterday: 14th March 2016).
The Junction of Taverners Road with Bourges Boulevard is close to and downwind of the pile of pulverised sky scraper hospital and is also in a high density residential area. This junction is now close to breaching traffic pollution limits and that is according to official monitors. Are we surprised? Hardly. Cough Cough.
In London it has been shown that official monitoring is significantly understating the true state of affairs:…
People feel there is nothing they can do. But there are a few things.
  • More people need to observe democracy in action, even if it does mean risking getting thrown out of meetings. The dishonour of getting thrown out is not yours.
  • We could choose not to reelect councillors who fail to help improve air quality and who drive themselves around in heavy overpowered diesel vehicles.
  • We could vote in councillors who don’t drive. Or who drive electric, hybrid and low emissions vehicles. The importance of leadership cannot be overstated.
  • We could vote in councillors who understand that a 20mph speed limit in Peterborough’s residential streets would make cycling and walking pleasanter and would reduce the number of journeys taken by car.
  • We could find a real time air pollution app which relies on independent air monitoring and which works in Peterborough, so that we are not obliged to rely solely on council owned data.
  • The council could live stream its incinerator emissions and on street air pollution monitoring data on its website. If it is proud of what it is doing, there should be no qualms in showing off its achievements.

Will anybody in Peterborough see tomorrow’s solar eclipse?

For a second day running it has not been possible to see the sun in Peterborough at 09:30.  I had made a note to check where it would be on Friday (tomorrow) when there is a chance to witness a near total solar eclipse. People have made plans and some have plotted parties and bought cameras, filters, projectors and protective eye wear, ready for the big day.

“It will begin in the UK at 8.45am. The maximum eclipse, when the moon is nearest the middle of the sun, will be at 9.31am. The event will end at 10.41am.” 

Instead we have “fog”. This is a polite word for particulate laden and polluted air.  It might be a lot more accurate to call it “smog”.  Yesterday it almost lifted just after lunch and shafts of sunlight penetrated into the city centre. Today we have what looks like heavy cloud. But it is more likely that the smog has simply floated up a bit. The government website is predicting worse pollution levels on Friday than today.

air pollution for solar eclipse

I joined the Green Party in 2007 as I tried to reverse Peterborough City Council’s decision to support the incineration of domestic waste. This was a battle which we campaigners lost. We saw a neighbouring proposal fall in the face of a far more successful campaign. Lessons were learned, as they say. And I started to consider the vexed question of what exactly drives politics in Peterborough.

A key supporter of incineration of waste is Cllr Marco Cereste (he is also a director of Peterborough Renewable Energy Limited which builds slightly cleaner incinerators than the one the council is building).  As leader of the council he personally attracts huge amounts of anger, frustration and suspicion: some of it reasonable, some of it less so.  But in the last couple of weeks he has told the story of his signing (on behalf of the city he represents) a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on his facebook profile (shared with his facebook friends).  This MoU is with an entity locals understand is a Chinese government funded organisation, possibly what we’d call in the UK, an “NGO” (non governmental organisation).

Then in an online discussion elsewhere entirely about this morning’s fog, someone shared this video which I hadn’t come across previously. The story of this video’s making and removal from Chinese social media is available online. I just wish that we’d had this video at the time the council’s decision was still not made. At the notorious moment when Pam Kreling (then one of the councillors making the crucial decision about whether or not to use incineration) said words to the effect that if she couldn’t see anything emerging from a stack, then there was nothing there and there was by implication nothing which could do anyone any harm. As campaigners we weren’t allowed to speak at critical moments in meetings: in fact the chair of one of the meetings offered to have me and Richard Olive thrown out when we stood up to tell them they were being hopelessly misinformed by their advisors. But as I observed this pantomime (there was no beadle to implement the Chair’s desire) I was left reeling from a deeper revelation. I still wonder how people in key positions got through even basic level schooling, what exactly went on in their science lessons and what their marks were.  

incineration decision: a second response

unofficial poster

I wrote to my ward councillors on Tuesday 13th September and had received a first dismal response within nine hours.

But the following Monday I received a very different second response.  This one from Cllr John Shearman (here he is).

First of all he apologises for not replying sooner.  Frankly speediness of response is not the most important thing to me.  And since I wrote about a jargon-prone subject which most people would find technical, difficult and tedious an over speedy response really wouldn’t impress me.

But offering an apology for responding within a week achieves so much.  Starting like this says to me (these are my words, not his) “Hello, I am a human being with manners and I understand the common courtesies.  Moreover I have standards: they are mine and…..”

I don’t need to go on.  And nor will I copy onto my blog the content of his response or our subsequent conversations.  That would be impolite:  he has expressed himself to me honestly, frankly and (absolutely critically important to me, and to anything relating to planning) he comes over as open-minded and prepared to listen. That is what I think people expect of a ward councillor.

And, best of all, from what he says I can see that he has done his homework and understands the incinerator campaign work which has being quietly going on in the city.  His email is a very tiny but very concise executive summary of how the situation actually is.  Hats off.

Thank you, John.

I am still waiting for a response from the third of my ward councillors.

incineration decision: letter to ward councillors

unofficial poster

Today I wrote in the following terms to my ward councillors, copying in my MP.

mass burn incinerator for household waste

I invite your comments on how you have protected the interests of the residents of my ward and of the city in the years since 2007 in this matter.

Should the council reconsider what it is doing: What would the costs of pulling out of this contract be today?  And tomorrow (assuming it is signed tomorrow)?

Have you checked whether or not the council considered options other than incineration?  What evidence of careful consideration of other options are you relying on?  Are you aware that the council has been consistently challenged on this since 2007, (and possibly earlier)?

Are you aware that the business cases for incineration in general and for this particular incinerator are both now being challenged as unsafe (the economy and the market having changed substantially)?  Have you considered the financial impact on council tax payers should these cautions turn out to be well founded? And that if the business performs as badly as expected are you aware of the likely impact on recycling, too?

Has the contract been set up in such a way that it can attract structural or grant funding?  Or has it been set up in such a way that it is ineligible?

Are you aware of the total cost of this contract?  Figures of £76M and £80M have been quoted recently in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph for the capital costs alone.  Is that figure current?  What are the overall 30 year costs for this project?  Is it acceptable that this information is still not in the public domain?  Is it acceptable that innocent readers of their local paper might assume that this figure is the total cost of the project?

Are you aware that the council is deliberately choosing out of date technology and describing it as “tried and tested”?  (the information on technology is still not in the public domain).

Are you aware that the council might be comparing the energy recovery of its own plant with Scandinavian examples?  If so are you aware that in Scandinavia (which is used to colder weather and historically much more aware of the importance of insulation and energy security) high performance hot water supply grids are planned in (eg for swimming pools or district heating).  Peterborough has not planned a supply grid and has not explained who will buy energy and power generated by this incinerator.  Have you seen an example of the output and recovery figures from either Peterborough’s as planned and have you compared that with an operational equivalent in Scandinavia and an operational equivalent in the UK (local campaigners are finding that those in the UK can’t sell their power).

Are you aware that the UK’s statutory regulatory regime for air pollution (in which the council has placed its trust) is widely regarded as unfit for purpose?  The Health Protection Agency is about to undertake research into whether or not it can substantiate the assurances and claims it has been making and upon which the Environment Agency and numerous councils have historically relied.   Is the council aware of the potential damage it could do to its own Environment Capital “aspiration” if, as widely expected, it can’t?

Do you know enough about air pollution and monitoring in the city?  Does Peterborough monitor anything other than road traffic?  Where are the monitoring stations and are they in the right places?  What regime is planned for when the incinerator is operational?

Have you considered the social, health and cost impacts on the city of a mass burn incinerator in an area with very high (and rising) levels of social deprivation?

Are you aware that a new incinerator on an industrial site in Fletton is operating and is apparently making people ill, but that the council has not done anything about it,  and that not one person amongst the “officers’ panel” and members present at the Sustainable Growth and Environment Capital Scrutiny Committee Call in Meeting on 29th August was equipped to advise the ward councillor who asked about this problem in his ward?  I understand that the ward councillor had been told by the Environment Agency that it was a matter for the council.  As a member of the public I witnessed that not a single person actually knew how to deal with this relatively small problem – nobody offered to look into it or explain who the ward councillor should talk to, if it wasn’t the Environment Agency.  This is despite the presence of senior council officers and (at least) three lawyers.

Are you satisfied with the monitoring and regulation of pollution in the city?

Please can Richard Olive have answers to the questions which Peterborough Friends of the Earth has asked the council on this matter?

Can you write NONE against – or otherwise provide detail of any personal, family or party interest you have had, have or are likely to have – in any of the following:

  •  the council’s Energy Services Company?
  • “Blue Sky”?
  • this sector?
  • this decision?

I look forward to hearing from you, etc.

My bank holiday and a filthy fire – two days later

Bank Holiday fire

On Bank Holiday Monday I posted a story about a filthy fire.  As I said in that post, I had left a message asking the council’s Environmental Health Officer to phone me back.  The message was left with the council’s emergency out of hours service.

By 09:40 on Tuesday morning I had not received a phone call, so I phoned the council.  The main switchboard told me that the council did not have an Environmental Health Officer (see Note 1 below) and asked me what my call was about.  She wanted to know whether to direct my call to “pollution” or “safety”.  I opted for pollution.

By chance I was put through to the “pollution officer” for my district.  He told me that he was one of three pollution officers for the unitary authority area of Peterborough.  He hadn’t received my message from the emergency out of hours service (and as I write this post he hasn’t emailed me to tell me he’s found it), so I briefed him on what had happened.  How the fire service had put the fire out once toxic materials were found on it.  And he confirmed that burning the kinds of items described would constitute an offence under the Clean Air Act

I asked him about the council’s out of hours service which fails to provide a mechanism for either putting out a toxic fire, getting council staff to the event, or even reporting it, or even getting a message through.  He explained that there would be a high level decision determining spending on this service and that he would try to help me understand where that decision had been made.  Meanwhile he said that the emergency services should certainly be called if all else failed. He mentioned how noise nuisances are regularly reported to the police out of hours.  He said he would go and inspect the situation.  This particular fire I will now stop posting about until I know whether or not the council decides to prosecute.

He rang me back later in the day to report on progress and agreed to ask a colleague to give me a call about how the council had made its decisions about out of hours services.  He also told me that the broken links had been fixed and would be correct on the website by the morning.

This morning I checked the links.  One has been removed and both pages now point to a single outside link:

So now at least there is a working link to a some garden bonfire content under nuisance.  Thank you Peterborough City Council pollution and IT teams!

What the council’s website now points to is content on a charity website.  The charity has published this leaflet, with the same content.   What do you think?  Is this robust enough?

Should the council have its bonfire policy?  The leaflet suggests that there isn’t much point.  If you want a good, informative source of information on bonfires this response to a FOI request takes a bit of beating.  But the messages in that document don’t seem to me to get enough of an airing, nor do they seem to be falling on the waste burners’ ears.

Which could be partly why we have so many filthy fires burning in my area.

Note 1: In December 2010 the council had three, presumably fully qualified officers: