In the autumn of 2017, Get Sutton Cycling published a video called ‘Air Pollution in Sutton: How it affects you and how cycling can help‘. The short film, aimed primarily at our councillors, set out the facts behind transport-related airborne pollution in the borough. The feature discussed the role that cycling could play in helping to improve Sutton’s air quality, essentially through the provision of infrastructure that would enable residents of all ages and abilities to consider swapping some of the local journeys currently made by car to bicycle.
Sustainable Transport Strategy, LB of Sutton (June 2015) “Over 50% of car journeys in Sutton are less than 5km (3 miles)”.
To ensure that Sutton’s councillors were aware of the film, and, importantly, aware of the issue, an email was sent to all fifty-four of the borough councillors individually soon after the video was published. Short, and to the point, this is what the email said:
‘Air Pollution in Sutton’
31 October 2017 / 1 November 2017
Hardly a day seems to go by without another news item about air quality. People are worried and are asking questions about what can be done.
Get Sutton Cycling wants to contribute to the debate.
So we invite you to watch a short video (just under 4 minutes of your time) which you can find here on YouTube.
If you would like to discuss things further, please get in touch.
Get Sutton Cycling
representing the London Cycling Campaign in Sutton
So, what happened next? Did anyone respond to the email, and if so what did they say?
Nine councillors, of the fifty-four representing the borough, provided a response, and we are grateful to them for taking the time to reply.
The most eloquent and full response came from Cllr. Manuel Abellan (Liberal Democrat, Beddington South; Vice-Chair of the Environment and Neighbourhood Committee), although we did have to wait until 28 January 2018, so about three months, to receive it. It was clear from Manuel’s response that he was effectively responding on behalf of Sutton Council (the current Liberal Democrat administration). This was not surprising, given that Manuel is the council’s official Cycling Champion.
We will come on to Manuel’s email in part two of this blog post. But first, here in part one, John Kinnear and Charles Martin set some context by considering the replies and acknowledgements received from the other councillors who responded to the ‘Air Pollution in Sutton’ email and video.
The responses to the video
A near-instantaneuos reply was received from Cllr. Samantha Bourne (Liberal Democrat, Nonsuch; Chair, Planning Committee; Vice-Chair, Licensing Committee) on 31 October 2017: “Thank you your your email. I have received a large number of emails that were sent to me over the last week during my holiday absence, which I am currently going through. I will be answering them in turn and will respond to your email as soon as I am able”. As Sam’s initial email was clearly an automated reply, and given that nothing further has been heard from her, we can essentially discard this response.
Cllr. Tony Shields (Conservative, Sutton South; Chair Sutton South, Cheam and Belmont Local Committee) got back to us within ninety minutes of the email being sent (31 October). Unfortunately, it was pretty clear that Tony had not taken the trouble to view all three minutes and fifty-six seconds of the video, because he simply shrieked “Incinerator! Is that mentioned in your film? If not why not?”.
Note: The incinerator reference relates to the waste incinerator (or Viridor Energy Recovery Facility) currently being constructed in the north of the borough.
A similar theme was picked up by Cllr. Nick Mattey (Independent, Beddington North) on 1 November. Nick thanked us for the email, and said that he thought everyone was very concerned about how air pollution leads to so much premature death from respiratory illness including cancer. Nick went on to say that the ‘Lib Dems incinerator’ would be spewing carcinogens and that was why the Council Leader, Cllr. Ruth Dombey, was promoting the London Cancer Hub. He added “You may also be disappointed to know that the Viridor Incinerator championed by the Liberal Democrats will be producing the same amount of air pollution as 40,000 cars..”
Note: The total number of cars registered in London as a whole increased by about 32,000 in twelve months between 2015 and 2016, from 2.636 million in 2015 to 2.668 million in 2016 (noting that new vehicles are becoming marginally cleaner year on year). In the borough of Sutton, the total number of licensed vehicles (so including goods vehicles and buses) increased by about 1,000 during the same twelve months, suggesting that there is a requirement to find around two additional parking spaces a day in the borough in order to accommodate the current rate of growth. See Department for Transport Vehicle Licensing Statistics 2016 (Table Veh0105).
As Nick had copied-in all councillors to his reply to us, a short spat of incinerator-based communications followed between Tony and Nick.
We replied to both Tony and Nick on 15 November, thanking them for their prompt responses. In our reply to Tony we noted that the incinerator had not been mentioned in the film because the primary objective had been to highlight how motor vehicles are a major source of pollution. To both councillors we pointed out that pollution from traffic imposes significant human and financial costs on society, and Sutton is not exempt from this. Sutton needs to help the UK comply with its legal limits on air quality and improve public health, noting that the health benefits of cycling significantly outweigh the risks to health presented by pollution. Consequently, we said, it makes sense to encourage and enable cycling locally as a way of reducing pollution and improving public health. Ward councillors have a pivotal role to play in this regard.
Cllr. Mary Burstow (Liberal Democrat, Cheam; Chair, Licensing Committee) was next to reply (1 November). Mary thanked us for the video, said that she liked the idea of the additional cycle routes in principle, and asked whether funding was available from TfL (and if so how much?). Mary provided no qualification as to why she included the caveat ‘in principle’, rather than simply saying she liked the idea ‘full-stop’, so how much can be read into this is unclear. We sent the following reply:
15 November 2017
Many thanks for your reply to our ‘Air Pollution in Sutton’ email, which was sent to all councillors in the borough. You are one of nine councillors to have responded.
The fact that in Sutton, in 2014, around one in twenty deaths were attributed to man-made PM2.5 pollution is shocking. This statistic appears not to be widely acknowledged. One main reason for making our air pollution film was to ensure that our councillors will not be able to say, at some future point, that they were not aware of this depressing statistic while they were in office.
You mentioned TfL and funding. Hopefully, last month, Sutton Council would have put in a bid for Liveable Neighbourhood funding https://tfl.gov.uk/info-for/boroughs/liveable-neighbourhoods. If such an application has been made, and if the bid is successful (TfL will need to know that the borough is willing and able to deliver), then the funding released through this programme (potentially up to £5million) will be significantly greater than that provided historically through the annual LIP programme (which in recent years has equated to only about £1.60 per head per year to cycling).
In many ways though, delivery on cycling is as much about making the case as it is funding. Making residential streets feel safe for cycling through initiatives such as filtered permeability (access all areas, but through traffic restricted to those on foot or bicycle), needs community engagement similar to that recently carried out in the north of Sutton (see Quietway survey https://www.sutton.gov.uk/quietways). This aspect of engagement need not be a high cost item (far from it), although it will require political buy-in and expertise by the protagonists (including council officers). A new guide to filtered permeability, ‘Making Streets Safer – a guide to filtered permeability’, has been published this month by engineering consultancy City Infinity and is available from this link: https://cityinfinity.co.uk. I think you will find it of interest.
It is worth noting that 74% of Londoners see air cleanliness as a problem in central London, and 67% think the same of London as a whole. Therefore, the quality of our air, and the growing evidence of its impact on health, is likely to ensure that it will remain a topical issue for the foreseeable future.
Many thanks again for your reply. Your acknowledgement is much appreciated.
London Cycling Campaign Sutton Borough Coordinator
We have subsequently learned that Sutton Council did not put in a bid for Liveable Neighbourhood funding for the 2018/19 financial year, as reported in No bid from Sutton for 2018 Liveable Neighbourhood funding (November 2017) and explored further in Why didn’t Sutton submit a bid for Liveable Neighbourhood funding at the first opportunity? (January 2018).
The conversation did not stop there though, and Mary replied the following day (16 November) to say that she had submitted the following question to Full Council: “Get Sutton Cycling recently sent a video to all Councillors, regarding making cycling easier in Sutton. What steps has Sutton taken in the last four years to make cycling in Sutton easier for cyclists?“.
The outcome of Mary’s timely question is reported in What steps has Sutton taken in the last four years to make cycling in Sutton easier? (Get Sutton Cycling, December 2017).
Cllr. Hamish Pollock (Carshalton Central, Liberal Democrat; Chair, Carshalton and Clockhouse Local Committee; Vice-Chair, Pension Committee) wrote on 1 November to thank us and to say he was a cyclist himself and painfully aware of the issues.
In our reply to Hamish we said that it was good to know that he aware of the issues. However, being aware was one thing, and actually doing something about it, another. Ward councillors have a pivotal role to play in encouraging and enabling cycling as a way of reducing pollution and improving public health. In 2017, 2% of trips made by Sutton residents were by bicycle, the same proportion as in 1997. Now, with a supportive Mayor of London, there is no real excuse for inaction. People in the future may wonder what took us so long.
Cllr. Paul Wingfield (Worcester Park, Liberal Democrat; Chair of North East Surrey Crematorium Board) also wrote on 1 November. Paul told us he would forward on our email to members of the Sutton E&N committee. He thought the video covered a lot of ground and served as a good reminder for people to keep the cycling concept at the front of minds when considering new transport plans. Many of Sutton’s major roads are quite narrow and hilly, Paul said, making the provision of cycle lanes difficult. He was aware that there were plans to investigate the potential to include some new Quietways and that our our video would help make the case for them.
As Paul had mentioned in his reply that parts of Sutton were quite hilly, in our reply to Paul we suggested that he may be interested in the Propensity to Cycle Tool http://www.pct.bike. This facility maps the percentage of journeys that people make to work by bike (Census 2011 – in Sutton around 2 or 3%), but also allows users to select the potential for cycling under certain scenarios. In the case of e-bikes (power assisted cycles), the percentage of journeys to work across the borough could potentially increase to around 30% or more.
Nevertheless, even with an e-bike, one thing is clear. If cycling is ever going to reach its full potential, people will need to feel safe cycling. This is where protected cycle lanes come in. Although the provision of these is challenging (narrow roads being one potential barrier as Paul mentioned), forward thinking boroughs are making progress even in locations where people said it could not be done. Enfield in north London (Cycle Enfield), Waltham Forest in north-east London (Enjoy Waltham Forest) and our neighbouring borough of Kingston (Kingston’s Go Cycle programme) are three prime examples . Here in Sutton there was a recent informal consultation on the borough’s first proposed Quietway (Sutton Quietways Highways Survey). This type of engagement with residents is crucial. There is concern that unless rat-running traffic is removed from the streets where the Quietway routes are proposed, the finished product will be no more appealing to the intended audience (new cyclists) than is currently the case.
Cllr. Ed Joyce (Beddington South, Liberal Democrat) got in touch on 2 November to say that the video was very effective and that it would encourage councillors to consider the issue. Ed added that he was now a cycle owner and user.
We thanked Ed for his email on 15 November, saying that we were pleased he was now a cycle owner and user and that there was no doubt that cycling can be a wonderful way of getting around the borough for some journeys. Nevertheless, cycling can also feel very intimidating at times, and we reminded Ed of the surveys which repeatedly showed that a high proportion of cyclists in Britain are male and in their 30s (in other words are people prepared to do battle with traffic). It could be so different, and that is why we were very pleased that Ed was one of the first councillors in the borough to support the Space for Cycling campaign in 2014. Clearly, if our video encourages councillors to consider this issue as Ed suggests it will, and if they act upon it too, this will be very good news for future residents of the borough. Ed subsequently attended the Get Sutton Cycling meeting in January 2018.
Two days after receiving Ed’s reply, Cllr. Manuel Abellan sent a short message on 4 November to thank us for our email. He would watch the video and respond as soon as possible. We acknowledged Manuel’s message on 15 November. As noted earlier, Manuel’s full response, which we will discuss in ‘Air Pollution video – what happened next? (Part 2)’, was subsequently received nearly three months later.
Council Leader Cllr. Ruth Dombey (Sutton North, Liberal Democrat) was next to reply on 5 November. Ruth thanked us for what she described as our informative video, and said she she was copying in Cllr. Jill Whitehead (Carshalton Central, Liberal Democrat) and Cllr. Manuel Abellan to her reply and that she would send them a link to the video so that can view it as well. Ruth said that, like her, Jill and Manuel were keen to find ways of improving the air quality in Sutton as well as encouraging walking and cycling. She knew that they were involved in various projects to make this a reality.
Here is an extract from our reply to Ruth (15 November 2017):
We went on to say that we would be very interested to learn more about the various projects that Cllr. Whitehead and Cllr. Abellan were working on to encourage walking and cycling. And we reminded Ruth that many of the objectives set out in the borough’s Cycling Strategy, which was approved two years ago this month, have yet to materialise. We cited one particular shortfall, the failure of the council to establish an Internal Cycling Advisory Group. This aspiration is detailed in section 3.44 of the strategy: “It is clear that there are links between cycling projects and wider outcomes such as air quality and public health, and we propose convening a forum through which ideas and progress on cycling and related projects can be discussed. This group will be championed by an elected member”.
Nothing further has been heard from Ruth on this.
On 6 November, Cllr. Chris Williams (Carshalton Central, Liberal Democrat; Vice-Chair Carshalton and Clockhouse Local Committee) thanked us for sharing our short video, which he found informative and persuasive. We replied on 15 November to thank Chris for his interest and positive reply.
And so, our thanks to Cllr. Tony Shields, Cllr. Nick Mattey, Cllr. Mary Burstow, Cllr. Hamish Pollock, Cllr. Paul Wingfield, Cllr. Ed Joyce, Cllr. Ruth Dombey, Cllr. Chris Williams and Cllr. Manuel Abellan for their interest and replies to ‘Air Pollution in Sutton’.
So, we have made our point about air quality in our borough. To what degree our councillors (either the current 2014-2018 administration, or the next 2018-2022 administration) will support the Mayor of London in his endeavours to protect the health of our citizens, remains to be seen.
It’s staggering that we live in a city where the air is so toxic that many of our children are growing up with lung problems… Londoners overwhelmingly supported my plans to introduce this £10 charge…I will continue to do everything in my power to help protect the health of Londoners and clean our filthy air. Sadiq Khan, October 2017, in the run-up to the launch of the T-charge
In ‘Air Pollution video – what happened next? (Part 2)‘ we report on what was effectively the response from Sutton Council (the current Liberal Democrat administration) sent by Cllr. Manuel Abellan towards the end of January 2018.
John Kinnear / Charles Martin