As the greatest proportion of air pollution in our area is created by traffic it is no surprise that Farnham with its many narrow streets and a one-way traffic system, has had a significant air quality problem. The Farnham Society has for a number of years been deeply involved in attempting to get our local authorities to take this issue seriously and it now seems that they are doing so.
How bad is it and how do we know?
The UK and EU governments, along with other international agencies, have established what are considered to be safe air quality parameters. These levels of air pollution are defined in law and local authorities in this country are responsible for monitoring the air quality and where breaches of the air quality regulations occur, taking steps to fix the problem.
For us the main air quality pollutant we need to be concerned about is Nitrogen Dioxide NO₂. A level of 40 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m³) of air has been set as the legal safe level for the average annual concentration of this pollutant. NO₂ is mostly created by diesel engines. The other damaging pollutant experienced in some towns and cities is Particulate Matter, which is made up of tiny particles created by many processes both natural and industrial but also created in vehicle engine combustion and from the erosion of brakes, tyres and the road surface. Fortunately, all the evidence indicates that Farnham does not suffer from high levels of particulate matter.
Waverley Borough Council (WBC) has the responsibility to monitor air quality and to issue annual status reports. It maintains a series of monitoring sites around the town where air quality is measured on a monthly basis by means of diffusion tubes which record NO₂ levels or on a continuous basis by the automatic monitoring equipment located close to the Sainsburys carpark on South Street which monitors both NO₂ and PM₁₀ particulate matter.
In 2005, because of air quality pollution breaches, WBC introduced an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) in central Farnham
As required following the introduction of an AQMA, In July 2008, WBC produced an Air Quality Action Plan which set out the steps needed to be taken to reduce air pollution in the AQMA. The main elements of the Action Plan were aimed at reducing traffic emissions by about 25% in Farnham. The plan called, among other things, for a reallocation of road space in the centre of town including the reduction of The Borough to one lane and partial pedestrianisation.
Although WBC had responsibility for producing the Action Plan it has no ability on its own to deliver it. The critical elements of the Action Plan all lie with Surrey County Council (SCC) which is responsible for transport policy and highway infrastructure.
In the more than 11 years which then passed following the Air Quality Action Plan being adopted, none of the key elements of the plan were put in place in Farnham. The air quality in central Farnham did not improve and continued to breach government guidelines. In addition, areas outside central Farnham (Station Hill, Wrecclesham and Upper Hale) also exhibited high levels of NO₂ pollution.
In 2019 however WBC and SCC came together following a Pollution Summit chaired by our local MP Jeremy Hunt. As part of the much wider Farnham Infrastructure Plan adopted in 2020, significant reduction in traffic flows through Farnham are now planned.
Pre-empting this plan however, the Covid lockdown during 2020 resulted in traffic volumes in the town reduced significantly and so did the pollution levels. During the lockdown months of early to mid-2020, NO₂ concentrations fell by between 30% and 50%. In addition to the lockdown effect, the introduction of temporary lane closures in Downing Street and The Borough for the latter part of 2020 and the first half of 2021, continued to suppress traffic volumes and pollution levels.
2020 is the first year for over 15 years that there were no breaches of annual average NO₂ concentrations in Farnham. The early months of 2021 have continued that trend but it will be interesting to see if this continues with the two to three lane system having now been reinstated in The Borough.
Does it matter?
We do need to be concerned about the high levels of pollution in and around Farnham because it has been shown that when people have long term exposure to such levels of pollution it can have a very significant effect both on the quality of life and on life expectancy. This is brought about by the adverse effect of pollution on respiratory, heart and brain function. These effects are stated by the UK government to account for some 40,000 early deaths per annum in this country. Air pollution has a particularly bad effect on the development of young children and on the elderly, who may have pre -existing health issues. It is only in the last ten years or so that the full impact of air pollution has become better understood and it is quite clear now how damaging high levels of air pollution can be.
What of the future.
Some progress is at last being made in Farnham towards a healthier air quality environment although it will be some years before the permanent impact of the Farnham Infrastructure Programme is felt. In the long term of course, behavioural change by us all will have a significant effect on the problem. A greater understanding of the issues and strong regulation of the motor manufacturing industry by UK and other governments will drive the change, firstly away from the most polluting vehicles (diesel engine) and on to electric and hydrogen driven ones.
Our current view is that it is unlikely that residents will give up their cars completely, but with more pedestrianisation in central Farnham, the increase in alternative transport options, car share and cleaner cars, this should have a positive impact on NO₂ pollution. We hope that the recent improvement in air quality in Farnham will continue but in the future, air quality will need to respond to new housing, car ownership habits, traffic displacement and the results of medical research and resulting changes to environmental regulations for some time to come. The Society will strive to steer decisions to make Farnham a healthier place to spend time, either as a visitor or as a resident.