With the title of England’s worst road pollution hotspot this week being placed on a small village on the Jurassic Coast, the problem of toxic NO2 fumes is in the spotlight – not just as a public hazard for big cities but for countryside residents too.
And it’s expected to get worse. While Friends of the Earth this week revealed the latest figures showing 1,360 sites across England were breaching the air quality objective levels for NO2, road traffic forecasts from the Department of Transport show traffic volumes are expected to increase in England and Wales each year until 2050, potentially by up to 51% in total.
Up to 80 % of this invisible, odourless NO2 comes from exhaust fumes. Along with other traffic fumes, it is among the largest environmental risks to public health.
Long-suffering residents of England’s worst hotspot, Chideock in Dorset, told the Guardian they are divided on how to fix their decades-long traffic blight. Like many rural communities, they feel cut off from mainline railways or adequate bus services and rely heavily on their cars.
But millions of tourists and business visitors also snarl up Chideock and other coastal villages on the A35. Only 550 people live here but it is the main tourist access route to the Dorset coastline and has a popular beach less about a 1.5km walk away. As a result, in summer 20,000 vehicles a day rattle through.
The A35 turns an otherwise rural retreat into an urban rattle and hum. A constant stream of cars, vans and lorries rumbles past lines of immaculately thatched cottages, two pubs and a village shop, the vehicles spewing out harmful levels of this invisible, odourless poison. The residents tell me most of the listed buildings are too old to have proper foundations and are being shaken.
The village bus stop sits in the natural cradle of the landscape basin and pollution flows down the road and collects here. One resident said her asthma was made worse when she regularly used the bus stop, so she stopped.
Resident Mansel Jones said: “A small number of people who live on the road are pushing to get a village bypass but it would destroy our village and just move the problem over into the fields nearby. Why destroy another beautiful piece of countryside? Once the bypass is built they can sell their houses for more. If you don’t like a busy road why buy a house on one?
Anna Dunn runs a B&B in a 15th century house on the main road but only achieves about 30% occupancy. She has given up trying to run a full hotel: “People would come to stay but leave because of the road noise,” she said.
Another resident, Sue Griffin, said: “As a newcomer from busy London, I was amazed and then appalled at the traffic thundering through Chideock. My cob cottage lost its flank wall before I bought it – it literally fell down. No wonder. The vibrations are continuous.”
Tony Peacock, who is deputy chair of the parish council and member of a working group calling for a bypass, said: “The HGVs come down the hill almost all day. There is pollution from the tyres, brakes, exhausts – various metals, PM2.5 and other pollutants coming off them. The buses do not seem to be commercially viable. The last bus back from London leaves at around 12pm, so that’s no good.”
Resident Michael Moles has run the local post office and village store for 13 years: “There was a vote and a majority of the village rejected the proposal for the bypass. I think it would be disastrous for me commercially and for the pubs, cut off parts of the village and distress people who would live on the bypass. Do we enjoy the heavy traffic? No. But it’s not 365 days of the year, it is only at the height of the season, it is part and parcel of Chideock. My hope is the introduction of more clean propulsion of cars will address the question.”
The mixed attitudes show the challenges many villages face as they confront increasing traffic impacts on communities and health, balanced with economic and transport needs.
Chideock’s parish council asked Highways England to “detrunk” the A35 – meaning it would no longer be designated as a main link road – on grounds of road safety, traffic vibration, air pollution, congestion and village severance.
Highways England said it had to consider if a route “fits with the intention for a strategic road network to link main centres of population, major ports, airports and stations, peripheral areas and provide key cross-border routes to Scotland and Wales”.
The strategic and planning executive director, Elliot Shaw, told the council: “We work hard to mitigate those impacts through our management of the routes and in any enhancement schemes. Alongside this, we also need to balance the role that the strategic road network plays in providing accessibility across England and supporting long-distance travel and the economy.”
West Dorset MP Chris Loder said the local traffic pollution problem had been overlooked for too long and he is reestablishing an A35 working group: “The British Lung Foundation have echoed to me the damaging effects of high levels of exhaust pollution and this must be a much higher priority in my opinion.”
Simon Bowens, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, has proposed several alternatives to more road building. He said: “The government must end its damaging fixation on building more roads. You can’t justify this by planning to phase out polluting petrol and diesel vehicles and replace them with electric ones.
“We need to go much further than just getting out of one type of car and into another. Investment in better cycling and walking should be part of a fair and green post-coronavirus economic recovery plan aimed at creating a cleaner, fairer future.”