Road closures: William Patten pupils stage protest to mark Clean Air Day

Protest: William Patten pupils turn out for Clean Air Day. Photograph: Jamie Smith

Pupils at the centre of an air pollution row in Stoke Newington took to the streets with teddy bears in masks yesterday as they kept up pressure on the council over controversial road closure plans.

The protest outside William Patten Primary School on Church Street saw kids waving banners with messages including ‘Young lungs at work’, ‘NO2 more traffic’ and ‘No playground pollution’.

It was organised to coincide with National Clean Air Day today.

The council is proposing to close up to four roads in the Walford Road area to stop them being used as rat-runs.

But Clean Air for William Patten (CAWP) campaigners say the move will lead to 2,000 extra cars using Church Street every day and worsening pollution at the school.

The group says monitoring figures show nitrogen dioxide levels at William Patten are already above the legal limit.

CAWP’s stance is backed up by a recent Greater London Assembly (GLA) report on William Patten, which was carried out on behalf of the Mayor of London after the school was found to be one of the 50 most polluted in London.

But Hackney Council argues that a different legal limit should apply at certain parts of the school site, and that when it is, the same monitoring figures show that toxic air levels do not breach EU guidelines.

Getting shirty: a group of kids make a stand on Church Street. Photograph: Jamie Smith

Commenting on yesterday’s demonstration, CAWP member Tom Knowles said: “These children are breathing in high levels of pollution every day and many suffer with respiratory problems like asthma.

“It’s abhorrent that Hackney Council is shirking its duty of care.  For two years we’ve been urging the council to reduce pollution here and, so far, they’ve done nothing but monitoring.

“For them to put forward proposals that will worsen pollution here is appalling.”

The GLA’s audit report, based on current levels of air pollution at the school, last month recommended cordoning off a section of the playground nearest to Church Street.

But campaigner Sally Newsom said: “We want the council to reduce pollution levels as soon as possible – not simply close off a section of the playground and then increase traffic levels outside the school.”

Some of the children at the protest had fitted their teddy bears with face masks, and Newsom added: “Given the London Mayor’s suggestion that we close a section of the school playground, wearing face masks seems entirely appropriate.

“Young lungs are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution, which can include respiratory illnesses, compromised cognitive ability and reduced life-expectancy.”

Simmering tensions between CAWP and the council reached boiling point yesterday after transport chief and deputy mayor Feryal Demirci issued an immediate response to the protest, describing it as a “publicity stunt”.

Campaigners hit back, calling her words an “ill-informed and personal attack on constituents”.

Deputy Mayor Feryal Demirci. Photograph: Hackney Council

In her statement, Cllr Demirci said: “We have been very clear that no decision has been made on the proposed road closures as we do more work to understand the potential impacts.”

She claimed campaigners “know full well” that the council is waiting for modelling work to be completed and that,  “contrary to the GLA’s report […] air pollution levels at William Patten meet national air quality objectives for nitrogen dioxide”.

She added: “If people are serious about protecting children from air pollution they should be lobbying us to close more roads, not less.”

However, she suggested both sides “want the same thing – to reduce traffic and improve the borough’s air quality”.

She also revealed that council officers met with William Patten’s headteacher yesterday to discuss “a green wall and screens” by the school gates, and will next month launch an “air quality forecasting system”.

Cllr Demirci concluded that the council “remain[s] open to meaningful engagement”, but that “decisions will be evidence-based and not influenced by publicity stunts”, saying of campaigners: “It appears that they are more interested in getting publicity than the facts, which is not helpful for anyone, not least the pupils whose interests they claim to be looking out for.”

In response, Knowles said: “We are surprised and disappointed by Cllr Demirci’s personal attack on her own constituents and her ill-informed dismissal of our legitimate concerns about air quality and child health, which are backed up by the GLA report and detailed analysis of the facts by air quality experts.

“Describing the proactive campaigning of primary school children and their parents as a ‘publicity stunt’ belittles their efforts to influence change and fails to recognise their very valid concerns.”

He added: “Of course we are in favour of reducing traffic but displacing it past heavily polluted primary schools is appalling.”

Jenna Fansa, who runs family website StokeyParents, was equally critical, saying: “Cllr Demirci’s approach to children and parents campaigning on an issue they feel strongly about is dreadful.

“It was a very genuine protest, pollution is a big worry at the school and more traffic will make it worse.

“The children would be gutted to think their protests may have fallen on deaf ears, or that such a senior local politician tried to deny them a voice through false and frankly unpleasant claims.”

Also at the protest were parents from nearby St Mary’s Primary, where the “annual mean National Air Quality Objective for nitrogen dioxide is failed”, according to the council.