EDITOR’S VIEW: We must stop driving to school for our kids’ sake

Hampstead children protest against pollution. (Photo: Jessica Learmond-Criqui)

Hampstead children protest against pollution. (Photo: Jessica Learmond-Criqui) - Credit: Archant

The tragic death of nine-year-old chess champion Michael Uriely from an asthma attack is hearbreaking enough.

pollution around schools is at dangerous levels

pollution around schools is at dangerous levels - Credit: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

But to learn that the youngster, who was struggling to breathe and vomiting, could have been saved if he had not been sent home from hospital is absolutely devastating (see front page).

After an internal investigation, the Royal Free has appointed two specialist respiratory clinicians and implemented a new strategy for treating children with asthma. We can only hope this tragedy never happens to another child.

Michael had suffered from asthma from a very young age. Whatever brought on his final fatal attack, there is no doubt the toxic effects of increasing pollution around schools can only have made his symptoms worse.

And unless something is done to reduce this pollution the chances of another child suffering a chronic asthma attack are increased.

Figures just released by the Redington and Frognal Association have revealed nitrogen dioxide levels recorded last year at the busy junction of Arkwright Road and Frognal measured 70 micrograms per cubic metre – well above the legal limit of 40. Last week we saw children donning face masks to stage a protest against the pollution.

Organiser Jessica Learmond-Criqui has called on Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to intervene to stop the Cycle Superhighway 11 (CS11) and the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2 schemes) which she and supporters believe will send thousands of extra cars onto our streets.

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But cyclists and other local residents are outraged and claim it is parents who drive their children to school that are responsible for pollution. They believe CS11 will in fact help to force people out of their cars.

Instead of arguing about the merits or perils of CS11, we must take urgent action now to cut cars around schools to both clean up our toxic air and to make the streets safer for pedestrians. It is welcome news that Camden Air Action, with Camden Council, is carrying out a three-month study to build up an accurate picture of air pollution at Camden schools (see page 22) and the council is introducing a diesel surcharge on resident parking permits.

Last week, Sadiq Khan said cars should be banned from roads near schools altogether, accusing the government of “ignoring” toxic air.

It comes after a recent study found that tens of thousands of children in London’s schools are exposed to illegal levels of air pollution that can damage their health permanently.

Our sister paper the Hackney Gazette reports this week that two Hackney primary schools will fine parents up to £130 for dropping off their children outside by car.

This comes as shocking CCTV footage is released that shows drivers mounting the pavements outside the schools – take a look here.

Camden Council has gone a step further by putting up bollards outside St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Macklin Street and closing the road to traffic during school run times.

Deputy head Nicola Scott-Phillips said there had been a “really positive reaction” and that the school, which has 300 pupils, had seen a 50 per cent reduction in children arriving by car during this trial.

Before I go further, I should probably declare an interest. While my husband cycles from Dartmouth Park to Warren Street and back every day, I drive a Mini and drop both my children at their schools in Highgate and then Camden before driving to my parking space near my office.

I used to cycle with the girls, with one in a baby seat on the back of my bike, but found negotiating the school run traffic too terrifying and stopped when a 4x4 nearly reversed over my then seven-year-old.

The day there aren’t drivers mounting pavements and parking badly outside schools is the day I will get back onto my bicycle.

In the meantime, I will undertake an experiment in the hope that it will inspire me to change my habits for good.

For the next fortnight, I intend to leave my Mini parked outside my house. My journey to school with the girls and then on to work will involve the C11, the Overground and walking across the Heath and Waterlow Park. I urge you to do the same.

It is the least we can do to try to prevent another child turning up at A&E suffering from asthma.

RIP Michael.