Croydon Council has given the green light to build a school for more than 500 pupils next to one of the capital’s most polluting arterial roads — on the site of a previous primary which was closed down six years ago because the location was considered too big a health risk for children.
Data compiled independently by King’s College London shows that air quality at the proposed site, beside the four-lane Purley Way, regularly breaks European laws on pollution. On one day at the end of February nitrogen dioxide levels on that stretch of the road were more than double legal limits.
But council officials in Croydon told a Town Hall meeting last week that if walking to the school, children “will receive insignificant exposure to pollutants”.
And one Labour councillor told concerned residents attending the meeting that they should “not get over-emotional about it”, before voting through planning permission for the £22m school.
The Purley Way Academy in Croydon, to be run by the Harris Federation, will open this September in temporary accommodation for its initial intake of three forms of five-year-olds while what could be Britain’s first “hermetically sealed” school is built.
As we reported in November, special measures are being considered to seal the pupils in the building, which is to be “internally ventilated” to keep the worst of the air pollution outside. The children’s outside activity and play areas would be placed further back from the Purley Way.
Park and Stride
A key part of the proposal is to persuade parents driving their children to school to “Park and Stride”, using the car park of a nearby supermarket and then walking across the often traffic-jammed Fiveways junction and 200 yards down Purley Way to the school.
According to an unnamed environmental health officer working for Croydon Council in a report which recommended granting planning permission, “Due to the open nature of the area and the prevailing south-westerly wind, dispersion and deposition of particles and nitrogen dioxide is good, ensuring that pollution levels are much lower than other parts of the borough, despite the amount of traffic.
“If a parent and child is crossing the Purley Way at Fiveways on foot, they will receive insignificant exposure to pollutants.”
There is an air monitoring station positioned close to the site of the proposed primary school — albeit shielded from the road behind tall fencing — and Croydon Council officials say it registers pollutants at the “upper end” of legal limits for adults during rush hour traffic.
But the council officials have relied on average figures for that judgement — including weekends and night time when the school will be closed. Vehicle emissions on the Purley Way regularly spike at morning and evening rush hours on weekdays — just at the time when children are travelling to or from school.
The latest stats show an annual mean concentration of nitrogen dioxide (that is a rolling average recorded since January 2016) of 35 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m³). Under European Union legislation, the upper limit for such readings since 2010 is supposed to be no higher than 40ug/m³.
Data for the past month, as collated by King’s College London, shows that the Purley Way exceeded EU limits on NO2 levels on 22 days out of the last 28. The only days when the Purley Way has not exceeded EU healthy air standards have tended to be weekends.
The toxic mix of pollution from vehicle exhausts, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, is proven to be particularly damaging to the developing lungs of young children, and is thought to be the cause of rising levels of child asthma in built-up areas. Despite efforts to reduce the levels of air pollution caused by traffic, parts of London have regularly failed to meet air quality standards set by the EU.
And traffic along the Purley Way is unlikely to diminish any time soon: Croydon Council and Transport for London have recently agreed a £85m scheme to widen the road, less than half a mile from the proposed site of the school.
Having the school on Purley Way will also increase the amount of traffic on the already busy road, with an estimated additional 1,000 car journeys per weekday to bring the pupils and staff to the school gates and take them home again.
Read the Royal College of Physicians’ report (PDF) on the importance of air quality.