Sparks fly over Islington Council barbecue rule as report reveals toxic Highbury Fields air
- Credit: Vanessa Langsdale - DO NOT CREDIT IN PUBLIC!
Neighbours of Highbury Fields believe a new air quality report means it is time to stick a fork in the town hall’s barbecue policy – and told the council leader as much on Monday night. Gazette editor Ramzy Alwakeel was there.
A study handed to town hall chiefs this week reveals soaring levels of toxic fumes in Highbury Fields – and could be neighbours’ last hope in their fight to get barbecues banned.
Council leader Richard Watts on Monday night said he had so far seen no reason to abandon Islington’s policy of allowing food to be cooked in the open in Islington’s green spaces – but had been advised by lawyers not to comment on the report, which had just arrived.
The paper, compiled over three months by independent consultants, could force the council to rethink. Eighteen months ago, King’s College London sporadically measured emissions in the park but the council dismissed the findings as inconclusive.
Now the new, more detailed paper shows levels of PM 2.5 – a minuscule particle that can get into the blood and has been linked to cancer and dementia – soared to 183 microgrammes per cubic metre over the summer. The recommended limit by world health chiefs is only given as a 24-hour average – the much lower figure of 25 microgrammes – meaning neighbours may struggle to put a watertight case, but they believe the findings still mean the council has a duty to act.
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On Tuesday ward councillor and sole opposition member Caroline Russell (Green) told the Gazette: “There’s no safe exposure limit for PM 2.5 pollution.
“Having seen this report, I find it inconceivable that the council will continue to allow barbecues this summer. They have a duty to reduce the exposure of residents and users of the Fields to this very dangerous pollution.”
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Over the summer, the highest 24-hour average was 19.3 microgrammes. Of the 100 highest 15-minute averages recorded, all are well over 25. Graphs in the report show the level often stays above 25 for hours at a time.
One neighbour, who asked not to be named, told the Gazette after Monday’s environment scrutiny session at the town hall: “Claudia Webbe [Islington’s environment boss] says lots of people don’t have gardens and it’s a lovely thing for them to be able to do.
“But if they get significant evidence to show this is a bad thing then will they reconsider?”
She said barbecues – made legal across Islington’s parks in 2011 – had made the summer “hell” for her and her neighbours.
“You hope it’s not going to be sunny at the weekend,” she said. “A number of people around there have started to get asthma.
“Some people come up to me and say: ‘I feel terrible. This is awful.’ Some people have moved away.”
She characterised Cllr Watts’ attitude as: “It’s bad for you but great for everyone else, therefore shut up.”
Another neighbour, speaking at the meeting, rounded on Cllr Watts: “I don’t live in an expensive house. I’m not a rich ‘nimby’ with a vast back garden.
“My enjoyment of Highbury Fields is totally destroyed on a lot of days in the summer because I have to breathe in lungfuls of barbecue smoke.
“The councillor says this is for general enjoyment of everyone. It’s not for my enjoyment. The general public who come from other areas outside Islington and converge on Highbury Fields and create this appalling pall of smoke – is their enjoyment more important than my enjoyment of Highbury Fields?”
Cllr Watts: “It’s important to balance the enjoyment of different park users. Very few people have access to green space. The aim is to provide general enjoyment to the general population.
“I sympathise with those who don’t like the policy, but in a borough full of competing demands you have to make decisions about how we manage the resources no we have. I think the benefits of open access to parks are very important.”
Cllr Russell said large clouds of barbecue smoke frequently “cloak” the Fields – something disputed by Cllr Watts, who said people would have stopped visiting if they were really so bad.
The council leader had said: “Public space in one of the most densely populated boroughs in the country needs to be used for everyone. The pleasure of a simple barbecue shouldn’t be a privilege for those who enjoy their own gardens.”
He added the policy was “overall a success” and while “health problems have been raised”, public health chiefs had concluded “it was unlikely guidelines have been breached”.
He also dismissed neighbours’ complaints that people from outside Islington were barbecuing in the park, saying their custom was good for local shops.
At the heart of the debate is the question of whether the council must simply keep PM 2.5 levels within recommended levels, or in fact has a duty to reduce people’s exposure to them anyway.
Environmental lawyers Client Earth won a case against the government last year over Heathrow Airport because Whitehall was trying to keep emissions within limit values but not actively taking steps to cut them.
If this is binding, it leaves the council in a tricky position – because plenty of activities produce emissions.
The difference between meeting limit values and a duty to reduce exposure is also a distinction Cllr Russell has been keen to highlight. While the report does not show any existing limits have been breached, that does not mean it is safe to breathe the air around the park.
But whether the good of encouraging more people to enjoy our parks outweighs the health risk for neighbours – and park users – is a matter for the council’s executive.
And now this report has been compiled, that is a decision members must live with in the event of any potential future claims they have allowed people to get ill.