Home Affairs Correspondent
Children with asthma today begin a legal campaign to force a London council to close one of the country's most polluted roads when air quality is poor.
The children are applying for legal aid for a High Court test case, which if successful could compel other local authorities in smog-ridden cities to put the health of its residents before the convenience of the motorist.
The move follows a decision by Greenwich council's planning and development committee last week that it lacked the power to direct traffic away from Trafalgar Road in the south London borough - a route regularly clogged by nose-to-tail traffic - on bad air days.
Parents had applied to the council for the diversion after noticing their children's health deteriorate. Last May, when the hot, still weather caused serious pollution in the low-lying area, school helpers at the nearby Meridian primary school were trained in how to deal with children with respiratory problems because the teachers alone could not cope.
At the school, 40 yards off the road, the drone of the traffic invades the classrooms as well as the exhaust fumes. Twenty of the school's 200 children use inhalers - well above the average.
David Suttle, the headteacher, said all of the classes, catering from children aged three to 11, were affected.
"I believe something has to be done - not just because of the high levels of asthma, but because of the hidden long-term effects of pollution. I think the problem also has to be tackled nationally. It is not just Trafalgar Road, there are problems in other cities as well."
The most recent pollution report for the area showed that in 1993 one in eight children suffered from asthma and that 900 were admitted to hospital with respiratory illness - 36 per cent of those with acute asthma.
Parents say that on bad air days when ozone and nitrogen dioxide levels far exceeded health guidelines, their children's condition deteriorated. Pauline Gebbett, whose son James, 12, has asthma, described the choking congestion on the road in rush-hour as similar to that found in the nearby Blackwall Tunnel under the river Thames. "You would not drive through with your window open, would you?" she asked. "But for us there is no escape."
Parents and campaigners had suggested the council reroute traffic on bad air days via a higher more open route, Blackheath Hill, where they say fumes would clear more quickly. But last Wednesday councillors decided that not only did they lack the power to divert traffic, they would also be simply shifting the problem elsewhere.
Clive Efford, chair of Greenwich's health, environment and public protection committee said: "There can be no one in London who isn't worried about pollution and its effects on our children. But closing one road at best just moves the pollution to a neighbouring road and could be unlawful. One borough can't solve the problem on its own. What is needed is a London- wide strategy and new powers to tackle pollution."
However, Martyn Day, a solicitor acting for the families, said the council had powers under the Road Traffic Regulations Act 1984 to close the road when there was a danger to the public - and that the Department of Transport had advised Oxford council, facing similar problems, that the law might be used in those circumstances.
Yesterday Mr Day said the advice to councillors had been wrong in law. He is seeking emergency legal aid to bring a swift judicial review of the council's decision, because of the threat of more bad-air days this summer. Philip Connolly, secretary of Greenwich Action to Stop Pollution, said: "Greenwich council has been aware of the escalating problems of pollution and poor health for several years but they have failed to tackle the continuing growth in traffic. It must implement a sustainable transport policy - one that puts people's health first and not the needs of the private motorist."