Eyesores: Meet the neighbours

How would you feel if you lived next to a nuclear power station or a 14-lane motorway? Most would be horrified, but, as Marina Cantacuzino discovered, not everyone's a Nimby

Marina Cantacuzino@@MCantacuzino
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:59

They may be magnificent symbols of 20th-century technology, but having an industrial colossus in your back yard is most people's idea of a living hell. Yet a few people actively choose to live next door to what others see as an eyesore - a nuclear power station, electricity pylon or motorway flyover. Pragmatic reasons often dictate since property is cheaper here, but occasionally it's a matter of personal volition to live on the edge of some giant structure, in a place where others won't venture. Such sites offer a constant and salutary reminder of the smallness of the human scale.

But most people who find themselves neighbours to industrial blights that spit out poisonous gases and unctuous substances have no alternative. Living on the edge, in this sense, can quickly become a physical and mental war zone. Earlier this year, Friends of the Earth published a study called Pollution Injustice, in which it looked at the communities neighbouring the UK's largest factories; 662 of the 1,320 households studied had average incomes of less than pounds 15,000, while only five had incomes of pounds 30,000 or more. "This is another form of social exclusion," says pollution campaigner Mike Childs, "with the poorest in society suffering from the worst pollution and having the least resources to do something about it."

Numerous studies have shown how power lines, exhaust fumes and chemical emissions present serious health risks. As a result, efforts have been made to make emissions from chimneys less visible, but that doesn't mean they're no longer hazardous. According to Childs, even those who think they're safe should take stock: "There's nowhere you can live in Britain today without pollution." Even seemingly innocuous places could be lethal.

Nuclear family

Despite the fact that it provides an ugly backdrop to some of Kent's most wild and desolate coastal countryside, Janet Thomas points at Dungeness nuclear power station, and says: "It's like Las Vegas at night and I love it. The power station is as good a neighbour as I could ever wish for. If I'm worried, I can pick up the phone. I don't find it ugly at all, and I get fed up with people thinking we're freaks for choosing to live here."

Ten years ago Derek Jarman put Dungeness on the map when he created a garden at his cottage on its shingle beach. Janet was a friend of the late film-maker, but it is Jarman, rather than the power station, she blames for destroying the area. "He loved the place, but because of him thousands of tourists now come here and make us feel like we're in a goldfish bowl."

For the sake of privacy, she'd like to build a fence around her house, but English Heritage and Shepway District Council insist on preserving the uncultivated character of the area and will only tolerate fences put up before 1968.

Janet is fiercely proud of her home, Lloyd's Cottage, which she shares with her husband, Peter. It is a former signal station which was part of a network set up at the turn of the century by Lloyd's of London to relay, by wireless, the comings and goings of ships. "People say we live in a shack, but this house is made of cast-iron sheets in a wooden frame. It has stood up to more winds than a brick house could ever do."

The beauty of gas

Since Steve and Kathy Kentfield bought a house in Rutland Terrace in Poplar, east London, six years ago, the value of the property has more than doubled. You would expect this in an area that houses the overspill from the prosperous Docklands, but not when you see how Transco's gasholders dominate the urban landscape like a vast artist's installation.

The only problem that the couple and their three children (Gareth, 15, Michael, 12, and Ellen, six) can find with living in front of one of these ungainly hulks is that the house would take longer to sell. "We were thinking of moving a couple of years ago," says Kathy, "and a few people who came turned their noses up. But I told them we'd never had any trouble with Transco. They trim the foliage and provide street lighting. Also, this is one of the safest streets in the area because of the surveillance cameras."

In the Kentfields' hallway is a blown-up photograph of a street party in Rutland Terrace on Armistice Day, 1919. The gasworks weren't there then, and on the other side of the street, where there's now a small bare patch of grass, a similar terrace of houses once stood. But industrialisation doesn't seem to have affected the neighbourly spirit here."It's still a very friendly area, with children running in and out of each other's houses and us mums chatting at the doorstep," says Kathy.

On the down side, the gasworks cut out sunlight from 3pm onwards, and vegetables can't be grown because there are high levels of carbon dioxide in the soil. But there's no airborne pollution from the holders, and the only noise the Kentfields hear is a faint whirring when they are filling with gas overnight and when they sink down during times of high demand.

Under the bridge

A group of travellers made their home under London's Westway - a huge concrete junction that overshadows a small patch of wasteland - 25 years ago. It was supposed to be a temporary site, but the two councils that jointly run it (Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea) seem to have no plans to relocate the travellers.

"They think it's adequate," says spokesperson Tom Sweeley, who has lived under the Westway for 10 years and hasn't had a good night's sleep in all that time. It's not only noise from the motorway that keeps him awake, but the heavy goods trains that run alongside the site, which shake and rattle his fragile caravan. In a soft Irish accent, Sweeley provides a litany of the site's inadequacies. There are no appropriate cooking facilities (other sites have specially erected amenity rooms outside each caravan with a kitchen, toilet and bathroom); lead levels are dangerously high, causing persistent chest and eye infections; manure from the neighbouring stable is stored within three feet of the nearest caravan, providing a breeding ground for insects and giving out a putrid smell; and the site's rubbish is kept in an uncovered skip for days on end because the refuse collectors don't have access to the site.

And the dangers aren't only from pollution. Three years ago a lorry shed its load in the early hours of the morning, and eight two-ton rolls of paper crashed through the motorway's barrier, narrowly missing the caravans below. It is incidents like this that make living under the Westway a permanent hazard for the 40 families who occupy the area, but they cannot move on until a new site has been allocated to them.

However, one of the few good things to come out of their unwelcome location is that the Portakabin school (run by the Catholic Children's Society for pre-school children) is the sturdiest and most expensive of its kind. Built for the Ministry of Defence, it has had to be made fire-resistant and able to withstand debris hurtling down from above.

Toxic shock

Vicky and Mark Dowd moved to Clitheroe, Lancashire, 18 months ago with their three sons - Charlie, Oliver and William (pictured). They chose the town because of its schools, good infrastructure and because they didn't want to live in an industrial area. From the Dowds' back window, the smoking factory chimneys are remote enough to have a faintly Dickensian charm. However, the rest of the area's industry is so well camouflaged that they were at first unaware that their new neighbours include Castle Cement, a Tarmac plant, an ICI factory, a newly reopened quarry and a huge industrial estate.

On purchasing the property for pounds 125,000, the Dowds had assumed that industrial emissions would miss their house because of prevailing north-west winds. They soon discovered that a third of the time they are a direct target. At first, Vicky quite liked the faint smell that hung in the air, which reminded her of steam engines. That was until she noticed the thick white dust which covered all her furniture and which would reappear within hours of dusting. When Mark started suffering from asthma for the first time in his life, he thought it was the stress of moving - now he has discovered that hazardous emissions may be a more sinister explanation.

Current affairs

When Clare Duggan bought a one-bedroom house on a new estate in Beckton, east London, 13 years ago, the pylon that towered over the house wasn't really an issue. "At the time I thought of it more as an eyesore than a heath risk, and once I was actually living here it was easy to dismiss," she says. But by the time her daughter Natalie was born three years ago, several studies had come out in America and Sweden linking power lines to health risks, including cancer. Anyway, the house was too small for them and they needed no excuse to sell.

But the house was on the market for a long time. "At least half the people who came to see it seemed put off by the pylon, but it wasn't so much the possible health risk which bothered them as concern that the power lines might affect television reception or computer data," Clare recalls. Some building societies were also reluctant to lend for a home next to a pylon.

In the end, Clare gave up the idea of selling her house in Beckton, moved to nearby All Saints, and her mother, Bridgit Murphy, moved into the Beckton home. She has a bold attitude to living there: "At my age, the health risk isn't really an issue."

Road rage

It is only on Christmas Day and Bank Holiday mornings that Anne and Ray Batchelor can enjoy the quiet of their country garden. The rest of the time it's all noise, dust and mounting tension. For the past 15 years the Batchelors have been living with the physical stress of the M42 running alongside their home near Birmingham, as well as the mental stress of knowing that any day now work will begin on the Birmingham North Relief Road, extending the six lanes to 14.

Their 350-year-old cottage has been in Anne's family for three generations. She prefers to remember it before the M42 was built, when it sat snugly in rural seclusion. Because the district valuer offered the Batchelors a pittance for their property when motorway construction began in 1984, they decided to stay in the home they loved. It was only after a 12-month battle with the Department of Transport, and direct intervention on the part of former transport minister Linda Chalker, that they managed to get the ground between their garden and the motorway raised and have some screening erected.

"My husband and I used to be innocent, shy people," says Anne, "but we've learnt how to stand up and fight. It's taken its toll on our health, though, and it has made us cynical. During the construction they broke every rule in the book, blocking off our house for hours at a time, working through the night and placing the work toilets outside our front door." Once the motorway opened, the Batchelors had to endure a black oily substance that covered their window sills, and they started to suffer from persistent chest problems. A public inquiry has since revealed that the area has a dangerously high level of carcinogenic particulates

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