Cllr Ralph Bagge is the Leader of South Bucks District Council

I visited English Martyrs Roman Catholic Primary School in Tower Hamlets recently to be interviewed for BBC Breakfast about ‘no idling zones’ outside schools for programme’s feature on pollution and air quality. As Vice Chair of the NICE public health advisory committee which has been developing guidance on outdoor air quality, I’m happy to take every opportunity to publicise the issues and the way forward.

With hindsight, it’s apparent that Labour’s promotion of diesel cars through fiscal advantages was not as good for CO2 emissions reductions (due to the difference between lab economy tests and real world performance) as had been expected and was absolutely disastrous for nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions. The problem with NOx is that there’s no safe minimum level of exposure and persistent exposure to it is harmful to lung function, leading to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

So why a school in Tower Hamlets? A report in the Evening Standard had listed it among the three worst schools in London for air quality and the head teacher had taken it upon herself to find out what she could do to protect the children in her care. The school is a stone’s throw from Aldgate East tube station and is surrounded by high rise office blocks and busy streets – the perfect topography to form a container which traps air pollution. So any traffic using the streets around the school increases the levels of NOx and particulate matter in the air.

Parents waiting in cars with their engines idling at the end of the school day raise the pollution level significantly because there is little ventilation to dissipate the pollutants. In conditions like this, pollution is extremely localised, so any measures to reduce pollution levels will have a beneficial effect.

At English Martyrs, they used their poor air quality challenge as a project topic. The children were taught about the harmful effects of vehicle emissions and they did a rough and ready experiment, attaching pieces of cloth around the school boundary to discover how much particulate matter was in the air. They learnt about the benefits of walking and scooting to school and the children persuaded their parents to take them to school on foot rather than by car. The results are impressive – car usage is down from 16 out of 30 per class to only three in 30.

English Martyrs is a small oasis in an ocean of pollution. Yet it shows that baseline data, local measures and local action can result in positive changes. The challenge for the sector, when the NICE guidelines are published in June is to identify local air pollution hot spots and find cost-effective ways of making a difference. No idling zones, promoted by effective communication and engagement of those most at risk, could well be part of the answer.