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What has World Environment Day got to do with the poor?

Is world environment day just a nice idea for the middle classes? Is there more to the environmental movement than preserving the countryside and saving whales?

Traditionally large sections of the Labour party were suspicious of the environment movement and that suspicion still exists, states Jon Fairburn, Senior Lecturer in Geography at Staffordshire University. Trade unions often suspect the environment movement of threatening jobs and wanting to close down industries. But that viewpoint has meant that little attention has been paid to the environmental quality of deprived areas.

The environmental justice movement states that deprived groups should not have to live in more polluted areas than other groups in society. Furthermore, deprived groups should also experience the same access to good environments such as parks and green space as the rest of society.

Over the last five years researchers at Staffordshire University have mapped all of Scotland, England and Wales to compare the environmental quality within the population, especially between rich and poor areas. These studies have shown that the poor areas tend to experience the worst environmental conditions.

For example, people in the most deprived areas have the worst air quality and are most likely to live in an area where air pollution is above government guidelines. This is significant because air quality has a large impact on ill health (such as heart disease and chest complaints) and deaths.

Deprived areas are six times more likely to have a polluting industry sited in their neighbourhood compared to the most affluent areas. In fact there is a steady decrease in such sites the richer an area is. New sites may be situated in these areas because local people cannot mobilise opposition or because of the need for jobs. The jobs argument is known in America as jobs blackmail, and it is based on the idea that deprived areas should be grateful for what they get. Many activists reject these arguments, stating it should be possible to bring economic activity to an area which doesn't adversely affect health or stigmatise the area. Stigmatisation may actually be a bigger issue than health impacts on such sites by deterring new investment due to the image presented of the place.

In England deprived groups are disproportionally represented amongst those of risk of tidal flooding (of especially concern as climate change occurs) and less likely to have insurance. This means they find it harder to cope with a flood when it occurs.

In Scotland it was found that deprived areas were far more likely to have both long-standing derelict land sites and more recent derelict sites in their neighbourhood. In fact amongst the most deprived areas many people had been living near to a derelict site for over 30 years. While such work has not been carried out in England yet it would be unsurprising if similar types of results were found.

Houses near to green space have repeatedly been shown to cost more than the same house not near to green space. As such green space can be used to aid regeneration by building houses near to such spaces or providing green space on new estates. Green space can also help to keep the population well by providing a place to exercise and relax, helping to moderate temperatures in summer and improve local air quality.

Studies across Europe have shown that the most deprived are most likely to be living near main roads and suffer more noise and air pollution problems. By moving housing away from main roads they are most likely to help the most deprived.

Improving the environment in deprived areas is now a major theme of the Environment Agency as they try to work in partnership with local organisations and other public bodies. Similarly organisations such as the Forestry Commission provide grants for tree planting in deprived areas.

So World Environment Day should have something to say for the poor. It should be a time for politicians and the planning system to consider the most deprived groups and to think about how their environment can be improved. It should be a time for residents, community groups and local organisations to demand as good a local environment as the rest of the population.

Maria Scrivens | alfa
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