Going Smokeless in Coventry

Photo courtesy of Coventry Telegraph

It was 69 years ago that Coventry became the first UK city to go smokeless. March 1st, 1951 became ‘No Smoke Day’, heralding Coventry city centre as the UK’s first smokeless zone – and attracting national and international interest.

Coventry became the UK’s first smokeless zone in a bid to tackle smog caused by smoke from both domestic or commercial buildings burning coal. When Public Health inspector Donald Norcliffe proposed the establishment of a smokeless zone it sparked a heated debate over the logic of rebuilding the city after the War but failing to clean up its air quality.

A vociferous town meeting was held to discuss the proposition of going smoke-free and a referendum saw the motion passed, with 28,000 votes for and 11,000 against.

The need for going smokeless was highlighted tragically a year later with London’s Great Smog of 1952, when the capital was brought to a standstill.

On December 4th 1952, an anticyclone settled over London. The wind dropped and the air grew damp; a thick fog began to form. The great London smog lasted for five days and led to around four thousand more deaths than usual and 100,000 people were made ill.

Cattle in Smithfield Market were asphyxiated after breathing in the acidic smoke and a performance at Sadler’s Wells Ballet had to be abandoned because the audience couldn’t see the dancers.

The Coventry Corporation Act 1948 covered 35 acres, and outlawed the emission of any smoke from either domestic or commercial buildings. It ruled that people could only burn higher grade smokeless fuels, mainly coke. Anyone found flouting the ban risked a fine of up to £10 – equivalent to around £320 today.

Following in Coventry’s footsteps, other cities and towns, including Manchester, Preston, Wolverhampton and eventually London created smokeless zones. In 1956 the Government enacted the Clean Air Act which introduced the concept of Smokeless Zones across the country without the need for specific legislation.

The 1956 Act was superseded by the 1993 Clean Air Act which is still the relevant legislation. These days the rules are called Smoke Control Orders and the current fine for breaking the rules is up to £1000.

Today most homes and businesses in the city are heated by either gas or electricity, which is much cleaner than coal or coke. Also we have lost a lot of polluting industry from the city. However there has been a recent increase in the use of wood fires and the Government has introduced further controls on the use of un-dried wood, because of its particulate emissions.

We continue to have a serious air quality problem in the city, but these days the main cause is vehicular traffic, with Nitrogen Dioxide(NO2) and particulate matter being the main pollutants. Older engines, particularly diesels, generate particles which cause asthma and breathing difficulties. In addition, the generation of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a major contributor to global warming. The Council recently launched a consultation on proposals to improve the city’s traffic caused pollution.

Photo courtesy of Coventry Telegraph

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