Depicting and moralising Teessides air pollution

Pollution may be a recurring motif in Teesside's image of itself as a place, but its stacks have always conjured up contradictory associations: of economic vitality, but also of the associated pollution (Briggs 1963; Beynon et al. 1994). In an area where the major national recessions of the twentieth century have hit hard, the long-term risks associated with exposure to pollution have invariably been set alongside the risks of job loss and economic insecurity. The following remarks made by Teesside citizens are current illustrations of an old dilemma:6

I think that the lack of employment is causing far more havoc than anything and in my mind even supersedes having a cleaner environment.

I think it is ridiculous how industry in this area gets away with the amount of pollution they pump into the air and rivers. In my opinion it is industry that is to blame for the amount of chest problems people suffer from in this area.

Yet as wider national and international concerns about environmental pollution have grown since the 1970s, Teesside's image as a place beset by abnormally severe air pollution has dogged it. Several disparate examples will illustrate the point. The first relates to the tobacco industry's own interest in Teesside's air pollution. For instance, in the 1950s the tobacco industry was not slow in spotting that Teesside offered a useful laboratory which might assist its efforts to deflect attention from the rising tide of evidence linking tobacco consumption with lung cancer and respiratory illness. Accordingly, research started in the 1950s, funded by the Tobacco Research Council, to examine 'environmental factors associated with lung cancer and bronchitis mortality' (Wicken and Buck 1964). A follow-up study continued this work through the 1960s (Dean and Lee 1977). The conclusions of these studies need not concern us here. The relevant point is that Teesside was seen to provide a suitable testing ground for determining the impact that atmospheric pollution might have in relation to diseases increasingly being associated with smoking. This in turn had the potential to offer the tobacco industry valuable ammunition in its attempts to counter its increasingly exposed position, neatly illustrating Beck's (1992:227) observation that risks which provide a problem for one industry can be another industry's opportunity.

An incident in 1981 highlighted Teesside's image as a polluted place in a quite different way. An advertisement for Crown Paints in the trade press suggested that exposure to the Teesside air offered the most demanding test conditions that the company could find for one of its products. The implication that the air along the River Tees was heavily polluted brought an angry response, with an official complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority and, after an unfavourable response, the eventual intervention of local MPs.7 Fears were voiced that inward investment may be deterred, especially as this incident came at a time of dismay about economic collapse and unemployment. As the minutes of a Pollution Control Committee insisted:

It is not merely a matter of local pride that caused us to pursue this matter—it is difficult enough already to attract new industry to the area, and nationally circulated advertisements which perpetuate the myth of the grimy North East certainly do not assist the local authorities in their efforts.

(Borough of Cleveland Pollution Control Group 1982-3)

Our final example is more recent, and reflects both the continued sensitivity of air pollution in Teesside and also the official endeavours to combat this image. In 1996, a leaflet was circulated to thousands of households in Teesside by local authorities and industries (funded partly by the Department of the Environment). Entitled 'Air Quality Today', the following extracts illustrate its message:

Smokey old Teesside?

Fact: Teesside used to be one of the most polluted places in Britain. In the 1960's it suffered from some of the worst air pollution in the country, due partly to domestic coalburning. Fact: it used to be—but not any more!.

The latest analytical techniques available have shown that our air is as good as other towns and cities in the country—and in many cases a lot better. Take airborne particle pollution for example, which is the most significant local pollutant nowadays. National statistics show that in 1994 Middlesbrough had the lowest reported levels.. Our biggest air quality problem on Teesside is one of perception.

So, do we ever get poor air quality?

Yes. On about a dozen occasions through the year. Sometimes these occur in the summer when we get PHOTOCHEMICAL SMOG drifting into Teesside from as far away as Europe.

Despite great care being taken with industrial processes, there are occasions when locally-produced short-term emissions of pollutants do occur. .Thankfully these episodes are quite rare. You might also be interested to know two things:

1 Peak pollution levels occur on 5th November.

2 Nowadays, much of our local air pollution comes from road traffic.

Do you get annoyed when people talk down Teesside? If we have wrong perceptions of our area, WE CANNOT BE SURPRISED IF OTHERS DO AS WELL. A wrong perception could mean people do not invest in our area.. The way forward involves everyone getting together to challenge wrong perceptions.

This leaflet was ironically part of a strategy of increased openness and improved provision of information to the public. In it we can identify several strategies which have been employed in official efforts to deflect attention from industrial pollution in order to promote an image of Teesside as a 'clean' environment, attractive to investment by high-tech industries (see Burgess and Harrison 1993). One line has been to acknowledge that Teesside has had a history of heavy pollution, using the contrast between past and present to highlight the improvements that have been made. A second has been to emphasise the role of traffic pollution. A third has been to place stress on the contribution to poor air quality of air pollution from outside the region—whether imported from the power stations of South Yorkshire or from across the North Sea. Finally—and implicit in the consortium of bodies publishing the leaflet—local authorities and industries have increasingly been taking a joint approach not only to pollution control but also to public education about pollution also. The objective has been to secure improved air quality, and public knowledge about this improvement; but one consequence has been to tie local authorities more closely to the industries' interests and their own gloss on developments.

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