Rochford tree felling sparks UK’s first child protection referral linked to pollution

The first child protection referral in the UK related to environmental impacts on children has been lodged following a council’s decision to fell a huge oak tree.

Rochford District councillor Julie Gooding says she has raised the child protection referral because “children are at risk of significant harm not only since the tree has been felled but also during the process to take place whereby the road widening scheme takes effect”.

It comes after a 100-year-old oak tree was cut down to make way for developer Bloor Homes’ plan for a 662-home development in Ashingdon Road, Rochford. The developers say the tree had to be removed in order for a new road layout to be created.

But Councillor Gooding told the LDRS extra pollution generated from the development near Holt Farm Infant and Junior schools is harmful to children.

The schools are attended by more than 500 students who she says are at “risk of serious harm due to the increased traffic and subsequent air pollution”. She has already raised her concerns over increased risk traffic accidents.

The former Tory councillor, who recently quit the party along with two others, says her views “don’t align with their current situation”.

Her action has been supported by the Climate Child Protection and Safeguarding Team (CCPAST), an emergent team of professionals working in child protection and safeguarding roles focused on the risks and harms to children presented by the climate emergency.

They have written in support of the child protection referral instigated by Cllr Gooding and as an additional referral.

They argue that legislation identifies local authorities have a duty to ensure the safety and welfare of children including protection from environmental factors. They cite the case of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah who was the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death at an inquest in the UK.

Essex County Council says they have misinterpreted of the concept of contextual safeguarding, which they argue deals with extra-familial harm in the community, such as young people at risk of exploitation.

The organisation has added in its referral: “We are concerned that the children at Holt Farm school are currently being exposed to high levels of air pollution.

“The loss of the tree outside the school has likely increased their exposure to this source of physical and developmental harm.

“The proposed widening of the road will certainly increase the levels of air pollution around the school, and the potential for road traffic accidents as heavy construction traffic increases to support the development nearby.

“We would appreciate your support in enacting a child protection process to fully assess the risks and harms that children in the area are currently being exposed to, and may be further exposed to if current plans are enacted. We request that the work currently being undertaken is suspended whilst this assessment takes place as the work itself has been identified as requiring investigation under the Children Act (1989).”

A spokesperson for CCPAST said: “There is now a wealth of evidence about the significant impact of air pollution on children’s health and development, and it is 10 years since the first officially recorded child death due to air pollution, Ella Kissi-Debrah.

“In circumstances like this, where trees, nature’s air filter, are being removed in order to increase heavy goods vehicle traffic next to a school, this needs investigating under the Children Act.

“Our children’s safety is a priority. Rochford Council’s action is the first child protection referral in the UK related to environmental impacts on children and it won’t be the last. As science identifies the harms being done physically, developmentally and emotionally to our young, it is our responsibility to protect them. CCPAST has set up to action this in the UK.”

Cllr Gooding has also written to Roger Hirst, Essex Crime Commissioner who has pledged to examine the issue from a road safety perspective.

He has said that although Essex Police is not directly consulted on schemes such as as the Bloor development, the force has recently appointed a member of staff within their strategic change division who is responsible for monitoring large scale developments, and where possible to allow police to make comment in relation to road safety and crime.”

Mr Hirst said: “Although this is not a policing matter, Essex Police has referred the above scheme to engineering colleagues at Essex Highways requesting they they engage with the developer and discuss the concerns raised by residents”

Cllr Gooding, in an email to councillors on both Essex County Council and Rochford District Council, said: “In my opinion, the children are at risk of significant harm not only since the tree has been felled but also during the process to take place whereby the road widening scheme takes effect.

“The process currently underway has increased the amount of extra pollution from the construction trucks flowing into the entrance of the development area which is outside the school gates. There are 500 plus students attending these schools, at risk of serious harm due to the increased traffic and subsequent air pollution. I have already raised my concerns with regard to the increased risk of road traffic accidents.

“I quote a precedent set by the death of Ella Kissi Debrah who sadly lost her life to air pollution. We do not want to see further evidence of ill health or worse as a result of the development decision made.

“As an elected councillor and member of Rochford District Council, I feel it is my duty (along with all fellow councillors) to defend the children’s health and safety while holding this position within the community.”

Rochford Council had originally rejected the proposals for the development, but Bloor Homes overturned the decision through an appeal to central government. The property developer felled the tree on February 13 following months of wrangling between protesters.

Cllr Gooding said: “I wrote to Roger Hirst because he was concerned about how this junction is going to pan out and currently there is a lot of traffic that is sitting and obviously more fumes are being created. It’s not just the tree, it is the ongoing impact of the traffic and air pollution and it’s the safety of the children.

“Obviously I have raised it because Roger Hirst says they are looking at when a planning application is put forward they should be looking at this from a safety aspect, because they’re the ones who have to scrape up people off the road.”

She said her argument to Essex County Council is that air pollution will worsen because of the decision.

She said: “All those children are going to those schools and the air pollution is obviously increasing. There is no air monitoring going on and I need to know what monitoring is going to be done to put in safeguarding for the children.”

“They need to take it up and get some measurements to justify whether it is a safe area for children. What measurements are being put in place to look after these children.

“I have spoken to families to say they are worried and frightened and concerned and it is my role then to escalate that.”

An Essex County Council spokesperson said: “All referrals to Essex County Council receive proper consideration. Air quality is a public health matter.”

A spokesman for Rochford District Council said: “Rochford District Council takes air quality very seriously and currently has thirteen monitors across the district, since 2017 they have not recorded any excedances of the Government targets.

“As part of the ongoing monitoring programme the council is in the process of adding additional monitors near all of the schools on the district this includes the Holt Farm Schools.”

Bloor Homes said they would not be commenting on the matter.

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter