Sheffield’s clean air programme to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary

There is an important anniversary coming up in Sheffield’s story.

In 1972, Sheffield completed its clean air programme, and one person who had cause to feel proud was Joseph Batey, nicknamed ‘Smokey Joe,’ who had just retired as the city’s smoke control officer.

Fifty years on, many of us won’t appreciate the importance of this milestone. We are used to clear skies, (mostly) fresh air, and spectacular views across the city.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Concern over Sheffield’s air quality stretched back at least 400 years. As early as 1608 Sir John Bentley expected to be ‘half choked with town smoke’ while visiting Sheffield.

A traveller’s diary of 1798 said: “We had an excellent view of the town of Sheffield enveloped in smoke.” ; and in 1828: “Others have become so accustomed to regard an increase in smoke as an indication of improving trade that they can see nothing in a clear sky but ruin.”

By the 19th century it was apparent that measures were necessary to reduce atmospheric pollution in urban areas.

In 1819, industrial firms were being fined for undue smoke emissions. And in 1843, the Select Committee on Smoke Prevention issued its report, and locally, the Borough Council’s Watch Committee directed the police to enforce Smoke Byelaws.

“The Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council’ disallowed the city’s smoke byelaws in 1852, but the council tried again the following year and were successful.

The Sanitary Act of 1866 permitted local sanitary authorities to act against smoke nuisances. It was not until 1875 however, with the passing of the Public Health Act, that attempts were made to control air pollution across the whole country.

In 1890, Sheffield’s first chief smoke inspector noted that the average smoke emission of all chimneys observed by his staff was ‘80 minutes smoke an hour.’

The real break-through came with the Clean Air Act of 1956 which established ‘smokeless zones’ in which only smokeless fuels could be burned. Here was a piece of legislation (and the city’s representatives were consulted when it was being drafted) which swept away the old, misconceived notions and gave any city that cared to have a go the chance for clean air for all.

The citizens proved worthy of their heritage. With power to prohibit smoke from domestic premises, now recognised as the biggest smoke producer, and a 40 per cent grant from the Government towards the cost of domestic conversions to smokelessness (a bonus that few Yorkshiremen could resist) the first area, in the city centre, became smokeless on December 1, 1959.

There was a clean wind blowing into the city from the Derbyshire moors, and the strategy adopted was to work for smoke elimination into this clean wind direction, namely into the south-west sector of the city, but there was not a large volume of heavy industry in the south-west, and smoke gauges in the north east sector, where heavy industry was located, only started to show a steady decline in the early sixties as the programme gained momentum in the south west.

Another advantage which accrued from working in what was largely the ‘domestic’ area was that industry was being alerted to the necessity of ‘getting it clean’ and ‘keeping it clean.’ There was little hope of clearing smoke from a house in the industrial belt if an adjacent factory chimney was pouring out smoke. The Clean Air Act of 1968 forced certain industries to use tall chimneys, and the cooperation of most managements was positive.

A final programme of complete domestic smoke control was forwarded to the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government in 1960, showing the completion date as 1972. This programme was adhered to, and the promise kept.

By turning over to smokeless fuels there was a welcome reduction in the sulphur dioxide measurements, using measuring stations.

Fog or smog days disappeared by the late 1960s and Sheffield Transport’s manager stated, in reply to a query regarding bus time-keeping – “I can say that it is the opinion of all my staff that over the years with the introduction of smokeless zones, the problem has almost entirely disappeared.”

The effect on health was carried out at Sheffield University, but few needed convincing that cleaner air, more sunshine, and less dirt, was conductive to good health.

By 1972, the city of 71 square miles with over half a million population, and 186,000 houses, had tamed air pollution in 12 years, even though its basic industry, producing three million tons of steel, was notorious for its pollution problems.

The creation of smoke control areas was so successful that by the early 1980s they covered the whole of the urban parts of the city, and the transformation of Sheffield’s air was thought to have been complete. The 1956 and 1968 Clean Air Acts were repealed by the Clean Air Act 1993, which consolidated and extended the provisions of the earlier legislation.

However, the new threats from traffic emissions became the next clean air challenge.

In early 2023 Sheffield’s Clean Air Zone is due to start. This is a class C chargeable zone for the most polluting large goods vehicles, vans, buses, and taxis that drive within the inner ring road and city centre.

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.