A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has found that levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution in Marlow town centre have significantly decreased since the coronavirus pandemic.

Nick Rowcliffe, who worked for Marlow Town Council as a sustainability consultant between 2020 and 2021 and volunteers for Releaf Marlow, submitted the FOI after noting a decline in air pollution levels in 2022 compared to before the COVID-19 lockdown.

The town centre was designated as an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) in 2017 because of heavy traffic emissions exceeding the national objective for nitrous dioxide (NO2) levels.

The AQMA, which remains in place as of June 2024, covers the High Street, West Street, Spittal Street, Chapel Street and part of Little Marlow Road.

A consultancy study by Buckinghamshire Council in 2021 found the highest levels of daily traffic movements to be on Chapel Street, averaging 18,277 a day, followed by Spittal Street at 13,125. Both areas are also among the worst for NO2 pollution.

When NO2 monitoring began 11 years ago, over half of the 15 trackers in the town showed air pollution higher than the UK’s annual objective of 40 micrograms per cubic metre.

In 2019, the town centre’s average NO2 levels fell to just above the national objective, at 43.7 micrograms, a number that declined by a further 25 per cent in 2020 as people around the world stayed at home and self-quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Despite a gradual rise in 2021 and 2022, post-Covid levels stayed below the 40-microgram objective, and, according to the data in Nick’s FOI request, levels of NO2 in Marlow fell by six per cent on the previous year to 33.1 micrograms per cubic metre in 2023.

While the reason for this decrease, which signals an average drop of 2.1 micrograms per year since tracking began in 2013, is unclear, Marlow Town Council launched a ‘Clean Air Plan’ in March 2020 after describing the health risk associated with high N02 levels as “unacceptable”.

The council also stated an objective to “eliminate excess NO2 in the town centre by 2025” by promoting walking and cycling, improving street ventilation, and encouraging eco-driving, before revoking the AQMA designation thereafter.

While Nick was also unsure about the direct causes of the decline in air pollution, he suggested it could be due to an increase in “ultra-low emission vehicles” – with over 5 per cent of the cars registered in the Marlow postcode meeting the ULEV classification, well above the national average.

He described the FOI findings as an “environmental success story” for the town, suggesting that its AQMA status can now be revoked ahead of the town council’s projection, and putting it on track to meet the significantly tighter NO2 average recommended by the World Health Organisation of just 10 micrograms per cubic metre produced each year.