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Son’s persistent cough after moving to estate sparked mum’s crusade against coal

For years, Amy Holder wondered if there might be a link between her coal-fired central heating and her son’s asthma – but taking part in Britain’s first ever Climate Assembly inspired her to act.

“Bradley had a little inhaler when he was born but he quickly grew out of it,” the 28-year-old postal worker says. “We moved here when he was seven, and his chest was fine.

“After a year, I noticed he had a bit of a cough. Then it got persistent, coughing and coughing, especially during the night. The doctor confirmed it was asthma. He’s now 11.”

In 2021, the year Britain hosts the COP26 UN Climate Change conference, Amy’s heating and hot water is powered by a coal fire.

Since taking part in the Climate Assembly, Amy is determined to persuade her housing association to install carbon-free heating instead.

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Amy Holder is on a mission
Amy Holder is on a mission

Seeing David Attenborough speak at the Assembly helped her realise there was no time to waste.

“I was in awe of him, really,” Amy says. “He wants to get the climate sorted. When he spoke about the coral reef and how it was turning white, it was heartbreaking. All of that’s lumbered on our children.

“My son’s asthma is getting worse, and he doesn’t even live in the smog in China. We need to
collaborate to solve these problems – that’s what it made me think.”

Amy is more used to walking the streets of Scarborough, delivering the mail. “I’m a nervous person and I find it hard to get my views across in everyday life, so I didn’t think I’d get accepted,” she says.

“I applied because I do care about the climate. But I’d never done anything like that in my life.”

Amy Holder and the coal fire that heats the water nd radiators in her rented home
Amy Holder and the coal fire that heats the water nd radiators in her rented home

Amy was one of 108 people chosen, across geography and attitudes, to represent the UK, over six weekends in Birmingham. The Assembly helped push the Government towards its recent pledge to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035.

“I didn’t have a clue about those huge words that they were saying at first,” says Amy, who became a single mum at 16. “At one point, I thought my head was going to explode.”

The story of the Assembly is told in The People Versus Climate Change on BBC iPlayer.

Narrated by BBC weather presenter Carol Kirkwood, other Assembly members in the film include Marc Robson, 47, a former commando from Wallsend, Tyne and Wear.

Marc’s grandfather lost his coal mining job, and he wants to ensure a green transition doesn’t leave communities behind in the same way.

Amy Holder took part in the Climate Assembly
Amy Holder took part in the Climate Assembly

After sessions from experts and robust debate, this extraordinary panel of ordinary people sent a clear message back to Parliament that they supported far bolder climate action.

A year on, and Amy is campaigning to get heating on her estate replaced, inspired by
the Assembly’s conclusion that heat pumps – which move heat from one place to another using a compressor – will be a vital solution to Britain’s home energy demands.

There are 1,540 households with no central heating in Amy’s area of Ryedale in North Yorkshire.

“On our estate, we all have coal, oil or gas bottles,” Amy says. “I can see the chimneys going. We have all been coughing since we moved here. If it’s the coal that’s causing Brad’s asthma, I want it gone.”

Wood and coal fires are the single largest source of small particulate matter in the UK, which can cause respiratory problems.

Amy is now challenging her council over her coal-fired central heating which she believes is causing her son's asthma
Amy is now challenging her council over her coal-fired central heating which she believes is causing her son’s asthma

Air pollution causes 40,000 early deaths a year – and a landmark legal ruling in December that it was a cause of the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in South East London in 2013 only makes Amy’s campaign more urgent.

In November, Amy’s local authority, North Yorkshire County Council, announced a free renewable heating scheme funded by the National Grid’s Warm Homes Fund, yet only one property has had one installed so far.

Louise Wallace, North Yorkshire’s director of public health, says: “We are working with a range of agencies to train new installers that will help to increase capacity to meet the targets.”

Amy wanted to make more changes after the Assembly, but struggled with cost. “Why is saving the planet so expensive?” she asks.

“I started trying to use public transport to get to work but I was spending £45 on the bus rather than £30 on fuel, and the buses were often cancelled.”

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Amy, Bradley and her partner Gary have also been growing what they can in their small front garden.

“We’ve got strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, herbs,” she says. “Gary is a tree surgeon and he’s planting a lot of trees.”

A year on, she is proud she took part in the Assembly. “I think there should be more things like citizens’ assemblies because it’s good to ask people, what would you do if you could?

“I’ve thought about things I wouldn’t have in a million years. We all need to chip in and change for our children.”

This week, her hero David Attenborough was appointed as ‘people’s advocate’ to COP26. His words to the Assembly still ring in Amy’s ears: “The rest of the people in this country ought to be extremely grateful to you. As, indeed, am I.”

Meanwhile, Brad has begun tending to an unknown plant on his
windowsill that suddenly flowered.

“It had been there for years, but he started looking after it,” Amy says. “Turned out it’s a beautiful orchid.”

  • Watch the film:

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