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Coventry overruled by government over clean air plans

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The government has rejected Coventry City Council’s plans to reduce air pollution, telling it instead to introduce the most stringent type of clean air zone in its city centre which would impose charges on all polluting vehicles.

As part of its plans to reduce air pollution, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has issued air quality directions to Coventry City Council, Sheffield City Council and Rotherham MBC, Southampton City Council, Bath & North East Somerset Council, Fareham BC and Hampshire CC, and four councils in the south-east along the route of the A331. These were signed off by environment minister Thérèse Coffey in March but only published last week.

While most of the air quality directions go with the grain of the councils’ plans, they will impact significantly on Labour-controlled Coventry. The council had ruled out introducing a charging clean air zone and instead opted for an £80m alternative package of measures in order to bring nitrogen dioxide concentrations down to legal levels, which include closing a level crossing near one polluting road.

But Coventry has now been instructed by Defra to implement a stringent ’class D’ clean air zone “as soon as possible”, forcing older buses, coaches, taxis, minicabs, vans and even private cars to pay to enter the city.

Jim O’Boyle, the council’s cabinet member for jobs and regeneration, accused the department of a “knee jerk reaction” that puts “amazing strain on the economic viability of Coventry”.

“The government have sat on their hands on this issue [of air pollution] for the last few years, and they’re now putting the responsibility on local authorities,” he said.

“They haven’t had the courtesy to properly respond to our plans in the first place. Our plan was all evidence based, we can demonstrate that we can reduce nitrogen oxide levels in the areas of the most concern and I can’t see how a charging zone would reduce emissions any quicker.

“They are asking us to make every arterial road in the city part of a charging zone and that’s completely unacceptable.”

Mr O’Boyle says that conversations are now taking place with government officials on the way forwards. “We want to engage, but with mutual respect and trust,” he said.

At present, Birmingham City Council is the only council to have embraced plans for a class D charging zone. Birmingham has earmarked £15m, or 39%, of its clean air fund to help support taxi drivers prepare for the changes, but the taxi drivers have been holding a series of ’go-slow’ protests against the plans.

The directives sent to other councils include instructions to implement clean air zones (CAZs), lower speed limits or other measures to reduce emissions.

The government directives have given Bath & NE Somerset, Sheffield and Rotherham the green light for their plans for class C clean air zones, which will levy a charge only on taxis, buses and HGVs. In Bath, the former council had proposed charging drivers of private cars £9 to enter Bath city centre but dropped the plan after a public consultation.

Southampton proposed to levy a fee on older lorries, buses and HGVs to drive into the city but dropped its proposals in January in favour of a “non-charging” clean air zone, which has now been approved by Defra. 

Proposals are being considered by the government to give councils stronger powers to tackle air pollution from idling vehicles, according to the Times newspaper today.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is supporting Westminster City Council’s call to be given the power to fine drivers without warning if they have previously been caught with an idling engine. “We need stronger legislation in order to tackle the persistent offenders,” a council spokesperson told LGC. 

 The council has written to business leaders from freight, delivery, coach, taxi and private hire companies asking for support given delivery drivers and commercial vehicles make up a large proportion of idling drivers. Its campaign, which calls for residents, businesses and visitors to sign a pledge to stop engine idling, has attracted over 14,000 supporters.


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