Today, London introduced the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone – but it’s not the only local authority taking strides to combat rising levels of air pollution. LGC research has established 14 councils spanning four urban areas outside of the capital have drawn up plans to begin charging the most polluting vehicles to drive in their cities – but many have watered down their proposals in the face of divided public opinion.
After losing three cases at the high court for not doing enough to tackle air pollution, the government ordered 36 councils in England and Wales to bring levels of nitrogen dioxide within legal limits “in the shortest possible time”.
In its 2017 UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations, the government told councils to create clean air zones - where more polluting vehicles pay a daily charge if they travel within the area - “or [put] other equally effective measures in place as soon as possible”.
Outside of the capital, Bath & North East Somerset Council, Leeds City Council and Greater Manchester CA in collaboration with the ten GM local authorities and Transport for Greater Manchester, have all agreed in principle to introduce vehicle charging for certain polluting buses, HGVs, taxis, vans and minibuses.
However, Birmingham City Council is now the only authority outside London to have greenlighted plans that will also cover private cars. From January 2020, an £8 a day charge will be levied on cars and £50 for buses, HGVs and coaches driving within Birmingham’s ring road.
In London’s ultra-low emission zone, which unlike the congestion charge zone will operate 24 hours a day, the charge will be £12.50 per day for the more-polluting cars and vans and £100 for heavy duty commercial vehicles such as buses, coaches and goods vehicles.
Greater Manchester and Bath & North East Somerset both initially proposed charging private cars but later took them off the table, with Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham claiming that including cars “would have hit some of our most deprived communities, for whom upgrading vehicles without the right level of support in place just isn’t an option.”
Bath & North East Somerset’s public consultation found that while residents were “very aware of the need to improve air quality”, many expressed concerns about the potential for “rat running” (motorists using residential side-streets as a short cut), and the disproportionate impact that charging higher emission cars might have on small businesses and poorer households.
Derby, Nottingham, Southampton, and Cardiff city councils have all scrapped plans for clean air zones altogether, claiming instead that they can meet obligations to cut nitrogen dioxide levels through other means such as a traffic management systems and making public transport more eco-friendly.
A further 12 are also not planning to introduce a clean air zone, although some of these, such as Surrey Heath and Fareham BCs, were targeted to clean up their air because of one particularly polluted road junction rather than town or city-wide issue. A further 11 councils have not yet decided, with many including Leicester and Liverpool city councils, currently consulting on plans to improve air quality.
Katie Nield, a lawyer with ClientEarth which successfully challenged the government over its plans to tackle air pollution, told LGC she was “disappointed” that councils’ approaches have been so “piecemeal and fragmented”. “Some councils are being more ambitious, for example in Birmingham they are putting their necks on the line to make those decisions,” she said. “But others are backtracking on their previous commitments and delaying on finalising proposals.”
Most councils that have watered down their clean air proposals have done so following public consultations which have indicated a lack of public enthusiasm for them. But Ms Nield sees this as no excuse for inaction. ClientEarth has written to the 36 councils instructed to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels threatening them with legal action if their plans do not go far enough to address the issue.
“These plans must comply with stringent legal tests, regardless of the costs involved or attractiveness to the public,” Ms Nield said.
“Clean air zones are only viable if the public are given viable alternatives, which means councils investing in public transport and making electric vehicles cheaper,” she said.
The roll-out of more clean air zones was recently backed by Public Health England in its review of interventions to tackle air quality. This also recommended that neighbouring authorities work together on this issue, however, it stressed that the main priority should be to reduce air pollution “at source” rather than simply mitigating the consequences.
The government’s clean air strategy states that the most “immediate and urgent” air quality challenge faced by local authorities is to tackle nitrogen dioxide concentrations around roads.
However, ADEPT, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, says that the government must play its part and “not just push responsibility to councils to design local solutions”. A spokesperson described the government’s 2017 consultation on nitrogen dioxide exceedances as being framed so “most action to address the problem is down to local authorities”. “In our view, this is an arm’s length approach which offers little leadership and support for what may be some challenging actions,” it said.
The UK100 network of local government leaders committed to improving air quality are pushing for a £1.5bn government-funded vehicle upgrade programme, which could pay to take nearly half a million older polluting vehicles off the roads.
London’s own ’scrap for cash’ scheme is already helping motorists buy low-emission vehicles ahead of the introduction of ULEZ.
Mapped: how councils are tackling air pollution
Hover over interactive map for full details