The introduction of the UK’s first clean air zones has been postponed due to a government delay in delivering the systems needed to make the zones operational and enforceable.
Both Birmingham City Council and Leeds City Council had been on track to implement clean air zones on the basis that the vehicle checking software, which is being delivered by the government’s Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) would be ready by October 2019 as planned.
However JAQU, a joint unit between the Department for Transport and and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has now confirmed the software won’t be ready until at least December 2019 — leaving just weeks before both zones were due to come into force in January 2020.
The two councils were asked to tackle air pollution as a priority after roads in the cities were identified as likely to fail legal air quality levels by 2020. Birmingham’s clean air zone is the most ambitious in the country, as it included plans to charge polluting private cars, as well as taxis, vans and lorries.
In Leeds, all heavy goods vehicles, buses, coaches, taxis and private hire vehicles would pay fee to enter the zone under the plans, but private cars and light goods vehicles would be exempt.
The government is also now expecting councils to deliver a system for collecting payments from non-compliant vehicles which enter the clean air zone, backtracking on previous agreements that it would deliver this.
Birmingham’s cabinet member for transport and environment Waseem Zaffar (Lab) said it would be “completely unfair” to go ahead with the zone in January as planned because this would leave people with “weeks, if not days, to make key choices about their travel behaviour or upgrade their vehicles. This is simply unacceptable”.
Leeds deputy leader James Lewis (Lab) described the delay as “extremely disappointing”, but said the council would continue to financially support owners of affected vehicles switching to less polluting models.
He added: “As planned, we will also begin to install the camera infrastructure required for the zone within the next few weeks.
“The government now needs to outline new timescales that they are confident can be delivered in order to give residents and businesses across the country clarity and certainty about the future of these schemes.”
A spokesperson for the DfT admitted the government was aware of concerns over delays and said it was carrying out work to develop key components of the system to support the Charging Clean Air Zones for January 2020.
“We are committed to cleaning up our air, but we need to balance environmental goals with realistic timescales if we are to create a service that is reliable and effective for local authorities,” they said.