Exclusive: Over 30 local authorities are considering fining motorists who leave their engines idle but an AirQualityNews investigation can reveal that between the five councils who were actively fining motorists throughout 2018, only a handful were actually issued.
We submitted freedom of information requests to Reading, Camden, Westminster, Southwark and Norwich councils, asking them how many fixed penalty notices they issued last year.
Reading, Camden and Norwich issued zero, Southwark 9 and Westminster 20.
It’s raised questions over how effective council strategies are when it comes to vehicle idling, with air quality campaigners calling the current system of enforcement ‘not fit for purpose’.
Far from impressive
It’s been an offence to leave a ‘vehicle engine running unnecessarily’ since 1986, and powers were handed to councils in 2002 in England to issue fixed penalty notices of £20 if motorists refuse to turn their engine off when asked to by a traffic warden.
However, since the Client Earth case and the rise of air quality up the political agenda, it’s only recently been seriously considered by local authorities as a tool that could reduce emissions.
The RAC says idling engines produce levels of CO2, NO2 and PM2.5 over two times as many as those in motion, with most instances coming from ‘avoidable’ road situations such as waiting to pick someone up outside a workplace or school.
The latter situation is of particular alarm as children breathe in up to three times more air relative to their weight, meaning they take in a greater volume of toxic air which can stunt lung growth and increase their risk of respiratory disease.
Southwark Council, who issued 9 fixed penalty notices during 2018, defended the low number of fines, saying it represents a ‘win’ because 568 motorists agreed to turn their engine off when asked by a traffic warden.
However, figures seen by AirQualityNews reveal that 57 refused and drove off before a fine could be issued, which puts into question how effective fines really are.
London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon said that asking on average just two people a day to turn off their idling engines across a London Borough of 320,000 people is ‘far from impressive.’
‘The reality is that these figures demonstrate very little enforcement is in practice taking place,’ she added.
‘And while it is encouraging how many drivers respond positively to requests to turn off their idling engines the reality is that thousands of drivers, and not just a few hundred, need to be asked to do so every year.’
With cash-strapped councils putting fewer traffic wardens on the streets, are they destined to lose any numbers game with idling motorists?
Norwich issued no fines and just 27 warnings throughout 2018, leading campaigners to brand enforcement ‘toothless’.
David Smith, who runs the air quality campaign group Little Ninja, believes because councils are failing to catch motorists in on the act, they are more likely to reallocate their staff to other activities that generate revenue.
‘The legislation is not fit for purpose and desperately needs to be updated to allow more people to report idling and to tackle repeat offenders.’
Hugh Bladen of the Alliance of British Drivers says councils need to ‘get their act together’.
‘It’s very difficult to actually fine somebody and you can’t just do it willy nilly,’ he says.
‘You have to produce some sort of evidence that the fine is legit and I don’t see how they do it. It’s a “he said, she said” situation isn’t it?’
Cllr Martin Tett, transport spokesman for the Local Government Association, agreed that enforcement is difficult.
He said: ‘Although some councils are issuing fines to drivers who leave their engines idling, the legislation to enable this is extremely hard to enforce in practice.’
‘Although some councils are issuing fines to drivers who leave their engines idling, the legislation to enable this is extremely hard to enforce in practice.
‘Councils have prioritised changing behaviour by educating motorists, which is often more effective than issuing fines. As part of their review of air quality legislation, the government should look again at whether these powers are working how they intended and whether they could be made simpler to use while still being fair to the motorist.’
Motorists have felt attacked by lawmakers since almost as long as the times of the first combustion engine, so is fining motorists for what might be an innocent mistake, needlessly confrontational?
AirQualityNews recently visited Leeds City Council, and their head of sustainability Cllr James Lewis wasn’t convinced. He said they’d prefer to educate drivers rather than dishing out ‘yet another round of council enforcement’.
Hugh Bladen of the Alliance of British Drivers agrees. He says idling enforcement is part of the ‘usual anti-motorist agenda that is prevalent in this country now.’
‘If you drive a car it’s like you have horns growing out of your head,’ he says.
‘It’s the usual business of councils seeking any way to raise a bit more revenue. We have these jobsworths wandering around with clipboards making life miserable for motorists. It’s time this stopped and the councils let people get on with their lives.’
Reading Council, who issued zero fines said ‘we prefer to use education as a way of persuading people to change their behaviour’, which includes PR campaigns and appointing local air quality champions.
Last month, Portsmouth launched a new air quality campaign called ‘cough cough engine off,’ and Richmond even put a mime artist on the streets for the day to highlight the dangers of idling to passing drivers.
But campaigner David Smith says councils have to move beyond soft PR and simple rhetoric if they are ever going to tackle the issue of idling emissions.
‘They are great headlines with little substance,’ he says.
‘Have a look outside schools, nurseries, GP surgeries, hospitals in Southwark, does it look like the threat of enforcement is working?’