Inconsistent Clean Air Zones could be undermining improvements in air quality

The uneven implementation of Clean Air Zones across the UK is ineffective, confusing and potentially detrimental to the improvement of air quality, writes Dr Sarah Wixey, associate director, WYG.

Cities across the UK are busy developing their plans to improve air quality and lower transport emissions. From 2020, ten cities in England and Scotland plan to introduce either a Zero Emission Zone (Oxford), Clean Air Zone (CAZ) (Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham, Southampton) or Low Emission Zone (LEZ) (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow).

In addition, more than 50 cities in England will be developing Local Action Plans, and Scotland is considering expanding LEZs to other Air Quality Management Areas.

The aim of these zones is to address all sources of pollution, including nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, and reduce exposure to them using a range of city specific measures.

To support their development, Defra published the ‘Clean Air Zone Framework: Principles for setting up Clean Air Zones in England’ in 2017. These guidelines set out the expected approach to be taken by local authorities when implementing and operating a CAZ in England.

It would be natural to assume cities have used this framework to design a consistent approach to their zones and adopt a standard set of clear rules for all vehicle users to follow. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Instead of a single, coherent and co-ordinated approach to a national problem, we now have a patchwork of individual initiatives across the UK.

Anyone trying to operate a business, or simply travel from city to city, now needs to research in advance what restrictions are in place. They must consider when they apply, if there are any exemptions, if they are going to be charged, what the fine will be, and how to pay it.

Lack of consistency

Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre. Photo Credit – Pixabay

From the outset, there has been indecisiveness and a lack of consistency amongst local councils.

For example, when the councils for Derby and Nottingham developed plans for non-charging CAZs, the approach was very different.

Derby focused on a new urban traffic management and control system across a wider area of the city, whereas Nottingham included vehicle access restrictions, and additional government funding helped to support the conversion of the city’s own vehicle fleet to vehicles compliant with the new restrictions.

Southampton City Council originally developed plans for a charging-based CAZ but following public consultation and the strong response against the planned charges, the city is set to introduce a non-charging CAZ based on a package of measures to reduce emissions. This lack of consistency amongst councils is only going to worsen if the UK government fails to introduce a nation-wide criteria for CAZs in cities.

On the other hand, Leeds and Birmingham have plans to introduce a charging-based CAZ, but these are again structured very differently. Leeds plans to introduce a category ‘B’ zone – whereby buses, coaches, taxis and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) entering the zone will be charged. Birmingham, however, has opted for a ‘D’ zone, where cars and light good vehicles will be charged in addition to those applicable for zone ‘B’ charges.

Although both Leeds’ and Birmingham’s CAZ share the same aim – to encourage businesses to transition to cleaner and less polluting vehicles – the criteria and penalties for each zone do not share the same uniformity.

No vehicle will be banned from driving in either CAZ area but instead daily charges will apply for non-compliant vehicles which will be monitored by cameras using automatic number plate recognition technology.

In Leeds, non-compliant vehicles will be subject to a daily charge of £50 for HGVs or large passenger vehicles, and eventually £12.50 for smaller commercial passenger vehicles, with private motorists and light goods vehicles avoiding a charge.

In Birmingham, vehicles will instead need to meet a minimum fuel-type criteria, and non-compliant vehicles will be subject to a daily charge of £8 for smaller passenger vehicles and £50 per day for HGVs, coaches and buses. This means that two central economic and social hubs, connecting the north and Midlands in the UK, will become increasingly difficult to navigate for all businesses that have vehicle fleets to manage.

Top of the agenda

Most recently, we have seen London launch the UK’s first Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), a category ‘D’ policy that encompasses the existing congestion charging zone. Non-compliant vehicles are now subject to a charge of £100 per day for HGVs and larger passenger vehicles, and £12.50 per day for small passenger vehicles.

The introduction of London’s ULEZ, and plans for CAZs in other cities, have obvious benefits and place air quality at the top of the agenda to ensure businesses with fleets are operating the right vehicles in the right place at the right time.

However, the plans currently in place across the country (which should be developed and implemented at national level) lack consistency, with a variety of localised plans frequently being instated.

As it currently stands, this decentralisation of CAZs is ineffective and potentially detrimental to the improvement of air quality. Any plans should be developed with trade associations that represent the businesses most likely to be affected by any changes. Once identified and agreed, the implementation timescales need to be fixed to allow vehicle owners and businesses to plan their future.

Going forward, businesses will need to take into consideration the vehicles they are using; how many older vehicles will need to be replaced or moved to areas where restrictions are less lenient (this is not recommended as this effectively moves pollution to other areas); and whether adopting new working practices could reduce fleet size.

Knowing the direction of travel, and the fixed implementation timescales, will not only help vehicle owners and businesses, but will also provide the vehicle manufacturing industry with the certainty it needs to ramp up the production of ultra-low and effectively zero-emission vehicles, in what will ultimately be a benefit to the environment.