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Can this controversial initiative fix the UK’s air pollution problem?

Clean Air Zones have come under fire from local leaders.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Almost every home in Britain (97 per cent) faces levels of air pollution that exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, according to non-profit group the Central Office of Public Interest (Copi) and Imperial College London. Meanwhile, even by its own more lax standards, the UK is not meeting its statutory obligations to limit harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions in many local areas, though targets for other pollutants were met between 2010 and 2019.

In 2019, the government set a legally binding Clean Air Strategy to further reduce the amount of emissions from harmful pollutants – including NO2, ammonia, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and more – at both a local and national level by 2030.

As part of its inquiry into government action on air quality, the public accounts committee questioned leading figures from the Joint Air Quality Unit (Jaqu) – created by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2016 – about how one of the unit’s flagship initiatives, clean air zones, along with other measures, will improve Britain’s air quality.

What are clean air zones?

Clean air zones act in a similar way to London’s Low Emissions Zone, charging heavy-polluting vehicles to use certain roads across six cities in England, including Manchester and Birmingham.

The scheme has come under fire from both local leaders and residents, who find the charges excessive, especially considering the relatively inadequate public transport options in the affected areas. Following a backlash, Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, paused the implementation of the scheme in February, and put forward proposals to scrap plans for charges on vehicles, saying that the government would have to “impose” the policy as he was drawing a “red line”.

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“As a Greater Manchester MP, we [local leaders] feel very strongly that we could have developed a broader approach than simply relying on charging,” Kate Green, public accounts committee member and the MP for Stretford and Urmston, said during the session.

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Green took particular issue with the universal model applied to the formation and implementation of the clean air zones. She asked David Hill, the director general of Defra, who had a hand in forming the zones, and yesterday gave evidence to the committee, “why is it that you are confident that [clean air zones] are a better way of achieving the legal obligations, [rather] than working in a more partnership-based holistic way with local authorities?”

Hill replied: “In terms of the approach we’ve developed, it’s been predicated essentially on having some common platforms that a range of authorities can build out from over time,” adding that the 2030 emissions deadline handed down by the government makes reducing “exceedances [of emissions] in the shortest time possible” Jaqu’s primary goal.

Are there any alternatives?

Hill argued that it was necessary to have a singular framework to accommodate all of the local authorities the programme has so far involved, but he noted that a charge isn’t necessarily a requirement of the scheme. “There’s no prescription that says charging is the right answer,” he said. “But what we are obliged to do is test whether a charging solution is likely – based on all our evidence – to drive compliance faster than non-charging measures.”

However, Gareth Davies, second permanent secretary at the DfT, said that Jaqu would be open to alternative plans from local leaders. “As David [Hill] touched on, the evidence is right that the clean air zone is the fastest way to achieve compliance, and that’s why it’s the baseline [model]. If there are ways in which local authorities can put together a package of measures that will achieve compliance faster, we’re very open to that. For us, it’s not about the means, it’s the end. And the end for us is how do you achieve compliance as fast as possible?”

What role can electric vehicles play?

Another key driver of cleaning up Britain’s air will be a mass take-up of electric vehicles. The government, in its aim to reach net zero by 2050, plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

But would there be enough of an uptake to make a difference to air quality, the commitee’s deputy chair, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, wanted to know, and how would the ending of the EV charge point grant, which provided people with up to 75 per cent of funds needed to install domestic electric vehicle charging facilities, affect things?

In reply, Davies said “the scheme has exceeded the goals that were set for it when it was originally brought in… over ten years ago”, and argued its continuation would not be the best use of taxpayers’ money, while also suggesting that increasing the number of public charging points needed more focus and investment.

But will the ban on petrol and diesel vehicles be enough?

“If you look at the sales of electric vehicles, the latest figures [show that] around one in six new cars are electric,” Davies said, noting that all of the constraints around electric vehicles “are not on the demand side – they’re on the supply side”. 

However, he continued, even with the 2030 ban on sales of petrol and diesel vehicles, it will take a long time to see changes in the composition of the road, thus delaying many environmental benefits. “Even if all our projections come to pass, the stock of cars will [see] one in three… be electric in 2030,” Davies said. “So the majority will still be petrol-engine cars; we’ll still have this double-running system for a number of decades to come.”

“There’s going to be an awful lot of work to do between 2030 and 2035,” Clifton-Brown remarked wryly in response to Davies’ prediction.

What happens next?

The focus over the next few years will be on making sure the UK meets the “emission ceilings” – an overhang of an old EU directive that places limits on emissions from harmful pollutants – which were last set out in 2018. An update on the measures taken to meet those goals by 2030, which has been folded into the 2019 Clean Air Strategy, will be outlined in the draft National Air Pollution Control Plan, which is due in September.

And there’s work to be done. A National Audit Office report from June notes that, according to current projections, the UK is likely to exceed many of emission ceiling limits.

Where can I learn more?

You can look at how polluted your local area is here.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan writes about why tackling air pollution is “a matter of life and death“.

You can read the National Audit Office’s report on government plans to tackle air quality (or its summary).