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Health experts have warned that delays to proposed clean air zones in cities including Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds pose a risk to the nation’s wellbeing.
Clean air zones (CAZs) are areas in which drivers of polluting vehicles are charged to enter city centres in an effort to improve air quality. With air pollution at illegal levels in many locations for the past decade, causing thousands of deaths a year, local authorities nationwide had announced plans to introduce the zones.
But the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in fewer vehicles on the road during lockdown, has led pollution levels to fall. The funding available to local authorities is designed to bring air pollution below legal limits, so some local authorities have been hesitant to proceed while pollution levels remain relatively low.
Birmingham’s CAZ was originally scheduled for 2020, but has been delayed until next year, and the council is expected to announce the exact date later this autumn. A spokesperson said: “Birmingham remains committed to launching its clean air zone in 2021.”
Sheffield and Bristol have also delayed their CAZs. According to Sheffield city council, the city’s air pollution in January-August this year was 33% lower than the same period in 2019.
The government is working with cities on the zones through its Joint Air Quality Unit, managed by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport.
Sheffield council’s cabinet member for transport, Bob Johnson, said: “Following on from the lockdown required to control the spread of the virus, there have been a number of changes to travel behaviour which has led to improvements in air quality. The current situation is dramatically different to the one in which our proposals were originally developed.”
He said the economic uncertainty arising from the pandemic meant the proposed CAZ needed to be reviewed. “If we can hold on to clean air by introducing other measures without resorting to charging people, we believe this is the best way forward,” said Johnson.
James Lewis, deputy leader of Leeds city council, said: “If the city’s air pollution is expected to stay below legal limits then we will no longer have the support of the government to introduce a charging clean air zone. Given this uncertainty, our financial support will continue to be paused until the review is complete and we have received further direction.” The city’s plans remain suspended indefinitely.
Greater Manchester was expected to conduct a public consultation into its own CAZ this summer but it will instead take place next month. Andrew Western, the councillor leading the city’s plans to improve air quality, said: “We will use the feedback from the consultation process to inform our final plans and understand how best to ensure our residents are not exposed to illegal levels of air pollution.”
“Lockdown led to a huge improvement in air quality across our city-region,” he added. “It also showed that better air quality is achievable, and that vehicle emissions are the key to reducing NO2 exposure.”
About 800,000 people a year across Europe are estimated to die prematurely because of air pollution.
The latest round of delays has led some environmental campaigners to question the government’s commitment to reducing air pollution.
Katie Nield, a lawyer at the environmental charity ClientEarth, said: “Clean air zones are the key to reducing illegal and harmful levels of pollution in our towns and cities. Resisting and delaying these much-needed measures is shortsighted and adds an unnecessary risk to respiratory health as we grapple with Covid-19.
“It’s not really clear where these U-turns originate. In some cases councils are suggesting central government is behind these delays, while ministers are remaining tight-lipped. The public deserve better. Ultimately it is the UK government’s responsibility to make sure that the necessary work is done to tackle this public health crisis. They are already a decade behind – people’s health should not have to wait any longer.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We remain committed to cleaning up our air and are providing £880m in funding and expert support to local authorities so they can develop innovative plans that work best for their areas.”