Into the zone

Low Emission Zones could drastically reduce pollution in the UK's city centres, but political wrangling may leave them dead in the water. EBM investigates

With the UK stumbling towards its European air quality commitments and government abdicating responsibility to local authorities, low emission zones (LEZs), where highly polluting vehicles are excluded from city centres, are becoming an attractive option.

A recent feasibility study for London by local authorities and the Mayor's office looks promising and other UK cities are watching with interest. Public support is in place - a June poll by Transport Energy found that 71% believe heavy polluting vehicles should be banned from urban areas, with 45% fearing their health is being harmed by traffic pollution.

Progress is now a political issue - especially the question of government commitment. London's mayor, Ken Livingstone hasn't forgotten that ministers stood on the sidelines sharpening their knives while he stuck his neck out on congestion charging, and local authorities also have their doubts.

The UK has to meet European air quality objectives, so responsibility ultimately rests with DEFRA. However, the department has done its best to shunt the job onto local government, while ducking policy decisions.

"The buck is being passed on who is going to take responsibility for tackling the problem," says Tim Brown of the National Society for Clean Air. "Whatever policy measures are introduced will be unpopular, and politicians are reluctant to do anything they think might upset people - especially when the Tories are positioning themselves as the pro-motoring party. Politicians are running scared of anything that might be seen as anti-motorist."

Flak from industry

Chris Lee, of the Association of London Government, says that London politicians are aware of the mileage to be gained by appearing serious about air quality but are unwilling to move on LEZs without government backing. Councils are concerned about the costs of administration and enforcement and there is the risk of a backlash from business. "The flak from industry could be intense," he says. The feasibility study estimates that the introduction of a London LEZ could cost operators between £64-135m depending on the number of vehicles affected.

Importantly for retailers, the study's consultation indicated that nearly 80% would pass that cost on to customers.

But even the Freight Transport Association doubts that large fleet operators will suffer unduly from the introduction of LEZs - as long as a reasonable timetable is followed, allowing companies to adapt their fleet purchasing policies.

The big companies replace their vehicles on a regular basis anyway and Brown says: "Unless a city goes for really tight standards - and there's no sign of any local authority about to do that - the well-organised modern fleets will be fine. In London, the LEZ is intended to signal that by 2007 the government expects cleaner vehicles, giving companies time to plan ahead."

Lee agrees. "The big operators just want to know what the politicians' intentions are," he says. "For a lot of these big fleet operators it just means synchronising their fleet procurement strategy with the timescales and turnovers of the LEZ."

Government grants

The problem will be the SMEs and owner/operators who buy second-hand vehicles and retain them for years. These owner/operators already see themselves as unfairly penalised by high fuel duty and their opposition could spell disaster for LEZs. Lee says: "The report is clear that 'white van man' is a significant problem for London's air quality. But as we found out with the fuel protests, when small operators cotton onto an idea they are like Rottweilers and don't let go." LEZs are a simple way of achieving improvements in air quality but political considerations may still torpedo the proposed London scheme. If it is attempted, other cities will follow, but the cost to companies with older, more polluting vehicles will have to be addressed - and that will mean funding from government for a grants programme similar to PowerShift. Without that support, it is unlikely that local authorities will risk alienating voters, and the UK's goal of meeting its air quality targets will recede into the smog.



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