City-based Clean Air Zones ‘would boost UK economy by £6.5bn’

Since the London ULEZ launched in April

That is the key conclusion of a new report this week from UK100, a network of city representatives such as mayors and council leaders. The report states that this figure accounts for lower healthcare costs and fewer sick days taken by workers, in addition to funding raised through Clean Air Zone Charges.

A coalition of 14 city leaders from the UK100 is using the finding to lobby central Government for greater funding to implement Clean Air Zones – both for their own constituencies and more widely. Those taking part in the call to action are London Mayor Sadiq Khan; Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham; Liverpool City mayor Steve Rotherham; Leicester City mayor Peter Soulsby; Bristol mayor Marvin Rees; Sheffield City mayor Dan Jarvis; West of England Combined Authority mayor Tim Bowles; Birmingham City Council leader Ian Ward; Cambridge City Council leader Lewis Herbert; Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake; Nottingham City Council leader David Mellen; Oxford City Council leader Susan Brown and Southampton City Council leader Chris Hammond.

This group of leaders have estimated that £1.5bn of spending would fund a national network of 30 Clean Air Zones across England, covering most major cities. According to UK100, this funding pot should be split into £1bn from central Government and £500m from businesses.

Such spending, UK100 claims, could bolster London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and enable 29 other cities to implement similar schemes. At present, only six local authorities have made plans to introduce Clean Air Zones – namely in Bath, Birmingham, Leeds, London, Greater Manchester and Oxford – with others often citing funding as a key barrier to progress in this space.

Under the UK100 plan, lower-income residents and small businesses would be offered incentives of between £2,000 and £6,000 to either upgrade existing vehicles or get rid of their older vehicles and switch to an alternative such as an electric vehicle (EV). Money raised through Zone charges would pay these incentives and also be put towards improving transport infrastructure.

“Sensible investment by the national Government is needed to support local authorities to take the most polluting vehicles off our roads while ensuring that the poorest in our towns and cities are not the hardest hit by pollution and measures to tackle it,” UK100’s director Polly Billington said.

“Greater Manchester is ready with our Clean Air Plan proposals to quickly tackle the huge problem of air pollution, which contributes to the equivalent of 1,200 deaths in our city-region each year – but  Government has so far failed to commit enough funding to implement what would be the largest proposed Clean Air Zone outside London, covering 500 square miles and 2.8 million people,” Burnham added, echoing the sentiments of several other UK100 members.

“And, crucially, it has not so far put forward any funding to help Greater Manchester bus and coach operators, taxi and private hire drivers and companies, businesses with HGVs and vans to retrofit their existing vehicles or move to cleaner models, to avoid paying a daily penalty to drive within the zone. We don’t want businesses to pay – we want to help them switch to compliant vehicles. But we need much more support from the government to do this.”

Mounting pressure

The UK100 report is the latest call to action for the Government to bolster its air pollution policies, which have been condemned as “woefully inadequate” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by doctors.

The Air Quality Plan includes a ban on all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040 and a £255m fund to help councils crack down on emissions – but has faced criticism from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Environmental Audit, Health and Social Care, and Transport Committees.

London’s Khan has been particularly vocal on the issue, complementing the launch of the ULEZ with an enhanced scrappage scheme for older vehicles, investments in low-carbon buses and new networks of air pollution monitors across nurseries and schools.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the capital is regarded as home to some of the UK’s most polluted air zones. Most areas of London were found to have breached their annual air pollution limits within a few weeks last year, while pollution on the London Underground has been found to be up to 30 times higher than levels beside roads in the capital.

But the problem is not exclusive to London. Earlier this year, an air quality map from Friends of the Earth found that almost 2,000 UK locations had breached their annual nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limit less than two months into 2019.  Outside of the capital, air in Doncaster and Leeds was found to be some of the nation’s most polluted. Popular locations in the South East, including Brighton and Maidstone, were also found to be suffering from toxic levels of air pollution.

Sarah George 

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