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Clean Air Zones: stronger national action needed

Former campaigner's picture
Healthy Air Campaigners at the High Court

If our water was as polluted as our air, there would be riots. We are conscious consumers of water but breathe the air without thinking, and without choice: it is free, abundant, universal – and lethal.

Concern about air pollution has finally moved from the sidelines to the headlines, with more news every week about the devastating impact of filthy air on our health, and the failure of government at every level to give us air that is fit to breathe.

Campaign for Better Transport is part of the Healthy Air Campaign, an alliance of environmental and health charities that has long called for action on transport-related air pollution.  

We’re not alone. Doctors Against Diesel is the latest group to mobilise. Kings College London has published important research, NICE has issued health guidance. In Brussels the EU has at last started action against the vehicle regulators. MPs are taking notice, with a new All Party Group formed and some tough questions to ministers. And the UK Government has been pushed to act by successive legal challenges from the inspirational ClientEarth.  

This time last year, we saw the Government’s response to the first Client Earth court victory: DEFRA produced an air quality action plan that put responsibility onto local authorities, but largely without the powers, funding or leadership needed to make a difference.   

Any Clean Air Zone worthy of the name must deliver compliance with legally binding air quality standards: on current plans, compliance in the worst cities won’t be delivered until 2020 - and 2025 in London. (The Mayor of London has his own plans – you can share your views on those here).

ClientEarth got leave to appeal and went back to court this year, while DEFRA and the DfT pressed ahead with draft Clean Air Zone guidance, focusing on five priority cities.  The draft framework was published just days before ClientEarth’s second court win – with the result that it risks being out of date before the ink has dried on the consultation responses. 

The national draft Clean Air Zone framework brings together a number of existing policy ideas in one place, listing possible interventions such as introducing greener buses, promoting walking and cycling, encouraging businesses to embrace sustainable transport, and encouraging councils to make better use of the planning system: these are policies we’ve advocated for years, so there’s lots to like here. But given these options already exist, it’s doubtful they will be enough to secure compliance on their own.

Two policies which bring some financial muscle are already on the statute books. Congestion charges & Workplace Parking Levies have been allowed since the 2000 Transport Act: but so far only London (and a bit of Durham) has implemented the c-charge, while Nottingham has pioneered the levy.   

The draft CAZ framework includes draft legislation for a Clean Air Zone based on an entry charge. That’s an important step, but one where the level of charge is crucial, and the framework is silent on that. Charges must be at the right level to deter polluters and be applied to all vehicles: exemptions for CAZ residents, for example, might seem attractive but will fatally undermine its purpose.

As our consultation response sets out, we welcome much of the framework, but there are some crucial policies currently missing. 

Under current plans, Clean Air Zones are limited to the worst affected areas, and the introduction of charges is further restricted to 5 cities: that’s not good enough. We need a national network of CAZs underpinned by a new Clean Air Act, and minimum levels for zone charges to make them effective in practice.

There is still no provision for scrappage schemes. Local authorities don’t have the funds or the powers to introduce a scheme independently. This doesn’t mean subsidising shiny new cars, but helping service transport fleets upgrade (one suggestion is that councils could buy and lease cleaner taxi cabs for their area), and offering non-car replacement for individuals (such as car club membership, public transport passes or bike purchase grants).

We'd like to see a change to the appraisal framework for new transport infrastructure that places a far higher priority on air quality impacts, with a requirement for all schemes to be at least air quality neutral.

Planning has a crucial role to play: we're calling for CAZs to embed sustainable development in local plans with schemes like London's PTAL rating or South Yorkshires's LUTI traffic light scheme, which reduce car dependency by prioritising sites for new homes and jobs based on their access to public transport. 

Powers to ban diesel vehicles would be the single most effective measure. Even small area bans, such as around schools or hospitals, would help: new research by Kings College London, IPPR and Greenpeace says London needs a city-wide ban to achieve compliance. This approach is now being embraced by cities around the world including Paris, Oslo and Madrid. With other NGOs, we're calling on London to join the diesel ban , but first UK cities and citizens need the Government to change the law.