Air pollution is a serious detriment to the health of people in the UK’s cities, costing the country an estimated six million sick days and 40,000 premature deaths. Reducing air pollution is a high priority for cities; DEFRA requires local authorities to assess the geographical extent of illegal levels of air pollution and then devise a plan to deal with it.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Birmingham City Council have developed proposals designed to address air pollution. Both cities plan to create a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) – an area where polluting vehicles are discouraged from entering by having to pay a charge if they travel there.
It is good to see both cities recognising the issue and putting plans in place to tackle it. And while a welcome move for Greater Manchester, some oversights mean that Birmingham’s plan is more likely to have a positive effect on the city’s air quality, and on its residents.
Firstly, Birmingham’s CAZ charges cars, the main cause of air pollution, whereas Greater Manchester excludes cars altogether. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, justified excluding cars on the basis charging them would hurt the poorest the most. But he overlooked the fact that most poor people in cities don’t own cars, and the poorest are most affected by air pollution, particularly children vulnerable to asthma attacks. Birmingham’s plan excludes diesel cars Euro 6 or better, and petrol cars Euro 4 or better, incentivising drivers to purchase cleaner vehicles.
Greater Manchester’s proposals also have the unintended consequence of incentivising car use over taking the bus. The area’s bus companies hit back at the proposals, pointing out that buses are an essential part of the city’s transport system. The effect of the CAZ will be to make buses more expensive, incentivising people to drive cars and thereby making the air pollution problem even worse. Birmingham’s plan also targets buses which may lead to similar challenges, but it will charge £50 per day, half the £100 per day proposed in Greater Manchester.
Secondly, Birmingham’s plan targets the city centre, where air pollution is worst. The city’s CAZ will only extend as far as the A4540 Middleway Ring Road, covering the city centre and a small portion of inner-city residential areas.
However, by making all of Greater Manchester a CAZ, the authority fails to utilise data showing pollution concentrated in the city centre. Suburban bus users and businesses will be hit by a charge they can’t do anything to avoid, while car commuters to the city centre who could use public transport will face no financial incentives to change their habits.
Map of Greater Manchester, the area within the bold grey boundary is the CAZ