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Let’s take a fresh approach to clean air strategies

Covid-19 has delayed the launch of clean air zones in England. But councils should act now to build on the environmental benefits that came with lockdown, writes Nick Ruxton-Boyle

Nick Ruxton-Boyle
07 September 2020
Copenhagen is one of five cities where the Danish Environment Protection Agency has launched a low emission zone
Copenhagen is one of five cities where the Danish Environment Protection Agency has launched a low emission zone


The clean air zones (CAZs) in Birmingham, Leeds and Bath, which were set to go live this summer, have been postponed until at least early 2021. 

Elsewhere, the Greater Manchester CAZ, due to be implemented next year, has also been postponed. Bristol City Council, meanwhile, was due to introduce a CAZ next April but has said it will be delayed because of the economic damage it would do to businesses already hit by Covid-19.

With the lockdown easing slowly and traffic levels (at least on the DfT network) back at over 90%, there are signs that we may be on the road to recovery. 

There is, however, a slightly different picture emerging from local networks, with many cities, particularly in the north of the country reporting very low traffic and parking statistics complemented by very positive roadside pollution figures. With offices still empty and children set to return to school, there has never been such uncertainty as to how the transport networks will function over the next six to twelve months, and how to plan for it.

The Danish model

One source of potential data for re-forecasting is Wuhan in China - remember Wuhan? The city’s lockdown cycle took a familiar course, with traffic levels returning to pre Covid-19 levels and beyond, reflected in lower public transport use, which sounds familiar. 

In Scotland something similar has happened, with Transport Scotland pausing the Low Emission Zone programmes in the big cities. However, the situation is different in Europe. During the height of the lockdown, the Danish Environment Protection Agency launched low emission zones in five cities.

These have similarities and differences to the emission-based schemes we have in the UK. Based on air quality data, boundaries have been drawn up around the most polluted areas, which are enforced using ANPR cameras backed up with a penalty charge deterrent. They are similar to the Scottish low emission zones (LEZs) as one cannot pay to drive in the zones in a polluting vehicle (unlike the English CAZs) but they are designed to address particulates, rather than NOx.

The Danish scheme is at soft launch stage until October 2020. At Marston Holdings we have been working on the scheme with the cities across Denmark, including offering guidance on retrofit filters to drivers and fleet operators. Given that the new Environment Bill sets out a new (yet to be defined) target for particulates, we can learn from our colleagues in Europe and possibly look at future proofing our own CAZ and LEZ schemes to allow a transition to addressing different, and equally dangerous, pollutants.

The uncertainty around Brexit means it is still not clear what form the regulatory framework for air pollution will take. The Government’s Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) is responsible for the central CAZ services including DVLA emission look-ups and payment portal. JAQU is working with all the CAZ cities across the country and transport and enforcement organisations, such as Marston Holdings, to ensure the CAZ schemes meet all current requirements including ensuring foreign vehicles are not exempt. As in Denmark, foreign vehicles will be subject to the same emission standards as domestic vehicles and action will be taken to ensure these vehicles are identified, assessed and enforced against in line with the local rules


Road user charging

As we slowly emerge from lockdown, local authorities must find a way of coping with severely diminished revenue streams. With car parking revenue down and regional and Government funding paused or recalled, a new approach to transport and environmental project financing is urgently needed. 

Charging polluting vehicles is not, in itself, a revenue generation solution, and CAZ cities are rightly designing schemes so they meet their NOx targets in the quickest possible time.   

There is much uncertainty over what we do next, and in particular how to get the best public value out of the extensive network of ANPR cameras installed across our most polluted cities. Is it time to look at a national CAZ, LEZ or mileage-based road user charging solution? Do we use these tools to drive particulate or carbon reduction in line with our existing net zero commitments and new environmental targets?

Lockdown has given the public a glimpse of what it is like to have fewer vehicles on the road, and cleaner air, and for the most part they like it. That said, the benefits of improved air quality have been offset by the adverse impact on the economy and society. Many of us do not relish returning to the daily commute after the biggest working from home experiment in history. As green recovery projects are being delivered across the country, let’s hope that we lock in some of the good behavioural and environmental benefits of our new normal. 

Nick Ruxton-Boyle is director of environment at Marston Holdings

The future of CAZ and LEZ schemes in a post Covid world will be discussed at a webinar hosted by Marston Holdings and organised by Landor LINKS on 21 October 2020. 

The panel will include technical transport and air quality experts, JAQU and a representative from the Danish Environment Protection Agency. The session will consider the current challenges in developing and implementing and maintaining air quality solutions in an uncertain world.

For more details email Jason Conboy at: jason@landor.co.uk

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