Greater Manchester has put forward its case for scrapping charges in a revised Clean Air Zone plan submitted to the government today (July 1). The controversial scheme, which would have seen commercial vehicles with the highest emissions charged up to £60 a day to drive on the region's roads, was due to come into force in May, but was paused following a public backlash.
Earlier this year, the government agreed to delay the deadline by which air pollution must be brought down below legal limits by two years to 2026. It comes after evidence emerged of sharp rises in prices of new vans caused by Covid-related supply chain issues in the market, meaning motorists unable to upgrade vehicles would be stuck with a tax and the air would not be cleaner.
Since then, local leaders have said the city-region's air can be cleaned up before the new deadline without the need for charging any vehicles at all. Instead, they say offering owners of the most polluting buses, lorries and taxis cash to upgrade their vehicles will be enough to achieve air quality compliance.
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However, in a letter last month, environment secretary George Eustice said there is 'little robust evidence' that this incentive-led approach would work. He suggested still charging some vehicles, but in Manchester city centre only.
Greater Manchester was given until today (July 1) to submit a new scheme which aims to reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) below the legal limit by 2026. Councillors on the air quality administration committee met on Friday (July 1) to formally agree to submit the outline proposal, with finer details to follow.
Local authorities will also be offered an opportunity to comment on the draft proposal through their own council processes and formally approve the plan. The committee also committed to a 'participatory policy development approach' which means members of the public can have their say too.
Chairing the meeting, Labour councillor Tracey Rawlins, who represents Manchester on the committee, said: "I think it is fair to say that while we've been on this journey since around 2018, things have changed so much. We've got a completely different landscape now.
"I don't think anybody could have imagined that we would be dealing with a global pandemic, and a war and a massive cost of living. It's absolutely changed the landscape in which we're working and living in now.
"So it's only right that we get the best scheme that we can for residents. And really, it's about investing to save lives.
"This is one part of all the tools that we're using across all of our districts to clean up our air, so that we can be healthier, live better and live longer."
What politicians have said
Bolton council, which is Greater Manchester's only Conservative-led local authority, has supported the move to scrap all charges from the scheme. Representing the borough on the committee, Conservative councillor Nadim Muslim said it is 'positive' to see that plan involving no charging is possible.
However, he said: "It's just disappointing that it's taken a public backlash and Andy Burnham to only admit yesterday that the government never actually explicitly required a charging zone in the first place."
In a heated exchange with a caller on BBC Radio Manchester on Thursday (June 30), Labour mayor Andy Burnham said that the government 'effectively' forced councils to introduce Clean Air Zone charges under the 2024 deadline. But the Greater Manchester mayor conceded that the government did not explicitly require charges in the legal direction served on all 10 local councils.
However, he said it is 'duplicitous' for the government to leave local authorities to take all of the blame for the controversial scheme which is still under review. Labour councillor Paul Prescott, who represents Wigan on the committee, said that it is now 'in the government's gift' to scrap the charges completely.
Speaking on behalf of Stockport, Lib Dem councillor Malcolm Allan, whose party recently took over the town hall, said all five political groups at the council have seen the latest proposal and agree that it should be submitted. But he said: "But of course, like everybody else, we'd want to make sure that the details of any plan that emerges still achieves the [NO2] reduction targets."
Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) transport strategy director Simon Warburton told the committee finer details would be agreed at a later date.
What campaigners say
Friends of the Earth say they are 'hugely disappointed' that the new plan 'fails to address the urgency of the public health emergency caused by air pollution'. They say that the revised Greater Manchester Clean Air Plan is now proposing a 'Do minimum' approach that will see some areas - mainly in Manchester city centre itself - failing to meet the legal air pollution limits until 2026 at best.
The group argues that the city centre needs an ultra-low emissions zone that restricts all vehicle types, including cars, which do not meet 'basic pollution standards', and that the rest of the city-region is covered by a separate zone charging polluting heavy goods vehicles, buses and coaches, vans and taxis. It is also calling on the government to invest in a clean, frequent and affordable public transport network and introduce a national vehicle scrappage scheme, part funded by vehicle manufacturers, to help people replace dirty vehicles, or use a car club membership, a rail or bus season ticket, or an e-bike instead.
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Manchester Friends of the Earth coordinator Catherine Thomson said: “Air pollution is a public health emergency, and this watered-down plan is totally unacceptable. We know that toxic Nitrogen Dioxide causes untold damage to the lungs of our children.
"A child born in 2017 - when the Government was instructed to reduce air pollution in the shortest time possible - will be 10 years old before Greater Manchester plans to reach the legal limits. How many more people have to be harmed before our politicians stop making excuses and start taking action on this public health emergency?"
RethinkGM, the campaign group set up to oppose the original scheme, say the new proposal shows local leaders agree that the original scheme approved last summer was 'erroneous' and 'damaging' to residents and the economy. But the group says there are still 'a number of issues' with the new scheme.
The group has expressed concerns about the non-charging zone covering the whole of Greater Manchester and the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras which are already installed being used for law enforcement. They have also claimed that there has been a lack of any public consultation.
A spokesperson said: "There are a host of problems still poorly considered by GMCA [Greater Manchester Combined Authority] and their contractors. RethinkGM will be pursuing many, varied aspects of the project in a hope that the GMCA and the mayor will finally decide that the livelihoods of those who live, work and play in Greater Manchester, are worth more than their continuing will to see restrictions placed on those suffering most."
TfGM has said it is 'acutely aware' of the sensitivities associated with ANPR which the police have said would have a 'huge public benefit' if in their use. The committee agreed a 'participative policy development approach' will be adopted once the outline plan for a new scheme is submitted to government.
What the government says
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will have to sign off a new Clean Air Zone scheme which is set to be agreed by next July. Environment secretary George Eustice wrote to local leaders last month suggesting a charging scheme that affects buses, lorries, taxis and vans - like the one approved last summer - but restricted to Manchester city centre only.
He said there was 'little robust evidence' to support Greater Manchester's claim that air quality compliance can be achieved by 2026 without charges. Responding to the publication of the draft proposal, a Defra spokesperson said: "Following his initial proposal to bring forward the largest charging Clean Air Zone in the country, we are pleased to hear that the Mayor has come up with a plan – and we look forward to seeing evidence that will back it up and show how it will deliver the clean air that the people of Manchester deserve."
The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that there is no formal deadline for the government to respond to Greater Manchester's proposal.
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