By Benjamin Elks
Campaigns for clean air are very on trend among urban councils at the moment. Understandably so - pollutants in the air have a damaging effect on health and there are legal limits in place for emissions that councils must achieve.
A particular favourite way for London councils to achieve this noble goal recently has been the ill-fated and much criticised low-traffic neighbourhood scheme, much of which is now being dismantled amidst an outcry. Perhaps better known are the low and ultra-low emissions zones, forms of the clean air zones that have been cropping up around the country in urban areas. On Monday, the Bristol Clean Air Zone came into force.
Whilst few people would argue against the idea of cleaner air and less pollution, the evidence that clean air zones make any substantive difference to health or air quality is ambiguous at best. It’s claimed that these charges encourage motorists to upgrade but, again, the evidence for this is thin. A previous scheme in London saw an initial increase in vehicles being replaced with newer models, but the rate soon returned to the national average.
What we do know is that they are particularly regressive. Be in no doubt, they are yet another way of taxing people. And just as houses don’t pay stamp duty and televisions don’t pay the TV tax, cars do not pay clean air zone charges; it is ultimately people who must pay. Clean air zones target older, less efficient cars, which tend to be owned by people who can’t afford a newer ‘greener’ motor; and heavy goods vehicles which target businesses who invariably increase prices to compensate. As if inflation wasn’t bad enough!
Clean air zones are a lazy idea chosen by councils who lack the imagination to think beyond simply trying to tax their way out of a problem. Residents would be forgiven for being wary of being used as cash cows. The experience of Londoners being hammered with almost £100 million worth of fines for low-traffic neighbourhoods will be instructive.
With London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone now the largest clean air zone in Europe, there seems little appetite from councils across the UK to think outside the box. But given the importance of improving air quality, local authorities must do more to think outside the box.
Town hall bosses could easily look at alternatives such as investing in local infrastructure to improve traffic flow and reduce congestion, rather than raiding the pockets of residents. Or even finding ways to cut their own emissions, which are considerable - including, by the way two million air miles!
It’s high time local authorities stopped hammering their motorists with clean air charges and found other ways to tackle the problem of pollution.