There's something in the air

by Ben Ramanauskas, Policy Analyst

Last month, under cover of Brexit, the government published its clean air strategy. In a nutshell, the strategy sets out the government’s plans for dealing with air pollution.   

The basic premise is commendable. Air pollution is bad for our health, particularly for children, the elderly and people suffering from lung or heart conditions. It’s damaging to the environment. It contributes to climate change, reduces the quantity of crops which farmers can produce, and pollutes the oceans. The strategy also rightly points out that the green technology industry is growing and so can contribute to economic growth.

There’s plenty there to agree with. But, as with all grand government strategies with sweeping, fashionable titles - the devil is in the detail.  

One of the measures proposed by the strategy is to introduce clean air zones. These zones will be very familiar to people in some parts of the country. In their worst form, they involve levying a charge on certain vehicles, if they enter the city centre, and have been the cause of huge local controversies in places like Southampton and Bath. Despite established government guidance stating very clearly that charges are not required, many councils have jumped the gun and included them.   

We at the TaxPayers’ Alliance have found ourselves on the front line, fighting these vexatious new zones. Often, they are being pushed by councils completely unaware of just how unpopular and ineffective they really are.

Supporters of clean air zones claim that they are a one-off measure which reduces pollution by pushing drivers into finally upgrading their vehicles. The evidence says that is rather optimistic. For example, one scheme which was introduced in 2008 - which targeted lorries, buses, and other heavy vehicles - did lead to an initial acceleration of fleet operators replacing them. However, not long after this, the rate simply returned to the national average.  These zones don’t have the ‘long term impact, short term pain’ that some like to claim. In fact, it usually turns out precisely the reverse.  

So how effective have clean air zones been on reducing the impact of pollution? Although some studies have shown modest decreases in pollution, researchers in the Netherlands and also in London found that clean air zones had not made a significant difference to air pollution in these cities.

One of the biggest concerns used to bounce councillors into supporting the zones is the impact of air pollution on the health of children, especially when they are travelling to school. King’s College London had a look at how effective clean air zones are in improving the health of children. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the study found that they made absolutely no difference.

It looks as though clean air zones are not an effective way of reducing air pollution. But what about the government’s plan to boost the economy? The green technology industry is an area of growth, currently worth hundreds of billions of pounds worldwide.

Of course, this calculation relies entirely on ignoring the economic harm caused by the potential charging element of these zones in the first place.

Clean air zone charges are essentially a tax on drivers and so increase costs for bus, coach, and taxi firms. Like any tax on business, the burden is ultimately borne by people, not ‘businesses’. A business cannot pay tax, any more than your house can pay stamp duty, or your TV can pay the license fee. Taxes are paid by people.  

These zones ramp up costs, which are passed on to employees and customers. Usually, that means lower wages, or working hours being cut back, or even people losing their livelihood altogether. They mean fares being increased for passengers or services being cut. They mean less frequent bus services. They mean less disposable income to spend in shops and more pressures on high streets. All of this can be devastating for local economies, but they are rarely cited by council chiefs eager to meet government emissions targets.  

What is more, zone charges are incredibly regressive. Public transport, such as buses and coaches, are relied upon by poorer households, the elderly, and people with disabilities. So the zones have the unintended consequence of hurting the most vulnerable people in society.

This a a remarkable rap sheet for any new tax, and Conservatives should be fighting them tooth and nail. But some councils haven’t got the message. Perhaps they feel that, with a big government strategy behind it and pressure to raise cash, the charging clean air zone is too difficult to fend off?

Wrong.

The council in Southampton had planned to introduce a clean air zone charge which would have seen operators of certain vehicles facing a £100 per day tax to operate in the city. In response, our activists travelled to Southampton to campaign against the charge. Alongside the sterling efforts of local champion, Royston Smith MP, the council was forced to listen and admit it would be scrapping the scheme.

These zones can be stopped. It’s right that the government is taking air pollution seriously, but charges like this are not the right answer. Local authorities should be looking at alternative ways to tackle pollution, such as improving transport infrastructure to reduce congestion, instead of taking the lazy and damaging approach of simply levying another tax. Voters rarely thank them for it at the ballot box.