From papers on a pavement to an 850 camera ‘ring of steel’ – how the Clean Air zone came to be

The controversial Clean Air Zone in Greater Manchester has this week sparked uproar among drivers who say it will be financially ‘crippling’ to their businesses.

The scheme, set to be the largest of its kind when it launches in May, will cover all ten boroughs.

Non-compliant lorries, buses and coaches will be charged £60 a day while taxis and private hire vehicles will pay £7.50 and vans £10 a day from 2023.

READ MORE:Greater Manchester to press on with UK’s largest Clean Air Zone after securing government funding

The scheme is aimed at tackling emissions like nitrogen dioxide, among a raft of air pollutants considered ‘silent killers’, contributing to more than 1,200 premature deaths a year in Greater Manchester and a leading cause of asthma, heart disease and Alzhiemer’s.

Vehicle emissions also contribute towards global warming.

Greater Manchester’s councils insist they have been legally mandated by the government to introduce the CAZ to achieve compliance by 2024 at the latest.

We are not alone. Bath, Birmingham and Portsmouth have Clean Air Zones, Bradford is due to start charging this year too.

But objections have rained in from across the region. From the owners of a 100-year-old ice cream business to cabbies, to drivers who rely on their vans to run their firms; the £150m scheme is certainly driving debate.

Despite £120m on offer to help drivers retrofit or replace their vehicles – up to £16,000 for HGVs, coaches and buses and £5,000 for taxis, private hire vehicles and lorries – drivers argue it won’t be enough.

There are also major supply chain issues impacting the cost of replacing vans, caused by the pandemic and Brexit.

On Thursday morning, callers to BBC Radio Manchester made their objections clear to Mayor Andy Burnham, who vowed to meet with local council leaders next week to discuss the future of the Clean Air Plan, and how to help businesses impacted.

Akmal Bai, from Trafford

Here’s a look at how the Clean Air Zone came to be:

In 2017, around the time Andy Burnham was elected as Mayor, the Manchester Evening News received a call from a businessman.

Walking past Transport for Greater Manchester’s HQ on Piccadilly Place, he said he’d spotted some papers lying on the floor.

The four-page report was, it turns out, one of the first blueprints for a Clean Air Zone in the region.

Covering Manchester, Bolton and Bury, the £20m proposal recommended charging buses, HGVs and high-polluting cars that infringed emission standards, including diesel cars and older models that run on petrol.

It described NPR cameras forming a ‘ring of steel’ around charging areas.

It was different to the final plan – tariffs were higher, the geographical area much smaller, the number of ANPR cameras far fewer – but the general gist was much the same.

To be introduced as early as 2020, the measures would be subject to ‘feasibility studies, sign-off by local government and public consultation’.

The Clean Air Zone will cover the whole of Greater Manchester

Just days earlier, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had published new air quality guidelines as part of a long-term ambition for nearly every car and van to produce zero emissions by 2050.

It warned local authorities would be given ‘clear legal duties’ to develop Clean Air Zones.

In response, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) described the CAZ proposals as ‘early-stage exploratory work’ for the 10 Greater Manchester councils, considering a ‘wide range of possible options and scenarios’.

A spokesman for Mayor Andy Burnham, meanwhile, said he had not seen or played a role in drawing up the local document.

The spokesman said Mr Burnham’s manifesto had ruled out a congestion charge in Greater Manchester, adding: “We do need to improve air quality in Greater Manchester, but we will not punish drivers of diesel cars who bought them in good faith. It is for the government to give diesel drivers help to switch to less polluting vehicles.”

Andy Burnham at the count for the mayoral election

Unsurprisingly, the document proved controversial.

Former Manchester council leader Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton, described the draft plan as a ‘congestion charge by another name’ and warned of its impact on the economy.

Hundreds of M.E.N readers agreed.

“This will push people from busy main roads to smaller residential roads causing traffic and increased accidents between cars and increased risk to pedestrians,” said one.

James Staley said: “This is just the congestion charge coming in through the back door, does this council think we all have an endless pot of money to hand over to them for seemingly everything!”

And there were also many supporters, including Coun Chris Paul, then chairman of the Air Quality Task Group, who said Clean Air Zones would be ‘completely different’ to congestion charging.

With a clear objective of tackling the dangerous air pollution which contributes to more than 1,200 deaths in Greater Manchester every year, and exacerbates conditions including asthma, heart disease and dementia, Mr Paul’s assertion is backed by the evidence.

But the spectre of the congestion charge still loomed large after a vote in 2010 returned a resounding ‘no’ to the proposed scheme by a majority of almost four to one in a region-wide referendum.

At the time, campaigners claimed it would cost commuters up to £1,200 a year.

Its defeat delivered a crushing blow to the councils’ plan to invest billions of pounds in the region’s public transport infrastructure – an ambition which continues today.

Back to 2017, and four months after that document had drifted across Piccadilly Place, the M.E.N was invited to interview Andy Burnham to launch a consultation on how to slash congestion in Greater Manchester.

The mayor said he would never introduce a charge to car drivers – although he couldn’t rule out one day introducing a tariff on HGV and bus operators to improve air quality.

He said “We have to improve our air quality but charging is not a solution I’m going towards.

“In the end we’ve got to have air in compliance with legal standards.

“My commitment is I will try everything else first. If it ever is to happen here, you are talking a long way down the line and even if it did I would go to restricting buses and HGVs. I’m not going to implement that charge on car users.

“I want to make this really clear – there will never be any charge on individual motorists.”

Instead he pushed other plans – better buses, more car-sharing, bike-friendly roads.

And he’s been true to those intentions.

But the legal pressures on Government – and the resulting push on local authorities as opposed to the mayor – have since grown.

Client Earth has been suing the Government since 2011 for not complying with European levels of nitrogen dioxide. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in their favour.

In 2018, a Strategic Outline case for Greater Manchester’s Clean Air Plan, including the CAZ, was submitted to the government. In 2019, negotiations began with the Government over financial support for the impact on businesses.

In July 2019, and again in March 2020, the Secretary of State issued a directive to the ten Greater Manchester authorities to achieve the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide in the ‘shortest possible time’ and by 2024 at the latest.

The second directive required a Clean Air Zone and the submission of a full business case on the completion of public consultation.

In 2020, as the public consultation on plans drew to a close, leaders insisted once again that this was not a ‘congestion charge’.

But opposition gained traction, with thousands signing a Conservative-led petition against what was branded a ‘crippling congestion tax’.

The issue was raised by Mark Logan, Tory MP for Bolton North East, during a parliamentary debate on air quality.

Laura Evans, the Conservative candidate for last year’s Greater Manchester mayoral election, put forward her own plan to reduce carbon emissions which include a scrappage scheme, new traffic measures on congested roads, and more electric charging points.

The petition, though, was described as a ‘false prospectus’ by Mr Burnham, who issued an appeal to ‘leave politics out of it’.

Meanwhile, a long-running stalemate between the Government and leaders here over funding, as well as the pandemic, led to a delay in the roll-out of the CAZ, which was supposed to launch last year.

Although the Government finally gave Greater Manchester the £120m to help drivers move to cleaner, compliant vehicles, the government has not yet committed to a hardship fund for those who will be most affected by the zone – and that battle has dragged on.

The letter outlines how many HGV drivers could apply for funding support

In a joint statement on Thursday, Andy Burnham and Councillor Andrew Western, the city-region’s Clean Air lead, described the CAZ as a ‘major challenge’ for individuals and businesses, and said they had ‘always been clear’ with ministers about the need for a fair package of financial support.

They added: “While the Government has provided £120m, we are concerned that they have so far failed to agree to our request for additional support for those who will find it hardest to make the change..

“We also warned them of our ongoing concerns about the vehicle supply chain and the operation of National Highways.”

They said they had been monitoring these issues alongside the impact of the pandemic and increases in cost of living and had commissioned new work to understand the impact of ‘growing global supply issues in the automotive sector’.

They vowed to hold a meeting next week to discuss next steps.

Financial support for clean air zones

But as May fast approaches, and on the cusp of the launch of a funding scheme for van drivers, Mr Burnham is running out of time to quell the uproar from drivers and businesses about costs amid major supply chain concerns.

Four years later and former Manchester council leader MP Graham Stringer is still dead against the scheme, describing it as a ‘close relative’ of the congestion charge.

Mr Stringer insists the methodology is based on ‘dodgy measurements’ of pollution levels, arguing more onus should be placed on motorways management, not city centres.

A lack of comparable pressure on Highways England (now National Highways) for clean air measures on motorways including the M60, M56 and M62 has l ong been a source of frustration for many leaders here.

Meanwhile, no matter the disputed hotspots, Greater Manchester’s air pollution continues to be an undeniable problem.

Last year, every borough in Greater Manchester broke the new air pollution limits set by the World Health Organisation.

The M.E.N has run stories about schoolchildren who can ‘taste’ pollution in their classrooms and seen the rush hour readings on our busiest roads.

All but three authorities were among the worst 95pc in the country when it came to hospital admissions for asthma for children under nine in 2019, according to Public Health England statistics.

On Thursday, Andy Burnham doubled down on his commitment to both ‘reducing air pollution and protecting jobs and livelihoods’.

Whether he can achieve both with the Clean Air Zone remains to be seen.

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