By Elizabeth Mutter from Irwin Mitchell's Planning and Environment team

In 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the government to come up with a plan to bring air pollution down to within legal limits as soon as possible. This led to the publication of the government’s Air Quality Plan, which identified Clean Air Zones (CAZs) as the primary means of reducing nitrogen dioxide. In brief, a CAZ seeks to fine those driving vehicles not meeting emission standards who enter the identified zone, thereby encouraging less driving or the use of more environmentally friendly vehicles. However, in 2016 the High Court then ruled that the government’s plan was “woefully inadequate” and failed to comply with the Supreme Court judgment. This added further pressure on the government to implement CAZs as soon as possible. Now, despite their successful introduction in a few cities, the government agreed on Friday 4 February that Manchester could delay the launch of their CAZ.

It is now well documented that pollution from road vehicles is detrimental to our health, including nitrogen dioxide (caused by burning fuels in vehicle engines) and particulate matter (from tyre and brake wear). However, Greater Manchester, which has 152 locations across its 10 local authorities with illegal nitrogen dioxide levels, has now postponed the introduction of their CAZ which had been planned for 30 May 2022. The city had originally been given until 2024 to achieve legal compliance with air limits and Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, had told BBC Radio Manchester “no other measures” would allow the city to meet this deadline.   

Burnham met with George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to discuss the matter and asked for more time to achieve compliance. Fifteen of Greater Manchester’s MPs had already written to Eustice highlighting that due to “inflation and supply chain issues” the cost of upgrading vehicles has increased by 60% since the CAZ plan was agreed in 2021 and the level of funding received was no longer sufficient, leading to “financial anxiety” for those having to upgrade or face fines.

Poor air quality in Greater Manchester is believed to contribute to up to 1,200 deaths annually. However, hundreds have turned up to protests against the implementation of the CAZ across the city, including large groups of taxi drivers and even a sheep and a pony on a bus (who were taken on the bus to highlight how the proposals will impact the farming and livestock industries). The Manchester CAZ as proposed would cover all ten local areas, as illegal levels of air pollution has been identified in each, and would see HGVs, buses and coaches charged £60 daily, vans charged £10 and taxis and private hire cars charged £7.50.

CAZs have already been implemented in Birmingham, Bath and Portsmouth. Birmingham’s CAZ was launched on 1 June 2021 and, unlike Manchester’s proposal, does not exempt the 285,000 private cars licenced in the region that are in breach for air pollution limits. Portsmouth’s CAZ has been in force since 29 November 2021 and an average of 82 vehicles have been charged per day. However, Manchester’s CAZ would be the largest in Europe and nearly three times the size of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone. Leeds had been due to launch their CAZ in 2020 but, after several delays, it was agreed last year that the plan could be scrapped as there had been a significant reduction in the city’s nitrogen dioxide levels and they were now within the legal limit.

Despite pollution in Manchester having returned to pre-pandemic levels, the Government have now agreed to “a short delay” to Manchester’s implementation of a CAZ. The city is permitted to gather further evidence and put forwards a revised plan by July, and they have been given until 2026 to achieve legal levels of nitrogen dioxide. Although the Government have still stressed that compliance should be delivered as soon as possible. This should provide Manchester with the time required to produce a plan that isn’t detrimental to local businesses and which finds a way around some of the challenges their original plan faced, including the impact the pandemic had on supply chains and the price and availability of second-hand vehicles.

However, the delay isn’t welcomed by everyone. Many campaigners have highlighted that a two year delay could mean 2,400 more deaths caused by air pollution in the city. Kate Nield, a lawyer at ClientEarth (the environmental law charity that brought and won the above mentioned cases in the Supreme Court and High Court) described improving air quality as “a moral obligation” and highlighted the disproportionate affect air pollution has on those living in poverty. Nield said “pausing plans for a CAZ would be a serious blow for people’s health, especially for those on low incomes, who suffer disproportionately from the impacts of toxic air”. Research carried out by the Labour Party found that the higher the rate of child poverty in a given area, the dirtier the air was there on average. For example, the five London boroughs that rank worst for child poverty also rank worst for air quality.

Therefore, while the delay means the people of Greater Manchester could be living with illegal levels of pollutants for an additional two years, it is hoped that this extra time gives the city the time to implement a workable plan that can achieve long-term benefits. The World Health Organisation has said that air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in the world and tops the list of environment health hazards in the UK. With several other cities due to implement CAZs this year time will tell what impact the agreed delay to Manchester’s launch will have on the plans of other cities.

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