Who wants a Clean Air Zone?

Lots of people should want a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) for their town or city. A Clean Air Zone – where the dirtiest vehicles are restricted from the most polluted places – will help protect people’s health by making their illegally filthy air breathable again. And in the process, an effective one will make the place more attractive to live, work in, and visit.

As the government acknowledges, road traffic is the main issue for our illegal air, with diesels vehicles the worst of all – and cars are a particular problem. They also acknowledge that the fastest, and most effective way to deal with the issue is to introduce Clean Air Zones, and that doing so where pollution levels are worst will disproportionately benefit the more deprived and ethnically diverse groups.

Friends of the Earth wants to see strong Clean Air Zones in 53 locations in England. These are places which government modelling shows would otherwise still have illegal levels of the toxic gas NO2 in 2019. Further places in the Devolved Administrations also fit this criteria.

However, surprisingly, the government’s Air Quality Plan didn’t require any new Clean Air Zones. Instead they just asked some Local Authorities to submit Local Action Plans. These plans have to consider whether other measures could be as effective – despite their own evidence saying Clean Air Zones would bring down dirty air fastest. In effect, ministers are making Clean Air Zones the measure of last resort.

2010 was the original deadline for NO2 air pollution to be brought down to legal levels across the UK. It’s seven years later and we’re still waiting.

With 40,000 early deaths from air pollution each year, children growing up with lungs stunted by dirty air, and huge amounts of ill-health and suffering, we simply don’t have time to wait. As well as pursuing whatever action can be taken straight away, all of the places producing a Local Action Plan should be required to implement a Clean Air Zone.

Friends of the Earth’s view is that strong and effective Clean Air Zones need to:

  • be properly funded by government
  • apply to all vehicle types including cars
  • carry financial penalty sufficient to effectively ban nearly all of the worst polluting vehicles from those areas
  • be based on what vehicles emit in real world driving conditions
  • be introduced by the end of 2018

But as well separate arrangements for London, and 5 Clean Air Zones already being planned – all of which need strengthening – there are more towns and cities due to have illegal air until at least 2019. Friends of the Earth believes these should also get such a Clean Air Zone, taking the total to 53 in England.

Indeed places with an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) for NO2 should also be considered for Clean Air Zones. AQMAs have declared levels of NO2 over the same level as that set for the legal limit, so there’s no good reason they should be treated differently.

The introduction of Clean Air Zones is vital in the fight for clean air but they also need to be supported by government action which helps people to move away from the most polluting vehicles. This includes; better infrastructure for electric vehicles, changes to VED to end diesel incentives, and a scrappage scheme – part funded by the manufacturers – to help people who bought diesels in good faith. This must include offers of not just cleaner vehicles but also alternatives such as car club membership, rail season tickets and cycle loans.

But we don’t only need cleaner vehicles, we need fewer of them too. There’s no such thing as a 100% clean car. All vehicles, even if they produce no exhaust emissions, release fine particle pollution from tire and brake wear. As a result, we also need to design our communities better, so that they are no longer based around the car.

The key is in how we plan and regenerate our communities. We need to reduce the need for people to have to travel unnecessarily by ensuring key amenities and work opportunities are within easy walking and cycling distance, with good public transport nearby for longer journeys. This will require investment by both central and local government in better public transport, safer cycling and walking – as well as ensuring that new traffic-generating schemes don’t add to the air pollution problem.

Only then, with such a combination of action, can we deliver liveable towns and cities with the air fit to breathe we all want.

Jenny Bates is an Air Pollution Campaigner at Friends of the Earth