Clean air campaigners have warned leaders in Greater Manchester that pausing plans to charge polluting vehicles in the region “would be a serious blow for people’s health”.
Greater Manchester authorities announced plans on Thursday to ask the government to partially delay the rollout of the biggest clean air zone in the UK, citing evidence that global supply chain issues could increase the costs and reduce the availability of cleaner vehicles.
The first phase of the zone, designed to tackle illegal levels of air pollution, will go ahead as planned in May. It is the second phase of the plan, which affects vans, taxis and private hire vehicles that is up in the air.
It will cover 10 local authority areas and will charge buses, HGVs and some taxis to enter the zone. Unlike clean air zones in Birmingham and London’s Ulez, Greater Manchester decided to exempt the 285,000 private cars licensed in the region that already breach air pollution limits, as well as mopeds and motorbikes.
Lorries, buses and coaches that breach nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions standards will be asked to pay £60 a day, while vans, taxis and minibuses will be charged from £7.50 to £10, to combat the 1,200 premature deaths caused in the region each year by breathing dirty air. There are 152 locations across the 10 local authority areas with illegal levels of NO2.
In a statement, Andy Burnham said ministers would be asked to “undertake an urgent and fundamental review of the policy for the second phase of the clean air zone”. The mayor of Greater Manchester also asked the government to consider excluding motorhomes and horseboxes.
The government has awarded £120m in funding to help those eligible switch to cleaner, compliant vehicles, but Burnham has said it is not enough to support those on the lowest incomes with the oldest cars.
“Everyone in Greater Manchester deserves to breathe clean air but we have always said this cannot be at the expense of those who cannot afford to upgrade their vehicles to make them compliant in this timeframe,” he said.
“Clean air can only be achieved by the right package of financial support to help people upgrade their vehicles, and this latest evidence highlights significant challenges in this area. We are worried about what this could mean for those businesses and individuals impacted, and their ability to upgrade as well as our ability to deliver the clean air plan.”
The mayor added that he was listening to those who had been in touch. On Wednesday, campaigners boarded a bus with a sheep and a Shetland pony to demonstrate their opposition to the plans, while a petition in favour of scrapping the CAZ has amassed more than 25,000 signatures. Other critics include cab drivers, farmers and small-business owners, who say the costs of the scheme could be insurmountable.
The children’s health campaign group Mums for Lungs wrote to Burnham on Thursday, expressing concerns at any delay to the scheme. “Manchester’s children deserve the same commitment” as that shown by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, they wrote.
One of the signatories, Ruth Todhunter of Little Lungs, based in Levenshulme in Manchester, said that Burnham had posed for a photograph alongside children campaigning for cleaner air at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow last year. “How can you have that photograph taken and then possibly delay the clean air zone?” she said.
Katie Nield, a lawyer at the environmental law charity ClientEarth, said that “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”.
The charity, which has taken the government to court three times, resulting in a 2018 judgment forcing ministers to draw up plans to bring air pollution levels within legal limits in the shortest possible time, said that if the delay was approved, it would not “hesitate to act to stop [it] happening”.
“Cleaning the air is a moral obligation, which should be enough of a motivation for the region’s leaders. However, there is also a legal obligation, in place to protect people’s health,” Nield said.