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Clean Air Zone: Plans could go further, say activists

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Andrew Tryon (Creative Commons)

Sheffield City Council's plan to introduce a Clear Air Zone (CAZ) to tackle the city's unlawful levels of air pollution has received a cautious welcome from environmental activists and community groups.

The proposals, which will be put to a public consultation early next year, involve a daily charge levied on buses, taxis and lorries entering the inner ring road that are fitted with more polluting engines.

Like other local authorities, the Council has been forced to act by a series of high court judgements which found the government's policies on air pollution to be "unlawful" and the measures taken by local authorities to be "not sufficient."

Vehicles that will be subject to the charge are those with engines older than Euro 4 for petrol (2006) and Euro 6 for diesel (2016). Unlike London's Congestion Charge, private vehicles will be exempt from payment.

Air pollution is a critical issue for Sheffield

"We look forward to the chance of a public consultation. Getting everyone to talk about the issue is vital as a way of tackling this unseen killer," Green Councillor Douglas Johnson told Now Then.

"But if the public is to be engaged, it is disappointing the Council administration is not even planning to ask questions about including private cars, which make up 80% of the traffic, in a CAZ. It's also important to note that the Council's position is that it will take no action at all unless it receives a very substantial payment from central government."

CycleSheffield, a group campaigning to improve conditions for the city's cyclists, have also voiced concerns that the plans do not go far enough.

"We welcome the proposal for a CAZ from the Council," said group secretary Dexter Johnstone. "Air pollution is a critical issue for Sheffield. It contributes to 500 deaths in our city a year, causes an array of long-term health problems from asthma to dementia, damage to unborn babies and heart disease.

"However, given the scale of the problem the Council need to go further. All vehicles entering the CAZ which do not meet minimum emissions requirements should be charged."

Labour councillor Jack Scott, Cabinet Member for Development and Transport, told Now Then that the benefits of a scheme including private vehicles (known as CAZ-D) have been assessed. "The government will only pay for a scheme that gets us within legal limits," he said.

"CAZ-D, strangely enough, makes air worse in some parts of the city because of the displacement there would be. The biggest gains are through the CAZ C+ route we're advocating."

Activists have also said that proposals for a CAZ must go hand-in-hand with improved public transport in the city.

"We need to recognise that we can't keep trying to fit ever more cars into a city centre," said Green Councillor Johnson. "So public transport needs to be far better."

"We would also like to see a consistent approach to making safe cycling routes in the city so people can feel safe on their bikes. Sheffield's cycling infrastructure is piecemeal and confusing. Despite government cuts, the city still has some money available for transport," Johnson said.

"The Council should ensure that money raised by the CAZ is used to fund improvements for active travel and public transport to enable people to leave their cars at home and use other, more sustainable forms of transport," said CycleSheffield's Johnstone. "It is critical that bus companies are not allowed to pass on the costs to passengers."

The aim of a CAZ is to keep the most polluting vehicles out of the zone

We asked Councillor Scott if charges would be passed on through fares. "What we want to see is £10m of investment into our buses so that they aren't chargeable. The intention is that we don't charge buses, and if we end up charging buses millions of pounds, we would have failed."

"I don't see a circumstance where fares go up at all to compensate for that, and if you look at what the bus companies have said, they've made that clear as well."

Jenny Carpenter, co-chair of Sheffield Climate Alliance, said that she was "delighted" at the proposal, which the group have been campaigning for since the start of the year.

"The aim of a CAZ is to keep the most polluting vehicles out of the zone," she told us. "However, a lot hinges on the money being available to make sure that only the least emitting buses, HGVs, LGV and taxis drive within our city centre.

"£1.9 million has already been secured to retrofit over 90 First buses and over 20 Stagecoach buses. It is important to realise that compliant vehicles would not need to pay any levy. However, this money is not sufficient to retrofit all the buses in the city."

Carpenter praised the speed at which the Council has acted on the issue. "The Council released its plans more quickly than some of us thought achievable and we applaud their forward vision," she said.

She noted that the Council had put a 'no idling' scheme in place at 21 schools in Sheffield at the start of this term with the aim of reducing pollution.

Sam Gregory

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Brendan De Souza (Wikimedia Commons)
by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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