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Delays to Sheffield's Clean Air Zone risk widening inequality between north and south, finds report

Postponed or cancelled charging schemes across the UK put health and the economy at risk, say thinktank Green Alliance.

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Sheffield has dangerously high levels of air pollution.

Gary Butterfield on Unsplash.

A new report has found that health and economic inequalities between Sheffield and the south of England could worsen as a result of delays to the introduction of a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) in the city.

Cities across England have delayed or cancelled their CAZs as a consequence of the pandemic or because of central government delays.

The zones are the result of instructions issued to local councils to reduce air pollution after the government were successfully taken to court by ClientEarth.

Sheffield's CAZ has been delayed until at least 2022, with Sheffield Council announcing on 22 March that a review into the project is "ongoing."

The Council said they are looking to see whether plans put forward in 2019 "still represent the best way to successfully reduce air pollution within the shortest time possible.

"Green Alliance's report describes poor air quality as "the greatest environmental risk to public health in the UK", with 36,000 premature deaths a year linked to pollution.

It also found that the economy could save £1.6bn and gain "three million working days a year by tackling air pollution, due to fewer premature deaths, reduced sickness and higher work productivity."

In 2019, Sheffield proposed the introduction of a 'class C' CAZ, which would exempt all private cars from the charge, even the most polluting vehicles.

Originally due to be in place this spring, the project was delayed by the pandemic, with the Council saying the first lockdown temporarily brought the city within legal limits for air pollution.

But traffic across the UK has now returned to near pre-pandemic levels, while dozens of CAZs have been scrapped or substantially delayed.

"National lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19 initially had some impact on air pollution and traffic volumes, with local authorities opening up more space for cycling and walking," says the report.

"But research shows that, post-lockdowns, these have not had a lasting impact. Air pollution returned to, and in some cases exceeded, pre-pandemic levels in 39 of 49 cities and large towns after the first lockdown in early 2020."

Green Alliance's report recommends that local authorities implement the most comprehensive form of clean air zone, Class D, which effectively includes all high-polluting vehicles.

Of the dozens of CAZs proposed in the UK, only Birmingham's Class D scheme currently has a roll-out date, with the most polluting vehicles due to be charged from 1 June.

The report calls for more help for local authorities from central government, who have been blamed for delays in Birmingham and Leeds, leading the latter to scrap their CAZ entirely.

"Local authorities will need more support from central government to bring down local emissions, not only to improve air quality but also to tackle climate change at the local level," says the report.

"This requires long term, stable, dedicated funding for improvements to transport infrastructure."

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