To meet international targets for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, in 2001, the government encouraged us to switch to diesel cars, even introducing new tax rates as an incentive, but after experts found diesel emissions contained particulates that cause health problems and premature death, politicians began to criticise drivers of ‘dirty’ diesel cars.

Despite their talk on the dangers of diesel, local authority leaders aren’t leading by example and switching to vehicles powered by alternative ‘greener’ fuel sources, highlighted by new research showing that almost 92% of council vehicles have diesel engines.

One rule for one and one rule for another

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Auto Express reached out to the local authorities in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland and found that, of the 320 that responded, 91.6% of all the vehicles run on diesel with 62 council fleets consisting only of diesel vehicles.

While fleets vary across the UK, the average fleet has 208 vehicles—vehicles such as dustbin lorries, gritters, and minibuses.

Local authorities admit that replacing their fleets’ diesel vehicles with electric alternatives isn’t an option most of the time, which shows how much the UK relies on diesel. With seven out of the 12 responding councils revealing 98.6% of their fleet is diesel-powered, the Northern Ireland councils depend most on the fuel. Scottish councils are least dependent on it, having the highest proportion of electric vehicles (EVs) in their fleet, but even nine out of 10 of their vehicles are diesel.

An increasing number of councils plan to either outright ban diesel drivers from entering certain areas or charge them a fee for the privilege.

In November, we told you how Bristol City Council plans to ban private diesel cars from its city centre, yet 369 (81.5%) of the council’s own 453 vehicles are diesel, and councillors say they intend to buy a further 64 diesel vans.

And 89% of the 4,844-strong fleet operated by London councils use diesel, including at least 724 (15%) pre-Euro 6 diesel vehicles. Yet, drivers of vehicles with the same non-compliant diesel engines must pay £12.50 to enter the city’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).

Is an electric council fleet just a pipe dream?

Responding to the analysis by Auto Express, the Local Government Association (LGA)—the national membership body for local authorities across England and Wales—said ‘councils are eager to switch to EVs or low-emission alternatives where possible,’ but ‘the vast majority’ of the specialist vehicles councils use don’t have workable electric alternatives because ‘they don’t exist’.

A Spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) said the figures ‘show a shift away’ from the picture of a traditional diesel fleet and, because of this, there’s a progression towards ‘decarbonising Local Authorities’ fleets.’

COSLA said this shift is likely to span several years but that local government is ‘committed to working towards that goal with Transport Scotland and our public sector partners.’

A spokesperson for Bristol City Council who says the council ‘has a legal duty to improve our air quality,’ said the council hasn’t yet established full details of the city’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) plan, but that, once the final scheme is in place, it’ll influence how the council uses its fleet, adding, ‘the aim is to reduce air pollution and establish Bristol as a carbon-neutral city.’

Councils that depend on diesel still run a high proportion of EVs compared to the proportion of EVs in the UK as a whole. Together, councils own 1,835 EVs—2.75% of their collective fleets—while the 94,000 EVs registered in the UK make up just 0.25% of vehicles. Of councils with larger fleets (over 20 vehicles), North Somerset has the highest EV proportion, with 36% of its 95 vehicles being pure electric. Of the councils that responded, their fleet included just 306 hybrids and 118 Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs).

The dirty dozen

Across the UK, 12 local authorities stand out because of the number of diesel vehicles in their municipal fleets. These are Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds. Manchester, Sheffield, Oxford, Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset, and London. We’ve covered the plans to improve air quality in London and Bristol, but what can you expect from these other major cities?

Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Dundee both have Low Emission zones (LEZ) under consultation, with Dundee’s introduction planned by the end of 2020 and Glasgow city centre LEZ will ban non-Euro 4 petrol cars and non-Euro 6 diesel vehicles from 2023.

Leeds, Sheffield, and Bath plan to charge drivers of more-polluting HGVs, buses, and taxis to enter the CAZ, with Leeds charging £12.50-£50, Sheffield £10-£50, and Bath £9-£100.

An emission standard-based CAZ for HGVs, buses, taxis, and vans is under consideration in Manchester and Newcastle and, while Oxford is under development, the council could ban non-EVs from parking in the city centre and upgrade its bus fleet to Euro 6.

The demonisation of diesel meant that, in 2017, CO2 emissions rose for the first time in 14 years because of drivers choosing petrol cars over diesel, causing a massive drop in diesel sales. What’s ironic is, tests show that most modern Euro-6 diesel engines are less polluting than many petrol vehicles. Let’s hope the government doesn’t make another u-turn once we’re all driving battery-powered cars.

Are the proposed ‘clean air’ measures workable and fair for everybody? Is your local authority listed? How are they performing? Share your opinions in the comments.

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