Birmingham is the latest UK city to announce that it is creating a clean air zone in the city centre to reduce pollution levels. The city council revealed the plans at the end of June to heated debate but look set to go ahead with them, offering a template for other cities around the country. So will all city centres soon become clean air zones?

What are clean air zones?

Back in 2015, the government announced plans to improve the air quality in the cities and announced five new Clean Air Zones that it wanted to be operational by 2020. A Clean Air Zone is an area where the local authority introduces measures aimed at improving the air quality. At first, the plans involved the most polluting vehicles such as buses, taxies and HGVs but following a legal challenge, ‘non-compliant private vehicles’ were also included in the zone.

The clean air zone plan was enforced after the Supreme Court ordered the UK to fix the emissions problem we have in the UK, as it is estimated 40,000 people nationally suffer as a by-product of emissions.

The step is part of the broader Air Quality Plan that the government released with the aim of reducing dangerous pollutants in the air, which is especially dangerous in the city centres. The Clean Air Zones can come in two kinds – non-charging and charging.

In a non-charging zone, the focus is on improving air quality but without charging drivers. Efforts will go to things like retrofitting vehicles to reduce pollution and to change traffic flow to spot areas where vehicles are stationary for extended periods. In a charging zone, like the one in London, drivers will have to pay to enter it with their vehicles if they meet a particular environmental standard.

Birmingham’s zone

The plan announced by the city council in Birmingham involves charging drivers of higher polluting vehicles to use the city centre within the A450 middle ring road. The charge will be introduced in January 2020 with the aim of discouraging drivers of the most polluting cars from driving around the city centre.

The move comes as an estimated 900 people a year die in the city prematurely due to the problems created by pollution. It also ties in with the government’s plans to develop these clean air zones in major cities.

Opposition to the plan

Opponents to the project were quick to point out that the move would likely hit the poorest the most – people who can’t afford to buy newer, less polluting cars. There is also concern about the impact for small businesses in and around the city centre who cannot afford to buy new, electric vehicles but need to access the area for their business.

Others point out that moving the pollution from the city centre to other areas simply moves the problem and doesn’t solve it. So while the city centre may be pollution free, surrounding areas could become much more polluted. Moving the pollution around does nothing for the environment. By merely taking the pollution and spreading it out over a wider area you are surely reducing the environmentally friendly plans aim to move it and make it someone else’s issue. Surely a better thought would be to reduce the cost of public transport and increase the efficiency to allow people to access the city centres for less money and reduce emissions.

Problems for businesses

As the government plans to roll out the scheme to more places around the country, it seems few of us, including companies, are aware of the changes that are coming. One poll by YouGov found that 40% of small and medium businesses that they spoke to have no idea that the Clean Air Zone scheme was being rolled out.

Also, 38% had no idea that their vehicles wouldn’t meet the new standards and could see them charged anywhere from £12.50 to £100 to drive within the clean air zones. The survey was carried out by the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVLRA) whose chief executive Gerry Keaney said that results showed more awareness is needed for people to understand what the new zones would mean for them.

Do clean air zones work?

The other big question with the idea is whether the clean air zones work at all. People are concerned about moving pollution from one area to other or just not solving the problem in the way that was expected.

However, there is evidence that the clean air zones do work. One study of a low emissions only zone in Germany found that there were significant reductions in the particular matter in the air in these zones – this is the stuff that causes health problems. Moreover, research in London after five years of the clean air zone found that levels had fallen 2.5-3.1% compared with just 1% outside the zone.

There is less evidence that levels of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) are reduced inside the zones. These are also connected to health problems and are created particularly by diesel vehicles. However, experts believe this is more to do with the diesel emissions scandal than anything – the cars emitted more NOx than they thought when doing their testing.

Cleaning up the city

In Birmingham, the levels of pollutants are much higher in specific areas than the recommended 40 micrograms per cubic metre. The pollutants are particularly harsh on the lungs of children as they are still developing. So the clean air zones are seen as a way to reduce the pollution and help make us all healthier – but help may be needed for businesses who have to use these areas and could face extremely high costs.

Would you pay to enter a city? Apart from charging vehicles, what do you think could be done to help reduce emissions? Let us know in the comments below

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