Birmingham is to launch the first clean air zone (CAZ) outside London to charge private cars, in a move hailed by campaigners as a major turning point for the former UK “motor city” that has been plagued by poor air quality for years.
From 1 June drivers of older polluting cars, taxis and vans who travel into the centre of Birmingham will face a daily charge of £8, while buses, coaches and HGVs will be charged £50 a day. It is anticipated a quarter of cars in the city will be affected but there are temporary exemptions for commercial and community vehicles, and some workers and residents.
But the scheme – which was delayed by 11 months due to the Covid pandemic and some technical issues – has sparked controversy. Some fear the charge will hit businesses struggling to get back on their feet after lockdown and will disproportionately affect lower earners and taxi drivers who cannot afford to upgrade their vehicles.
Birmingham is one of a number of cities planning to introduce CAZs after the government lost a high court battle over breaches to legal levels of air pollution in England and directed 37 local authorities to take action.
But a number of cities have delayed their plans due to Covid and Leeds scrapped its CAZ proposals in October, claiming it had already achieved air quality targets through buses, taxis and lorries switching to cleaner engines. Bath introduced a CAZ in March but charges only apply to commercial vehicles.
One of Birmingham CAZ’s most outspoken critics is the Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, who has claimed the council used “incorrect and manipulated information and data” to justify the scheme and called for more transparency, arguing a cleaner and cheaper bus service would be a more effective route to clean air.
Waseem Zaffar, a Labour councillor and cabinet member for transport and environment, said Mahmood was using “misinformation to undermine efforts to improve air quality” and that data showed nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels were above the legal limit in 19 locations across the city, and that “air pollution shortens the lives of hundreds of Brummies each year”.
But many business owners said that while they agreed with the CAZ in principle, they worried about its impact at a time when they are trying to coax people back into the city centre.
“People still seem reluctant to come into the city centre, and this is an extra deterrent,” said Abdul Wahab, the owner of Varanasi Indian restaurant. He said the business had already received a number of cancellations since reopening and was worried the CAZ would further encourage people to stay in the suburbs, where some city centre businesses are already starting to relocate.
“I thought they could have waited a bit longer and allowed the economy to get going properly before throwing this additional congestion charge on to people,” he said.
Richard Butler, the Confederation of British Industry’s West Midlands director, said focus should be on the long-term economic impact, with CBI analysis showing a £7m annual benefit to the city by reducing deaths and hospital stays related to air pollution. “I think you’ve got to look at the macroeconomic impact on the economy as a whole,” he said.
“It’s always difficult to say whether the time is appropriate. But there’s an awful lot of people who will start travelling again [after lockdown], so bringing it in at this point in time might encourage more people to change their behaviours. Pre-Covid there were far too many people in the rush hour of most British cities, and far too many people in cars with no passengers.”
But others have argued Birmingham is lacking the public transport services to allow people to move away from vehicles. “The new train stations and the tram extension are still not finished, the buses aren’t as regular as they should be. The infrastructure is just not in place,” said Desmond Jaddoo, a community activist in inner-city Birmingham.
A spokesperson for Birmingham city council said: “The CAZ is just one element of a much bigger move to improve air quality and health in the city. We are investing in public realm projects and other infrastructure schemes to improve walking and cycling facilities in the city. The Birmingham bus statement, which was published last year, committed circa £173m to improving Birmingham’s bus services.”