Diesel car and van operators are likely to face restrictions on driving in city centres under Government plans to improve air quality.
New so-called ‘clean air zones’, which could result in charges being introduced for the most polluting vehicles or them being banned altogether, are likely to be needed in six English cities that are projected to fail EU air quality standards by 2020.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report says that London, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton should all consider “access restrictions” for certain types of vehicles.
The report, Draft plans to improve air quality in the UK: tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities, also suggests that they should consider introducing low-emission taxis and buses and installing charging points for electric vehicles (EVs), upgrading cycling infrastructure and introducing park and ride schemes.
Currently, 38 out of 43 geographical zones in the UK are failing EU air quality standards due to high levels of NOx – the gas that is emitted by burning fuels, especially diesel.
However, 35 zones are expected to be compliant with EU rules by 2020, while the six cities identified by DEFRA, as well as the eastern and South Wales zones, are on track to fail without further improvements.
Vehicle-related tax changes, congestion charging and a diesel vehicle scrappage scheme were among suggested measures to improve air quality. However, the Government has rejected these in favour of the clean air zone approach.
Client Earth, which won a five-year legal battle forcing the Government to address air quality issues, is not impressed.
A lawyer for the pressure group, Alan Andrews, told Fleet News that the DEFRA report amounted to “another list of meaningless assurances and half-measures”.
He continued: “The Supreme Court ordered Liz Truss to come up with a plan to achieve legal levels of air quality as soon as possible. Instead, even under the Government´s own projections, many UK cities will still have illegal levels of diesel fumes until 2020 and beyond.
“In London the problem is even worse. DEFRA’s projections say the legal levels of air pollution will not be reached until 2025.”
He also questioned whether “overstretched and underfunded local authorities” would be able to deliver clean air zones. “This simply isn’t good enough,” said Andrews.
A recent RAC Foundation report, Readdressing the balance between petrol and diesel demand, is also urging the Government to reassess its present policy of linking motoring taxes to CO2 (most notably in respect of company car tax), while excluding NOx and particulate matter (PM).
The report says: “Policy areas which influence consumer choice, including new registration taxes, vehicle excise duty, fuel duty and company car tax, are the obvious starting point for bringing about a more balanced demand mix between petrol and diesel.”
Highlighting that clear air zones may not deliver the complete air quality solution, it continued: “The downside is that, while improving air quality locally, the resultant pollution is not entirely eliminated unless vehicles are scrapped – it is simply moved to adjacent areas.”
Economic measures were also called for by the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA) including reintroducing the 100% first-year allowances for companies renting or leasing ultra-low emission cars, incentivising the adoption of the new Euro 6 standard for diesel engine emissions and the provision of better in-life incentives.
These could include freedom from tolls, congestion charges or parking fees to encourage greater uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles.
BVRLA chief executive Gerry Keaney said it was “disappointing” not to have all of the requests from its five-point plan included in DEFRA’s consultation document. However, he added: “We are still pleased with the proposals.”
The SMMT also welcomed the report, but chief executive Mike Hawes warned: “We would urge careful consideration and a technology-neutral approach when determining access to proposed clean air zones.”