Zoning out

The lack of consistency between different clean air zones is creating confusion. Dr Sarah Wixey believes a more coordinated approach is needed

In 2015, the government launched its plan to improve air quality in 61 English cities, starting with the introduction of five clean air zones (CAZs) by 2020. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own plans, including the Scottish government’s pledge to introduce low emission zones (LEZs) into its four biggest cities by 2020, and other air quality management areas by 2023. A couple of English cities have gone one step further, with Oxford even planning a zero emission zone (ZEZ). London launched the UK’s first charging ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ), and Hackney Council has ultra-low emission streets, which differ from the ULEZ. 

The absolute importance of air quality and the sheer number of cities tasked with reducing pollution prompted the Joint Air Quality Unit in 2017 to produce the Clean Air Zone Framework: Principles for setting up Clean Air Zones in England. It would be natural to assume cities have used this framework to design a consistent approach to their zones and adopt a standard set of clear rules for all vehicle users to follow. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The fact that we have so many different CAZ variations and each is categorised differently creates confusion.

“Instead of a single approach to a national problem, we have a patchwork of initiatives across the UK”

A lack of coherence

Instead of a single, coherent and coordinated approach to a national problem, we now have a patchwork of individual initiatives across the UK. Anyone trying to operate a business, or simply travel from city to city, needs to research in advance what restrictions are in place, when they apply, any exemptions, whether the city operates a charging CAZ, how much it costs to use a non-compliant vehicle, and the process of paying the fine.

The introduction of ULEZ and plans for CAZs in other cities have forced fleet managers to ensure they have the right vehicles operating in the right place at the right time. Lack of consistency means localised plans are frequently put in place. Businesses need to take into consideration whether older vehicles will need to be replaced or moved to areas where restrictions are more lenient (not recommended, as this simply moves pollution to other areas), and whether adopting new working practices could reduce fleet size.

Recycling firm First Mile used to deliver its waste recycling bags to businesses across Central London in a van; it now uses a cargo bike. The company has also significantly invested in its fleet to ensure the heavy goods vehicles it uses for collections are the greenest they can possibly be. CEO Bruce Bratley has admitted that it cost his business £3m to make sure it was ULEZ-ready.

The time has come for the various devolved governments and city authorities to come together and develop a single, consistent, easily understandable regulation to take forward. As it currently stands, the decentralisation of CAZs is somewhat ineffective and potentially detrimental to the improvement of air quality. Any plans should be developed with trade associations that represent the businesses most likely to be affected by any changes. Once identified and agreed, the implementation timescales need to be fixed to allow vehicle owners and businesses to plan their future.  

Knowing the fixed implementation timescales will not only help vehicle owners and businesses, but will also provide the motor industry with the certainty it needs to ramp up production of ultra-low and zero-emission vehicles. 

Dr Sarah Wixey is associate director at WYG.

Back to Top