Why Birmingham chose a comprehensive clean air zone

This post is by Steve Arnold, head of the clean air zone at Birmingham City Council.

Everybody, regardless of age, geographic location or personal wealth, has a right to breathe clean air. It is a basic, fundamental entitlement and one that is vital to our survival. Yet every year, up to 36,000 people across the UK die from conditions linked to poor air quality, including up to 1,000 people in Birmingham alone.

Lung disease, cancer, asthma and heart disease are just a handful of the illnesses exacerbated or even caused by air pollution. And this is just one of many reasons why poor air quality cannot be allowed to continue.

Legal challenges led by organisations such as ClientEarth, have rightly forced air pollution to the top of the political agenda and the government has now tasked local authorities across the UK to meet safe air quality levels through the introduction of clean air zones.

On 1 June 2021, Birmingham City Council will introduce a government-mandated clean air zone to its city centre and charge the most high polluting vehicles, including private cars and taxis, to drive within the A4540 Middleway (but not on the Middleway itself).

Local authorities have the option to set the parameters for their zones including the boundary and charging level. We undertook extensive research before opting for a category D zone (the most comprehensive level zone), which included our highest ever public consultation engagement with more than 10,000 responses from residents, businesses and other key stakeholders.

Aside from the obvious benefit of helping the city to achieve legal safe air pollution levels in the shortest possible time (and avoiding financial penalties), the implementation of a category D zone has been used to facilitate behaviour change across Birmingham.

By introducing charges for non-compliant taxis and private cars, everyone, even owners of compliant vehicles, is encouraged to engage, if only to confirm they will not be charged. It has raised awareness of the reality of air pollution, the health implications and why more must be done to tackle it.

Financial help for low earners
The feedback from our consultation helped us to recognise that, in introducing a category D clean air zone, we must strike the balance between the need to improve air quality and the financial challenges it may impose, particularly to low earners. For us, the consultation was an opportunity to identify those who are most likely to be impacted (predominantly workers and residents), and offer them additional time to prepare through temporary exemption permits.

Once the permits are applied for, these individuals can continue driving their non-compliant vehicle without incurring any charges for a limited time (12 months for workers and two years for residents). Thereafter, they will need to either pay the charge or consider alternative transport, which will accelerate the transition away from high polluting vehicles.

As a council, a category D zone has given us a unique opportunity to bid for government funding to help provide financial incentives for private vehicle owners and not just commercial operators.

Birmingham City Council has over 6,000 licensed hackney carriage and private hire drivers, many of whom drive high polluting vehicles. By extending the charge to them they have been required to take action and, so far, more than 1,000 applicants have received grant funding of up to £5,000 towards retrofitting their existing vehicle, purchasing a compliant vehicle or leasing an electric hackney carriage from the council.

Not only will this remove thousands of polluting vehicles from the city centre, but it will improve the health of the taxi drivers who, by the nature of their job, inhale three times more air pollution than anyone else.
We have also offered financial incentives to people who work in the city and, subject to meeting relevant criteria, if they choose to scrap a non-compliant vehicle through nominated dealers, they can receive £2,000 credit towards the cost of a compliant vehicle from the dealers, or £2,000 mobility credit to be used on public transport.

But it is not just the opportunity to secure funding that has been beneficial to Birmingham; it is also a deterrent to those unnecessary car journeys that pollute the air and contribute to congestion.

A quarter of a million daily car journeys are under a mile
Research undertaken by the council showed that, every day, 250,000 vehicle journeys undertaken within the zone’s boundaries were less than one mile (at pre-Covid levels). These are journeys that could be replaced with a 20 minute walk, a ten minute cycle ride or by switching to the bus, train or metro. The daily charge of £8 to drive for many will encourage them to think of alternatives.

Air pollution affects everybody so it’s important everybody is involved in resolving it. From the very beginning, we have engaged with our city; we have listened to the challenges and tried to offset them through mitigations such as the temporary exemption permits and financial incentives, whilst still not losing sight of the objective. We have formed a partnership with the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce to support our businesses, worked with public transport operators to promote their messaging and made ourselves available through public engagement.

Throughout all of this, the clean air zone will be an important catalyst for change; it is the start of a wider vision for Birmingham which will position active and sustainable travel as the priority on our journey to become net zero carbon by 2030. In promoting the zone, we are also promoting the future plans for the city, including the Birmingham Transport Plan: investment in public transport, reallocating the road space away from private cars and making active travel safer and more appealing.

The launch of our clean air zone will coincide with the end of the prime minister’s roadmap out of lockdown and the return to the ‘new normal’. For Birmingham, we want that ‘new normal’ to centre around a healthy, active and sustainable city centre, where breathing clean air is not just a right and desirable, but a reality.

Birmingham’s clean air zone plan is one of the examples we discuss in our report The case for clean air zones.

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