Clean Air Zone: Greater Manchester leaders considering next steps amid backlash from businesses

The authorities have issued a statement after thousands of people signed a petition calling for changes to the environmental scheme.

Greater Manchester leaders have said they are listening to concerns around the city-region’s Clean Air Zone.

The green scheme, which is set to launch later this year, has run into a prominent backlash from businesses.

Almost 25,000 people have signed a petition calling for a review of the scheme and the Facebook group Rethink GM has more than 32,000 members.

On Thursday city-region bosses said they had commissioned new work to look at challenges that had sprung up with the scheme since it was first developed and it was aware of the level of concern about it.

They promised that the difficulties people and businesses are facing upgrading their vehicles to be compliant with the Clean Air Zone (CAZ) are being taken into account.

What did the statement say?

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The joint statement said leaders were trying to balance the need to make Greater Manchester more environmentally-friendly with the impact of charging people to drive on the city-region’s non-trunk roads if their vehicles are not compliant on businesses and jobs.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham

It also hit out at the Government, saying requests for extra financial help for those affected have not yet been approved.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Coun Andrew Western, the city-region’s Clean Air lead, said: “In March 2020, the Government instructed all 10 Greater Manchester councils to introduce a charging Clean Air Zone to tackle harmful levels of air pollution and achieve compliance with legal standards by 2024 at the latest.

“We know this is a major challenge for many individuals and businesses which is why we have always been clear with ministers that it must be accompanied by a fair package of financial support.

“While the Government has provided £120m, we are concerned that they have so far failed to agree to our request for additional support for those who will find it hardest to make the change.

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“We also warned them of our on-going concerns about the vehicle supply chain and the cooperation of National Highways.

“Over the past few months, Greater Manchester has continued to monitor these issues alongside the on-going impact of the pandemic and increases in the cost of living.

“In addition, late last year we commissioned new work to understand the impact of the growing global supply chain issues in the automotive sector which could affect the availability of some vehicles and people’s ability to upgrade.

“Greater Manchester leaders will consider the outcome of this work next week before asking the Clean Air Joint Committee to consider the implications for the Clean Air Plan later in the month.

“We are committed to reducing air pollution in Greater Manchester but also to protecting the jobs and livelihoods of our residents. We are listening carefully to concerns being expressed about the current situation and will make a decision shortly on our next steps.”

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What are businesses saying about the Clean Air Zone?

The campaign requesting a rethink on the CAZ has criticised the size of the zone and want it to be reduced.

It also has deep concerns about how many people will be unable to afford to upgrade their vehicles and is demanding adequate compensation for all those affected.

Concerns about the scheme have also been raised by business organisations, who have welcomed the latest statements but said many of the arguments now gaining traction have been known to the authorities for some time.

Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) development manager for Greater Manchester Robert Downes said: “The statement is welcome but not wholly unexpected in the face of the strong backlash we’ve seen driven on social media by affected businesses.

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“What is annoying is that we’ve been saying this for the past year, if not two years, that the scheme in its current format couldn’t possibly work for businesses and was going to be extremely damaging for many businesses in Greater Manchester and also beyond its borders.

“The funding offered by the Government last July we said at the time was woefully inadequate, yet today what we’ve seen purely because of a public outcry is a complete turnaround from the authorities who now say that this is the case although we were ignored when we repeatedly said this last year.

“We have to appreciate that Covid has moved things on again and we said nothing could be set in stone with Covid hanging over us and so many unknowns.

“It’s pleasing to see the authorities have at last seen sense and the working man and our members and businesses across Greater Manchester will take heart from the fact they are at last taking notice of what the wider business community is saying.”

Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce policy director Chris Fletcher said: “This latest statement shows that the local authorities and decision-makers are listening to the concerns we have been raising on behalf of business about the plans for the CAZ.

“We have been contacted by business owners concerned about a number of issues raised by the plans from affordability to massive delays in getting new, compliant vehicles.

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“The trading environment that many businesses find themselves in now is unrecognizable from when the plans were first drafted and we look forward to further discussions which look to strike the right balance between the need to address pollution and the need to ensure that the implementation timetable and financial support available is both fair and realistic.”

Has the Government said anything?

Defra says air pollution is a public health risk and the Government is investing £880m on tackling excessively high nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels.

It said it is ploughing in around £170m to help Greater Manchester reduce NO2 levels, while saying that decisions around the Clean Air Zone remain the responsibility of local authorities in consultation with residents and businesses.

Defra said the city-region has had £36m of implementation funding for things like number-plate recognition cameras and signs and £132m from the Clean Air Fund to support individuals and businesses most impacted by the implementation of the CAZ.

The department also said it has agreed to consider further funding requirements for Manchester subject to evidence of need once the support schemes are actually operational.