Clean Air Zone: the lessons Manchester can learn from Birmingham’s drive to cut air pollution

As a huge business backlash grows against Manchester’s plans to cut pollution, we spoke to leaders in the Midlands city about how a clean air zone was introduced there - and how the roll-out has gone so far among motorists.

The introduction of a Clean Air Zone in Greater Manchester has been dominating the headlines and debate across the city-region at the start of 2022.

Tens of thousands of people alarmed at the potential impact of the move on businesses have either signed a petition or become members of Facebook group RethinkGM.

And the authorities, acknowledging issues around vehicle cost and availability, are expected to ask the Government to pause phase two of the roll-out funding.

However, Manchester is not the only city in the country currently figuring out how to deal with air pollution problems.

Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone went live on 1 June 2021, so we spoke to the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce to find out how the introduction process went and whether life with charges for driving non-compliant vehicles has been going smoothly.

Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone signs on Warrington Road, Marus Bridge, Wigan

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Is the Birmingham Clean Air Zone the same as the Manchester one?

Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone has several notable differences to the Greater Manchester scheme.

Firstly, Birmingham’s is a Category D zone, meaning more vehicles are included than in Greater Manchester’s Category C one.

Private cars are eligible for charges in Birmingham if they do not comply with emissions standards, and local authorities with Category D zones also have the option to include motorcycles if they choose.

However, the Birmingham zone is a lot smaller than the one proposed for Greater Manchester.

Birmingham’s zone only really covers the city centre and its immediate environs, with the A4540 Middleway Ring Road serving as the boundary. The zone covers all the roads inside the ring road, but not the road itself.

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By contrast, Greater Manchester’s covers all the roads which are not motorways or trunk A-roads in the 10 boroughs of the city-region.

How did people respond to the Clean Air Zone being announced?

One of the biggest concerns in Greater Manchester is how businesses will go on having to either find enough money to upgrade their vehicles or pay the charges attached to those which are not compliant after two years of severe economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This has now been acknowledged in the shape of the looming request for a pause in the scheme, with the coronavirus one of several issues cited along with financial support and vehicle supply chain problems.

Birmingham too had a pause in the implementation of its Clean Air Zone. Originally due to come into force in 2020, it was put back 12 months due to the pandemic.

A sign for the Clean Air Zone in Wigan. Photo: Andrew Nowell/JPIMedia

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However, the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce said that it was clear that the environmental scheme could not be stopped entirely from a very early stage.

Head of policy Rajdeep Kandola said: “Birmingham had a Government directive to reduce air pollution to a legal level by a certain time so it was very much going to be introduced from the get-go.

“From our perspective we felt as a neutral organisation that we should take the politics out of this, be grown-up and help businesses get ready.

“We ran a number of briefing events and put a business toolkit together with a lot of information about financial support for those affected, mitigations and what could be done if you were struggling to change your vehicle or thinking about the impact on your business.”

Despite organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) saying that they have been flagging issues with the Clean Air Zone in Greater Manchester for months and claiming they have been ignored, the public outcry has only recently gained momentum since the infrastructure started going up.

Mr Kandola said that in Birmingham the council worked with organisations such as the Chamber and the public for almost two years to prepare for the introduction of the zone.

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He said the toolkit was downloaded thousands of times, with request levels ramping up the closer the scheme got to going live.

What was the reaction to the arrival of the scheme?

Mr Kandola said that as the date for the Clean Air Zone going live drew closer there were some concerns about its arrival in Birmingham.

He said: “There was some pushback from the business community just before it went live, about this time last year, with people saying that because traffic flows were down due to Covid we didn’t need it.

“However, the council published figures that said that even with that level of traffic we were still way above the legal level for air pollution and we still needed to go ahead with this.

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“They listened to our lobbying about delaying the start of it because of Covid and we said there needed to be an appropriate level of financial support.

“We were concerned before going live about the lack of an auto-pay system. We were concerned about the impact this would have on hauliers and small businesses and that they wouldn’t have the time or money to log months and months of paperwork.

“The feedback we got from Defra was that they wanted people to be in compliant vehicles so they didn’t have to worry about it.

“There were also some issues around bigger businesses accessing the financial support that was set aside, but in the last few months that seems to have been ironed out.”

The Chamber of Commerce said £30m was put aside to help businesses, with £10m in a separate HGV fund.

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Greater Manchester is getting around £120m to help people upgrade vehicles, but there are widespread concerns that this will be nowhere near enough and requests from the city-region to Government for a hardship fund have not yet resulted in further cash coming north.

Birmingham also did a soft introduction to the Clean Air Zone. For the first month no-one was fined for driving through the zone in a non-compliant car but instead was sent a letter explaining the amount they would be liable for going forward.

How has the Clean Air Zone worked since it went live?

Mr Kandola said that figures published by the council suggest compliance levels in the Clean Air Zone are higher than the authorities’ projected modelling for the scheme.

However, the whole thing has not gone completely smoothly.

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Mr Kandola said there were some concerns that the Clean Air Zone might simply be transferring traffic and pollution from out of the city centre elsewhere in Birmingham and there are pockets outside the zone where pollutant levels are above legal limits.

While there has been a level of acceptance a few months into the project, it has not been without casualties, albeit in a challenging economic environment where firms have faced a multitude of serious obstacles.

Mr Kandola said: “At the start the reaction wasn’t good but it has come to be seen as a cost of doing business.

“However, there have been isolated incidents where businesses have said that because of what’s going on with the Clean Air Zone it isn’t financially viable to stay in the city centre.

“However, we have to be careful with that because of the impact of Covid as well. The city centre was knocked for six by the pandemic.”

The Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce is continuing to lobby for moves it thinks will improve public perception of the project, such as transparency over exactly which transport schemes will be receiving the money collected in fines.

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However, our sister title BirminghamWorld also recently reported on an embarrassing glitch in which the technology monitoring the Clean Air Zone sent fines to the wrong drivers, including some who had not even visited the city.

The council leader had to issue an apology and said the problem had been raised with the Government and other partners.